Race was not an issue for me. In the twenty years I have been a Jewish day school educator, the primary identity marker that inspired me was Jewish identity. Nurturing positive Jewish identity in my students continues to be at the core of my educational aspirations, and I have spent a lot of time, thought, and energy on creating learning communities that offer students opportunities to connect to their Jewishness. But I didn’t think much about race. The predominantly White Ashkenazi schools I taught in and led did not include much racial diversity and (until recently) I can not remember any open conversations with colleagues about how race played out in our schools. Looking back, I can see that in fact those schools did include people of color, colleagues on the school staff and students and their parents, and it seems likely that those people thought a lot about race. And of course issues of race have been prevalent in America throughout my life and career. So why was race as a societal and educational issue invisible to me for so long?
Over the last few months I have been grappling with that question (and many others) as I engage in dialogue with Schechter Manhattan parents and colleagues about our approach to race at our school. I supplemented the conversations I had with caring parents and members of the Schechter Manhattan faculty with my own professional development work, by reaching out to experts in the field of race in education, reading a variety of sources on the subject, and attending workshops for educators. This process of exploration has helped me to understand things in new ways, and I have begun to think about my racial identity as it relates to my experience as an educator. It seems to me that I didn’t think or talk about race because I am White, so I didn’t have to. And in not having to address my race, or other people’s race, in my daily life I benefit from living in a culture where being White offers advantages. This advantage of not engaging with race was reinforced for me at a recent meeting of the Ma’yan Social Justice Educators Group, when a Black presenter shared her relationship to talking and thinking about race- it is something she cannot avoid day in and day out, while I have the ability to opt out of the conversation.
But, actually there is no opting out, because the advantage I am accorded to ignore race is correlated to racism that puts people of color at a disadvantage. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we celebrate this weekend, of course knew this. He wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” If I am to truly honor Dr. King’s memory and, I believe, live out the moral imperatives of my Jewish identity, then I can not choose to avoid or ignore issues of race and racism.
Talking about race is important for our students and the Schechter Manhattan school community, firstly because of our Jewish values. We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, btselem elohim, and as such deserve to be treated with caring and respect. The value of btselem elohim calls on us to surface our biases and see past cultural blinders to the holiness within each human being. We also believe in klal yisrael, maintaining positive and supportive relationships with Jews of all sorts. The Jewish community is racially diverse- according to the American Jewish Population Project of the Steinhardt Social Research at Brandeis University around 11% of Jews in the United State are people of color. Our commitment to klal yisrael compels us to create Jewish communities where all of us are welcomed, seen, and valued.
Talking about race at Schechter Manhattan is also important to prepare our students for the world they live in. Our society is racially diverse and full of racial discord. We aspire for our students to be both successful in a diverse society and agents of change towards a more inclusive, less racist world. Our graduates will be better equipped to navigate the complications of race that surround us if they have the opportunity to think and talk about the implications of race for themselves and others.
Today students throughout the school participated in programs for MLK day. Students in grades K-2 explored ideas in the story The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss and the poem A Box of Crayons by Shane DeRolf and discussed that skin color is an arbitrary quality that has been used to segregate people. They also learned a brief history of Dr. King and his belief in fighting to change segregation. Students in grades 3-5 focused on Dr. King’s idea that service to others makes someone great. They examined the qualities of bravery, selflessness, and caring and the ways in which Dr. King and civil rights activists, Ruby Bridges and John Lewis, used their experiences to help improve their communities. Middle School students examined the role of the press in the civil rights movement’s fight for equality. Through videos, interviews, and footage from the 1950’s and 60’s they explored how the press impacted the nation.
These programs help Schechter Manhattan students learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his leadership of the civil rights movement, which surely is about race and racism. Yet there is more for our students to learn if they are to develop the knowledge and dispositions to resist racism. That racism is still a problem and not only historical. That people of color are not only valued for their efforts to overcome oppression, but also for their many and varied contributions to society. That in our society, race matters and impacts each of us. In order to build those understandings, our students will need more opportunities to talk and think about race.
The Educational Leadership Team and I have reviewed the Schechter Manhattan curriculum with an eye towards where and how we talk with students about race. We have found many areas of the curriculum where students already touch on issues of race, and we are thinking about the ways we might enrich and expand the learning in school. And a committee of the Parents Association is working on ways for parents to think together about how they talk with their children about race in their lives. (Schechter Manhattan parents should look for announcements about upcoming programs that the Parents Association Conversations About Race Committee is planning.)
In the meantime, let’s take this MLK Day weekend to start or continue the conversations. Schechter Manhattan parents can ask their children about the MLK programs, as an opportunity to start a dialogue about their understandings of race. And we each can consider how our racial identities impact our lives. One way to get that conversation started (that I picked up at a workshop on race in education facilitated by Dr. Ali Michael) is to share with a family member or friend your story of how you talked about race growing up, in your family and community contexts.
In the famous letter he wrote in a Birmingham Jail in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that discourse about race had “been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” Perhaps a step towards achieving Dr. King’s dream is to start and expand the dialogue.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop by every week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
The Kitah Aleph friends are discovering the ways that authors find inspiration. We are reading books by our favorite authors and are noticing that authors often write from their own memories and experiences. And now, we are using our own memories as inspiration for writing.
I GAV SINDe
I GOt to Giv SiD
A BAt RiT Mom
(I remember I gave Cindy a bath. It was fun. I got to give Cindy a bath with Mom.)
Click here to see Naomi’s work.
Me and my DOad like making madals! I do The Glawing. My doad pats The peasis Tagether Iis aliral chalinJig. And ItS realea so mach fan. I get the madals at…Mikals. I have made a. Badal bote. And a badal plane. Anda a spy plan the spiy Planes name is the black Brerd. The Badal botes nan is phantam 2. and last but not least is uss Arasna
(Me and my Dad like making models! I do the gluing and my dad puts the pieces together. It is a little challenging and it is really so much fun. I get the models at Michaels. I have made a battle boat and a battle plane and a spy plane. The spy plane’s name is the Black Bird the battle boats name is Phantom 2. and last but not least is)
Click here to read Avner’s work.
When I Was in Boston
I went to boston. On the last day i was going to see Ethan I could not wait to see him we went bowling together and had alout of fun together we had pizza for lunch at the bowling place because thare was a pizza place thare. We got six pizzas they were realy good thare was a cheese and a souce pizza and a mashroom pizza and thare were more but i forget what ones they were I had one in a half slices of pizza Samuel and Maya had more well come to think of it Maya had Half a slice of pizza Samuel and mommy and daddy had more.
(When I Was In Boston
I went to Boston on the last day I was going to see Ethan, I could not wait to see him. We went bowling together and had had a lot of fun together. We had pizza for lunch at the bowling place because there was a pizza place there. We got six pizzas thew there really good. There was a cheese and a sauce pizza pizza and a mushroom pizza and there were more but I forget which ones they were. I had one in a half slices of pizza Samuel and Maya had more. Well, come to think of it, Maya had half a slice of pizza,Samuel and Mommy and Daddy had more.)
Click here to see Bela’s work.
Kitah Gimmel wrote paragraphs about characters from the “Julian” series of books. They focused on personality traits and using evidence to support their ideas.
Click here to read work by Ariel, Maya, Amelie, Akiva, Sammy, Ike, Adina, Joey, Jory, Renata, and Zack.
Kitah Heh brainstormed ideas for their opinion essays. They learned that they need to be able to support both sides of an argument. Here are some of the ideas they brainstormed.
Should dolphins and whales be in aquariums?
By Eli G.
-If they’re hurt, they can be taken care of
-Aquariums can save animals that would die in the wild
-People learn about animals when they visit aquariums
-They deserve freedom
-They should not be forced to entertain us
-They have a shorter lifespan
Should kids have bed times?
By Shirley H.
-They need sleep
-Parents need alone time
-Kids will be grumpy in the morning
-Need to do homework
-Don’t have time during the day
-Can’t fall asleep
-Dont’ want to
Should animals be kept in zoos?
By Jayla D.
-In zoos they can’t be hunted
-They get enough food
-They get played with
-They can cure sick animals
-They don’t get enough space
-They get separated from their family
-They can get scared of humans
-They are not free in the wild
Should kids play Pokemon Go?
By Jonathan P.
-People hate it
-People get super competitive and fight each other
Over the Winter Break, students were asked to read a novel, write up a summary and review of the book, and explain why they would or would not recommend it to other students.