A Pathway to JEDI work for Jewish Institutions and Communities: Reflections from a Jewish DEI consultant and a Rabbinic student activist 

guest post by Erin-Kate Escobar and Chel Mandell

This conversation explores how a Jewish DEI consultant and a fifth-year rabbinic student and activist have come to shepherd the first ever Jewish justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) certificate program in the United States, housed at the University of San Francisco (USF),  a Jesuit Catholic institution founded in 1855. This groundbreaking graduate-level certificate emerges from USF’s Jewish Studies and Social Justice (JSSJ) program, which has been offering educational programs for 15 years. 

It also comes in the midst of evolving changes in the Jewish American milieu, including growing diversity of Jews in relation to social identities, like those related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability; an increase of families comprised of Jews and non-Jews; and generational shifts about political issues both in the U.S. and abroad. These developments have led to multiple calls to action in the Jewish community, including those around racial equity, diversity, and inclusion with manifestos like the Not Free to Desist Letter and the article What comes next for Jews of color activism? Moves to lift up and support disability justice in the Jewish community, especially for kids, and passionate voices to include transgender Jews have also taken root in many Jewish spaces. This moment calls for learning and action in the Jewish community. 

These are reflections from two core members of the JEDI + JSSJ team.

Chel (Mandell): In Judaism they say the derach (path or way) is performing mitzvot and adhering to Jewish law. After years of learning and giving deep consideration to what my derach or path is, I have committed myself to working for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in Jewish community spaces. This passion led me to work on a new Jewish JEDI program offering resources, tools and content to empower individuals to create systemic change in the greater Jewish community. The time is now for the Jewish collective to heal. This is my derach.

Chel: EK, what has been your path to JEDI work?

EK (Escobar): Multiple experiences have led to us having this conversation, for us to help launch this forward-thinking certificate program. As a queer, non-binary, Latiné, white, multi-ethnic, Jewish person, I’ve found experiences of exclusion throughout my life. From a young age, I was taught by my peers that I was different from the norm (and that, in this case, “different” wasn’t a good thing). I grew up having to do a lot of education about who I am, and how I exist in the world with a multiplicity of identities. 

This led to my studying politics, sociology and Judaism and social justice for my undergraduate degree (USF ‘09). (Fun fact: I’m one of the first undergraduates to graduate with a JSSJ minor!) The courses I took for JSSJ are part of the foundation of my own journey to do JEDI work professionally. After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked in government and non-profit organizations before returning to school to get a Master’s degree in Education with a focus on the human development of 18-24 year-olds, especially historically excluded students. I worked in higher education for seven years and, in 2020—with the murder of George Floyd, full-in COVID, and deeply intense frustration with feelings of disempowerment to make institutional change—I decided to launch a consulting firm working for small organizations (i.e., less than 20 people). I decided to be “all in” on fighting for structural and systemic change. 

EK: Chel, what brought you to this work as a rabbinic student?

Chel: I am a queer, gender expansive Jew from the San Francisco Bay Area. Now a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, I am the founder and spiritual leader of a queer Jewish community called the Tzimtzum Collective. We gather together regularly in Santa Cruz, on the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe.

A decade or so ago, you could have found me in downtown San Francisco writing my cellphone number on my arm with a Sharpie in case I got arrested at an Occupy Movement demonstration. At the time I was a USF student (‘13), and considered myself an activist. Whether studying injustices related to economics or the environment, my college courses were rooted in an ethos aimed at changing the world for good. I was taught to question what it means to participate in the many systems in which I operated and within which I lived. It was a time of deep exploration, and shaped me in profound ways.

During this time, in my early twenties, I was pushed to think beyond the white Ashkenormative [Ashkenazi normative] viewpoint of Judaism. My learning in the JSSJ program enabled me to view everything through a social justice lens. JSSJ invited Jews who have been marginalized—like Jews of color and queer and trans Jews—to come to campus, where they spoke and engaged with the entire campus, and then came to meet privately with students in JSSJ classes, like those I was taking. These experiences helped me see my Jewish, queer, and gender expansive self in Judaism more than I ever had before, even when in other strongly-identified Jewish spaces. The class “Social Justice, Activism, and Jews” in particular still resonates and reverberates in my rabbinic practice today.

EK: Agreed. I really appreciate those foundations as a young queer Jewish person in college, especially having grown up in predominantly Ashke-normative spaces. I learned immensely in my JSSJ classes from the perspectives of so many rad Jewish people (who had often been silenced, sidelined, or told they didn’t belong). Again, this was 2009, so it was before podcasts and the like. Heck, it was the first years of Facebook so finding people who experienced the world from social identities that are historically and currently excluded was much harder to come by. In the last 15 years, access to learning about the lived experiences of those on the margins are more prevalent. But it can still feel overwhelming to figure out where to begin to “change the world” once we learn something new about injustice. 

Chel: You’re spot on, EK. A lot has changed in the last decade. This said, the steps to take are still hard. I’m inspired by the last 12 years working in Jewish spaces all around the San Francisco Bay Area, from Reform to Conservative synagogues to Jewish day schools, nonprofits, and Jewish start-up spaces. In each place, I have stood alongside colleagues in asking big questions such as:

  • How do we create “Big Tent” Judaism, where we do not just make claims to do this but actually set up foundations to allow for this to actualize?
  • How do we design experiences that reach Jews who feel marginalized? 
  • How do we ensure that Jews of Color or gender variant Jews are welcomed into Jewish spaces? 
  • How do we enact hesed [loving kindness], rachamim [compassion], hachnasat orchim [welcoming the other], among many other Jewish values, beyond just teaching about them?
  • How do we create places of safety that promote spiritual growth for all who want to engage in Jewish community? 

I am thankful to have worked in spaces that are asking these questions. 

We must also move to action. Visioning isn’t enough. There have been gaps between asking such questions and taking action.

EK: I fully agree. It’s one thing to ask hard questions, and another to come up with real action steps. I’d add that there are a few additional steps between asking the questions and taking action. One is being willing to look at learning more about our own selves (i.e., identity, experiences, why I believe what I believe, etc.), the part where we dive into self-reflection. This is really powerful. Another additional step is the foundational work necessary to understand why and what action steps could be better, knowing that there’s always going to be push back and that there is no single “right” way to engage in JEDI work. 

Chel: The struggle to take action is real. A few summers ago, in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter protests began, following the egregious murder of George Floyd, and when COVID was in full swing, we saw many Jewish communities challenged in how to respond to the social upheaval and call to create more equity, diversity, and inclusion in Jewish institutions. Many organizations committed to this work but here we are, three summers later, and it seems like the Jewish institutional world has only just started to do this work. I have wondered to myself how to move from the desire to create these spaces and not always being clear on the learning that I need in order to turn these ideas into action. This is why I am making the move out of serving in a synagogue at this moment and stepping into supporting the launch of the first Jewish JEDI certificate program with a fantastic team at USF. I am seeing this as one profound pathway to change. And, by the way, this isn’t me making a sales pitch as I see this certificate being a true pathway to Jewish JEDI work. 

E.K.: Yes! The gap you’re talking about—from thinking to acting—continues to exist. Even though there is no one way to close this gap, I can honestly say that when we root our work in social justice practices and actions, we inch closer to our goals, and with integrity. Social justice practices aren’t in the air we breathe. We don’t learn them via osmosis. It is through taking tangible steps, like enrolling in groundbreaking classes like these, that has helped me expand my knowledge, eventually giving me the toolsapply JEDI values to projects in new ways. 

Chel: What is your professional DEI work like?

E.K.: Most often, I am formally invited by an organization to build out a strategic plan of change. Well, truthfully it usually starts with someone emailing me to say, “We need help. Can you offer my group an anti-bias training?” But, guess what? A one-off anti-bias training is like putting a bandaid on a broken arm. So instead, we start a conversation about the roots of what’s going on in the workplace. This leads to our co-creating a more layered experience, one that includes spaces for individual and organizational self-reflection, one that includes greater learning and understanding, and one that allows the group to build the skills to continually try out different ways to change systems and policies. The one-off workshop is not enough and often can do more harm than good. When clients connect the education that we offer to tangible structural and policy changes, we are able to address the problem and provide solutions. 

It’s one thing to say you’re a welcoming Jewish community, whether you’re a Jewish community center, a synagogue, etc. But it’s something different to be able to live that ethos, which has to do with including each person’s experiences, from normalizing the practice of not assuming someone else’s pronouns, to building affinity spaces into practices so that BIPOC Jews can find one another or so multifaith households have a place to meet fellow multifaith households, and so on. 

Chel: What is so powerful for me is that I have been thinking on these issues since I was an undergraduate student, a process that has continued into my rabbinical school work today. The institutions in which I have had the pleasure to learn , pray, work, and train would have greatly benefited from having a staff member who took these  JEDI + JSSJ certificate courses. I myself would have loved the opportunity to have been trained in this program. The class list is exciting: Race, Racism, and Jews; Binaries and Beyond: Justice, Gender, and the Future of Jewish Traditions; Disability and Jewish Social Justice; and more. I came to help launch this program with the understanding of its power—from both personal experience and years of witnessing people who didn’t feel like they had a place in the Jewish community. The comments from Jews of Color, and queer and trans Jews over the years, still echo in my head. Their reports and reflections of seeing the good intentions of Jewish communal leaders who lacked the knowledge of how to actualize these intentions have pained members of such groups, including me. Over the last decade-plus, I have felt on the margins even in some of the places where I have worked. It is one thing to put a LGBTQ+ flag up in the window of your institution and it is another for leaders to really understand how to create space and have knowledge about gender identity, and how this bumps up against the gender binary as construed in normative Jewish contexts. This takes ongoing learning, which the Jewish community absolutely deserves, and perhaps now more than ever. The Jewish landscape is evolving right now, in front of us, especially in the post-pandemic era as we regroup and reground ourselves.

E.K.: This is why I’m so excited for this JSSJ + JEDI certificate program. Almost 15 years ago I was taking JSSJ classes as an undergraduate student. And now—together—we’re helping bring these ideas to the professionals working in Jewish communities. This program is going to give individuals the skills to address issues of change from the roots, to have a layered learning experience that gives each of us the space, and the accountability, to dig deeper than we ever have before, to encounter experiences and perspectives that are unlike any of our own, and to help us see what that means for everyday and long-term practices where we build spaces that are, like you said, building a tent that is big enough to hold everyone. We need to widen the reach to invite more than just the closest folks in.

Chel: As I shape what I want my rabbinic path to be, I am often asked, “What is your core ideal or intention?” To put it succinctly, I am a dreamer. I want to create space for us to dream into being what we desire. I dream of Jewish community spaces that are accessible and inclusive of all people, those that embrace everyone who wants to join. I dream of Jewish communal leaders who are not only allies but accomplices to those on the margins, people who push forward the paradigm of what a Jewish community can be.

  • As a dreamer I want to put out there the following call to Jewish institutions and communities: Send leaders to engage in this content, to learn how to widen their doors to all Jews. We are calling on 12 organizations to be the first to commit to this work. Send one person from your organization to join us in a year of learning through the JEDI + JSSJ program.


Erin-Kate Escobar navigates the world as a non-binary, queer, Latiné, white and multi-ethnic, Jewish person of color. They work as a national Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultant to build more inclusive workplaces where people can thrive through developing and implementing DEI strategies that include healing and anti-racist practices. Erin-Kate has previously developed DEI initiatives for NASA and Nobel Prize-winning science projects.

Chel Mandell (they/them) is a queer gender expansive Jew from the San Francisco Bay Area. They are a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion CA. A dedicated and soulful Jewish educator/director with 12 years of experience teaching in the Bay Area, they are deeply committed to reimaging Jewish community landscapes through creative ritual and reimaging how Judaism fits into the next decade-plus and for generations to come. Chel is also the founder and spiritual leader of the Tzimtzum Collective, a queer Jewish community that gathers in Santa Cruz on unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe.

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