Meet Tikvah Womack  

As a Black Orthodox Jewish woman, Tikvah shares how her family is passing on traditions and navigating the unique intersection of being Black and Jewish. Through her professional work, Tikvah seamlessly integrates her background in expressive art therapy with conversations around cultural humility in the mental health field.  Read on to explore her impactful experiences and insights, shaping a more inclusive Jewish community.

Tell us about yourself:

I’m a mom of 3 boys, wife, Baltimorean, therapist, dog owner and dancer at heart. I’m Black, Jewish and Orthodox. I am also a Projector Director creating cohorts of liberatory practices for Black and Jewish women.

If I were to strip all the other titles, the core of me is music, dancing & spirituality. I grew up dancing and took formal lessons in every genre. I also have a background in theater. My college degree is in expressive arts therapy. I like to weave dance and movement into therapy.

Can you share your personal journey and experience with Judaism?

Relationships with spirituality and religion change as we get older. My love of Judaism today comes in the form of my mothering and passing on traditions to my children. I fit Judaism into a spiritual practice while mothering. My Rabbi likes to remind me, this is the space I am in today, embrace it.

Being an Orthodox Jew of Color, what unique perspectives or challenges do you face within the Jewish community and how have you navigated them?

I have faced a number of challenges as a Jew of color, but the hardest challenge is not even my own, it’s my children’s challenge. It’s not being able to fully shield or protect them at the intersection of being Black and Jewish. We teach our children to be both proudly Black and proudly Jewish. At 8 and 5 years old, they might find themselves feeling resistance in their identity, but they should feel so proud of it within their community, especially with the way the world is. They shouldn’t have to engage in any apologetics for their existence. Their existence gets to just be, whether people like it or not. My problem is the rest of the world not seeing my babies as these beautiful Black Jewish boys.

The nuance of this is that I can’t tell my children to hide their Black skin, so I’m not going to tell them to hide their Judaism. Hiding their existence on either end is not an option.

Your involvement in Jew of Color initiatives in Baltimore is commendable. Can you share more about the Park Heights Solidarity group that you started?

It didn’t go where we wanted it to go at all. It all started with me collaborating with some amazing Jewish women and creating a group with CHAI of orthodox women having conversations with African American women in Baltimore.

After George Floyd happened, we thought about what we could do for solidarity during this time. We started to bring more people together. We tried to coordinate a march/walk across Northern Parkway on Park Heights area, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.

The group hasn’t been together in a while, but what came out of the experience for me was going into Jewish equity and diversity work and bringing Black women, Black Jewish women and White Jewish women together to have these conversations.

In addition to celebrating Jewish holidays, your family also celebrates Kwanza. How do you integrate these diverse cultural and religious traditions within your household, and what significance do they hold for you and your family?

In raising our boys, we always reinforce that both of their identities are important. We spoke to our Rabbi about what practices we could incorporate in our home without interfering with Jewish customs. For Kwanza, we don’t do libations and we don’t have a seven-branch candelabra. We do all the other traditions; we talk about the principles of the holiday.

This past kwanza, we had my 94-year-old great aunt join us to honor our elders. She told stories about my great, great grandfather that I didn’t know before. My mom goes by Bubbie and she came for one night, and we went to her house for another night. We look for these moments to reinforce the practices and values of the holiday.

During this holiday season and all Jewish holidays, we honor our ancestors and our values, make family commitments, and reflect on how we see these values represented in our Jewish culture.

How do you balance your commitments to family, community initiatives, and your role as a mental health therapist?

My mom often says, “just don’t think about it and do it”. So that’s what I do, I just do it and don’t think about it.

I’m grateful to have mentors in my life, my supervisors, women who I deem as powerful and vulnerable. It’s important to take care of myself. I strongly believe your doing is not your being. If you need to take a moment to rest, seek that time out, knowing that that’s ok. It is how I’m balancing it now. I’m trying to be mindful, listening to my children and knowing I don’t have all the easy answers. I’m very big into renewal and reflection time to look back and ask what can I do differently and how can I plan to show up differently when I am ready to.

What initiatives or changes would you like to see in the broader Jewish community to promote inclusivity and diversity, especially for Jews of Color?

I would like to see more diversity training in the schools, particularly orthodox schools/yeshivas. It is time to have these hard conversations and to get the schools to understand that everyone benefits from it. We need to have the schools see “that sometimes the people we are othering” is only hurting ourselves. We are all “others”, look at the mosaic that exists within our own Jewish identity. There are many other things that I could name, but for me this is it.

This is even more important when the family is not ready to have these conversations appropriately, the school’s curriculum can help introduce these as torah values, because they are. We are multifaceted and we are the othered in many ways.

Can you share a particularly rewarding or impactful experience from your involvement in any Jew of Color initiatives in Baltimore? How have these initiatives contributed to fostering a sense of community and solidarity?

A powerful experience I’ve had is living in the Glen area and going to the Glen neighborhood association events and them recognizing my family and our dual identities. It has really helped create a sense of community and neighborhood. Honoring one another in that way is meaningful and impactful.

Knowing when there are questions, these women have gone to seek out other “safe” Jews to ask questions and learn more. On the flip side, selfishly, people on the Jewish end have come to know our family and what we stand for, strong in our dual identities as well. This is a real source of pride our family. It secures what we all want for our children, that the Jewish community is for you.

Given your background, how do you approach and contribute to the conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion within the broader mental health field, particularly in the context of your work at Jewish Community Services?

Therapy influences my DEI work. My degree is in expressive art therapy and I specialize in trauma and cultural humility. I find that in the trauma healing process, the most impactful way to heal is through meaning making. Learning about our rituals, traditions and culture. How culture has influenced our perception of trauma and what is needed to put in place to thrive. How you are brought up, the culture and tradition, can all influence trauma. I invite curiosity around their trauma/customs then invite autonomy around it. Make meaning through their cultural experience. It is so woven into my identity.

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