It’s late afternoon and most of the staff at Operation Understanding DC in Woodley Park have left for the day. Yolanda Savage-
Narva, the executive director is still there, taking phone call after phone call.
She leans back in her chair and rocks, a busy end to a busy day that began with a staff meeting. They’re always planning something, she says.
That includes the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration in March.
But usually, the plans revolve around the group of local high school juniors taking part in Operation Understanding DC’s year-long social justice fellowship. Every year, 20 teens — some African American, some Jewish — learn how to fight racism and anti-Semitism, while building their leadership skills and fostering connections between the Jewish and black communities. Their newest group of students is just about to begin.
“The intention behind what we do for our students is to really making sure we’re connecting them with the past historical
movements and making those relevant with what’s going on today,” says Savage-Narva, 45.
As a black Jewish woman, Savage-Narva thinks her job is a perfect fit.
In 2017, she was working in the public health field. But she wanted a career where she would put her master’s degree in education to use.
“I was at a crossroads in my career where I was trying to figure out what’s next,” she says. “How do I take what I’ve learned and apply it in a really practical way? I wanted to work directly with youth. But I just happened to start looking around one day and I saw the [at Operation Understanding] position and I said, ‘That’s me.’”
Over the next two years, Savage-Narva made positive changes to the program, says Eve Byford-Peterson, Operation Understanding’s board president.
“The connecting relationship between relevancy and history has been tightened” under Savage-Narva’s leadership, she says. “It’s hard for some youths to see the connection with what happened in the past and what happens in the future. She’s been able to provide that relevancy to the youngsters.”
Savage-Narva says her position allows her to explore the different aspects of her identity — and the identities of others as well.
She believes that the values she was taught growing up as well as her newer Jewish values helps her understand why it’s important to explore the similarities between seemingly different identities.
Savage-Narva converted to Judaism in 2015 so that she and her husband, Andy, who is Jewish, would be able to raise their son, Miles, as a Jew.
Even before the birth of Miles, now 10, she observed Jewish traditions and holidays.
“I understood the rituals. We had Shabbat every Friday. We observed the Yom Kippur break fast. I had a lot of knowledge of Jewish culture from being married to someone who was Jewish and having a Jewish home. So I always felt comfortable and embraced, on the culture side of things,” she says.
“I wanted to be able to have a meaningful role” at Miles’ bar mitzvah, she adds. “Judaism was something that I truly embraced and love as part of my identity.”
Gregarious and out-going, Savage-Narva loves traveling and meeting new people. She has lived all over the country.
She was born in Chicago. When she was 7, her family moved to Jackson, Miss. She received her undergraduate degree from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., and her master’s degree from Jackson State University, historically black university in Jackson, Miss. Her career in public health took her all over the country from Atlanta to South Dakota to Albuquerque, N.M.
Her husband’s work bought them to Washington 12 years ago.
When she’s not at work, she’s bird watching, traveling, running a book club, playing sport or attending all of Miles’ sporting events.
“I don’t know how she does what she does,” Byford-Peterson says. “She is always involved in some community outreach activity and does run the organization. I think she does an excellent job of juggling everything.”
Thank you for covering the great work of Operation Understanding DC (OUDC), and its talented director, Yolanda Savage-Narva. For years, the “Black-Jewish Relationship” seemed to be two separate minority groups united in many common causes. Yet like Savage-Wilson and some OUDC participants, there have long been Black Jews and other Jews of Color in America; their growing visibility is a blessing for us all.
OUDC educates people toward greater sensitivity and solidarity. As such, it’s worth reiterating to the WJW readership that while Ms. Savage-Narva generously shared her own story of coming to Judaism, that background is hers to tell, not ours to solicit.
When we ask people of color even well-meaning questions about background — questions we’d never ask of European-appearing folks in Jewish spaces — we “otherize” those Jews of Color, and make their experience in the Jewish world more difficult. For their sake and that of the Jewish future, I hope we welcome everyone in our pews with “Shabbat Shalom,” irrespective of skin tone.
May we all restrain our curiosity, so as to honor the fullness of the Divine image within everyone.