By Steven R. Weisman
Kelly Whitehead, Temple Micah’s rabbinical student intern for the summer of 2023, is no stranger to our community. She taught kindergarten through second grade at Machon Micah while an undergraduate studying history at American University, and some Temple Micah families became acquainted with her at Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam in the Poconos, where Whitehead worked with high schoolers and where a love and devotion for Judaism took off.
Describing herself as “a queer Jew of color,” Whitehead grew up in a Jewish household in Queens and Brooklyn, where she became bat mitzvah. Her interest in working for social justice has only increased in recent years, when it has often seemed like the rights of women, immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ community were under assault.
Studying to become a rabbi became the path to fulfill that goal. “After the 2016 election, I felt a passion to bring about change in the community,” said Whitehead. “I appreciated that rabbis have a moral voice that politicians and others don’t have. I want to follow a path with the support of my Jewish text and tradition to bring about social change.”
A major priority is to work for that progress within the Jewish community itself. Whitehead has faced “microaggression, small acts of discrimination and occasional lack of respect” at Jewish conferences, events, and workplaces, where she was sometimes mistaken for a custodial employee or another person of color. Some people found it hard to believe that as a person of color, Whitehead was born Jewish. These experiences made her determined to use her position as a rabbi, and to set an example and help campers, students, and other young people navigate similar challenges in “exclusively white or exclusively Jewish spaces.” At Camp Harlam, she was also inspired by female Jewish role models, proving that people of marginalized identities can be strong in the face of bias.
While studying at Hebrew Union College in New York, Whitehead has served as director of youth engagement at Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J. She has been selected for the Reform movement’s Jew v’Nation Jew of Color Fellowship and helped create and lead an anti-racial bias training for Jewish youth professionals. Whitehead has also worked with many organizations around the country and in Israel as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) facilitator.
“As a rabbinical school student, my Judaism is a key component to who I am,” Whitehead wrote in an essay for the URJ website. “I live in a Jewish city, learn about Jewish practices, and constantly uncover how the basis of my tradition is connected to my spiritual identity. I use Jewish tradition as an avenue to reflect on my entire being. I love Judaism’s tradition of tikkun middot (repairing our character) and cheshbon hanefesh (accounting for the soul). Being able to reflect, every single day, on my intersecting identities, my values, and how I can improve as a person is very powerful.”
Whitehead seeks to use “our rich, sacred Jewish toolbox” to ensure that the Jewish community is more inclusive, respectful of diversity, and welcoming to “members of marginalized groups.”
Having spent time already at Temple Micah, she is looking forward to joining what they call a “unique, compassionate, and exceptionally welcoming community.”
Kelly Whitehead (she/they) will be with us from May to July 2023.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of the Vine.