National | Religion & Jewish Life

For this Black Jewish leader, George Floyd protest movement shows some Americans finally get it

As senior vice president at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Gamal Palmer is in charge of professional development for the federation’s staff and does leadership development for its board. (Courtesy of Gamal Palmer)

Gamal Palmer has spent virtually his entire professional career working to advance racial diversity, equity and justice.

As a Jew of color in charge of leadership and professional development at the Los Angeles Jewish federation, he’s spent years running diversity workshops and pushing for conversations about race within the Jewish community.

But it wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd in late May and the mass protests that followed that Palmer felt a real shift take place.

“The last few weeks have been extra-unordinary,” Palmer said in a recent interview. “I woke up one Saturday morning to all these texts and emails and phone calls of, ‘What should I do? What can I do? How can I help? I didn’t realize.’ It’s like America finally woke up and realized that it’s still racist.”

Palmer, who is in his mid-30s, says this is the moment that the work really begins.

“Everything before was like the preamble,” he said.

“People of color have been walking around this country for so long with folks not acknowledging the experience they’re having with racism and prejudice. Finally, I think some of America is getting it. Folks not of color and allies are stepping up to say it exists and it’s real and I can’t believe I didn’t notice, or I noticed and I ignored it.”

Growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia as the child of a Jewish-born mother and an African-American father, Palmer often felt like an outsider: not Jewish enough in Jewish spaces or black enough in black spaces. He became adept at juggling the many aspects of his identity, including his sexuality. Palmer came out as a gay when he was a teenager.

“My whole life has been about identity, and balancing the many pieces of who I am regardless of the adversity and othering that I and others have experienced,” Palmer said.

While his mother didn’t practice Judaism — in fact, she attended a local Presbyterian church — Palmer decided when he was 9 that he wanted to practice Judaism.

“I went on my own to the synagogue near our house and asked to speak to the rabbi,” he recalled. “My siblings didn’t understand what I was doing. I was young. I didn’t fully understand. But I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

A few weeks later, Palmer was enrolled in Hebrew school, and he ended up going to a Jewish day school before his bar mitzvah. But the pressure of being the only student of color and racism from some teachers eventually prompted him to leave, he said.

Two decades on, Palmer isn’t just enmeshed in Jewish life. He’s a senior vice president at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, where he has worked for seven years.

“There are perhaps fewer than 10 Jews of color in senior level leadership roles across the country,” said Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative, a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of color.

Approximately one in five American Jewish families has at least one person of color in the household, and 12-15% of U.S. Jews identify as non-white or as people of color, according to a 2019 demographics study conducted by the Jews of Color Initiative. But Jewish institutions rarely reflect this diversity.

“We often say we want to be inclusive, but we do not always do the work prior to bringing diverse people into an organization or community,” Palmer said. “This means new people are not fully supported as they have to acclimate to a predominately Ashkenazi or mainstream Jewish environment.”

While acknowledging that Jews of color today have the ear of the organized Jewish community, especially in light of recent events, Palmer said Jewish institutions have much to do for real transformation to take hold. It’s not enough for Jewish organizations to hire more Jews of color, he said; they must have access to the tools they need to succeed once they arrive.

“Jews of color are real and here and growing as a segment of our Jewish community, and the current structure is not conducive to creating a feeling of belonging,” he said. “Even with some of the most willing institutions and individuals, we still get a lot of resistance.”

Palmer got his own start in the theater world. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale University. He went to sub-Saharan Africa to lecture on theater as a form of social justice. He consulted with NGOs in over 10 African countries on leadership development and organizational change. In the United States, he helped nonprofits develop their boards and engage their constituents.

While Palmer felt comfortable with his sexual identity after coming out at age 14, it took him a long time to find a sense of belonging in the LGBTQ community and even longer to find his place in the African-American community. He attributes this to prejudice against his biracial identity.

When it came to the Jewish community, he was like so many young Jews: He found little to hold his interest after his bar mitzvah, and began to find his passions in theater and elsewhere.

Slowly, in his 20s, Palmer began to dip his toes back into the Jewish community. He went on a Birthright trip in college. Later he did some consulting with a Los Angeles-based advocacy group for LGBTQ Jews called JQ International. He was accepted into a fellowship program run by the Jewish organization Bend the Arc, which focuses on social justice through a Jewish lens.

Around that time, he heard about a job opening with the Los Angeles federation. The job description “hit so many of the things I was interested in or already doing, except that this was doing them in the Jewish world,” he said.

Since starting at the federation as a senior director, he worked his way up to vice president and now senior vice president, where he is in charge of professional development for the federation’s staff and does leadership development for its board.

Palmer is also a Schusterman Fellow, a Jewish leadership program run by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

“We’re chosen because we have something to say, and we need to cultivate and amplify both our own voice and our voice on behalf of the organizations we work with,” he said. “Being in a cohort that is so diverse in terms of skills, perspectives and people’s different relationships to Judaism has been a gift.”

In addition, Palmer runs a community leadership program for young adults who want to be decision-makers in Jewish organizations. The 15-month program is in its fourth cohort, and many of its graduates have gone on to work for or serve on the boards of Jewish institutions in Los Angeles.

With so many Jewish organizations now asking what they can do to advance the cause of racial justice and equity, Palmer said it’s a process.

“We all have biases. That’s not disputable. That’s not a question. That’s just how it is,” he said. “When you can start with that, own that you have biases, you can start looking at how those biases affect the environment you create in your community or organization.

“Rather than getting stuck in shame or embarrassment or feeling guilty or defensive, you can actually make changes. Let’s figure out those biases and make new decisions.”

This article, sponsored by and produced in partnership with The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, is part of a series about how young Jews are transforming Jewish life in the 21st century. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.