“Where are the Jews of color?”, I asked myself as I sat in an auditorium full of Jewish educators at the recent Jewish Futures Conference. The day long conference focusing on civics education in Jewish educational settings drew hundreds of Jewish educators from throughout the New York area. And as I looked around, I noticed we were mostly, almost entirely, White. I thought about how there was probably more cultural diversity represented in the group than I could see, perhaps Jews from Sephardic or mizrahi backgrounds, Jews by choice, or varied other Jewish journeys that brought folks to the conference. But if there was racial diversity in the room, I could not see it. The first conference speaker introduced the topic for the day by describing America as a place where diversity and pluralism are elevated as intrinsic values and aspirations. As I listened, I asked myself, “What would Native Americans think of that characterization? Or African Americans?” And then, in a moment of introspection, I realized that I was asking questions I didn’t use to think about and seeing things in new ways.
To be clear, I found the Jewish Futures Conference very worthwhile. As the day went on, I encountered explicit questions of race in a session about how to teach students about media coverage of the events in Ferguson in 2014 and a powerful spoken word presentation by educator and poet Clint Smith III. But in those first few minutes, I realized how much my perspective on participation in Jewish educational endeavors in America has been shifting as I learn more and think more about the implications of race and racism for the work that I do. Just a couple of years ago I don’t think I would have stopped to think about the racial makeup of the conference or the place of racism in American society. I am asking similar questions not only about the conference but also about my own work at Schechter Manhattan.
These questions, new to me though not really new ideas, reflect the work we have been doing at Schechter Manhattan to become an inclusive, racially aware school. I aspire for Schechter Manhattan to be an anti-racist Jewish day school, one in which students and faculty have opportunities to consider their racial identity, where the racial diversity of the Jewish community is reflected and valued, and where graduates have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be successful in a racially diverse world and to be positive agents of change toward a more just society. As we join this weekend in remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work for racial equality, it is an appropriate moment to share an update on our efforts.
Last year the Educational Leadership Team and I began a process of self-evaluation, looking at Schechter Manhattan’s curriculum and overall program and asking ourselves a series of hard questions: What do we hope our students will understand about their racial identities? What do we want them to think and feel about racism when they encounter it? Why doesn’t our school community reflect the racial diversity of the larger Jewish community of New York City? How does what we do at school offer them the opportunity to explore these questions?
This year, we are beginning to address these questions in partnership with Be’chol Lashon, an organization that provides opportunities for Jewish professionals to actively engage in conversations about race, ethnicity, and identity in the context of Jews as a multicultural people in America. Be’chol Lashon worked with us to plan and implement a series of professional development sessions for the Schechter Manhattan teaching faculty, which we completed this morning as part of our Faculty In-Service Day. The workshops encouraged Schechter Manhattan teachers to think about our own identities by asking us to associate ourselves with certain groups and characteristics and reflect on how we think others perceive us. We were asked to share the influences in our lives and the biases we carry, and we practiced talking about race with each other. This helped us to grow our comfort with talking about race and identity.
The experienced educators from Be’chol Lashon are also helping us to uncover and value the diversity we have within our Jewish community. They contend that Jews have historically been one of the most diverse peoples in the world and are encouraging us to educate ourselves and our students about Jewish ethnic and racial diversity as part of our overall efforts to address questions of race in our school. Thanks to my participation in these workshops, I have been seeing opportunities to highlight Jewish diversity in ways I don’t think I did before. When recently teaching the 6th grade students about tfilin, a lesson about the blessings for and ways to put on the tfilin also became a lesson in different Jewish traditions including the varied and legitimate opinions of Rabbi Yosef Karo, who lived in 16th century CE in Spain and Israel and whose rulings represent Sephardic practice, and Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a contemporary who lived in Poland and whose writings reflect Ashkenazic tradition. At a recent kabalat shabbat gathering of the whole school, Ruth Servi, our Hebrew, and Jewish Studies Coordinator shared her experiences growing up in the Jewish community in Florence, Italy, and some of the ways that her Jewish cultural experience was similar and different from in NYC. Expanding opportunities for our students to learn about Jewish diversity is an important element of our plans to become an anti-racist Jewish day school.
Another important element will be finding ways to raise conversations about race with our students. When asked what they wanted to learn more about, Schechter Manhattan teachers who participated in the Be’chol Lashon workshops offered responses such as: “How do we create spaces and opportunities in our school to notice or talk about race?” “How can this be discussed in a natural and more authentic way in a predominantly White Jewish school?” “How do I take opportunities to talk meaningfully about race with young children?” These are not simple questions with one answer, and our faculty is working together to support each other in identifying strategies and approaches to talk about race with their students. I suspect that my colleagues are finding themselves seeing things in new ways too and that their consciousness about the educational importance of talking about race will help them to take advantage of opportunities for learning that they did not see before. This will put us in a strong position to rework curricular units and lessons, so as to better teach content and concepts related to race and racism in our lives and society at large.
Parallel to and in addition to the work of the faculty, Schechter Manhattan parents are also taking action to think together about what they hope to teach their children about race and racism. The Conversations about Race (CaR) committee of the Schechter Manhattan Parents’ Association held its first event for the 2017-2018 school year in December, at which a group of parents reviewed and discussed texts written by parents interested and concerned about how their children experience race. The CaR committee also maintains a listserv and Facebook group for Schechter Manhattan parents to share resources and ideas for talking with their children about race.
This partnership between parents and educational leadership is bound to have a transformative impact on our school community as we work together to learn more and take more steps towards being a racially inclusive and aware Jewish day school. I know that it is already having a powerful impact on me.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
Students wrote about their weekend activities in “Weekend Update”
“I Wet TothE BigaPPLCrCiUS”
(I went to the Big Apple Circus)
“I pladoono with my dad”
(I played Uno with my dad)
– “I stahoum”
(I stayed home)
In Torah, students have been learning about the creation of humans at the end of Day 6 of Creation and God instructing them to vayirdu (usually translated as “rule over” or “have dominion over”) the animals of the land, sky, and sea.
In class, students discussed what it meant to “rule over” something. They then needed to explain in writing what they think the word means: that humans need to be in charge of animals, be responsible for animals or another option.
The students of fifth grade studied the original 13 colonies which later formed the original 13 United States. We learned about the history, agriculture, colonial life, education of specific colonies, sharing our learning with each other through posters.
As the middle school humanities students continue to work on their anthology about democracy, they are invited to write on various topics by way of various writing prompts. This week students wrote about the importance of education in a democracy. Here are some excerpts.
“If everyone in the society is uneducated, they would not know how to run a democracy and therefore the society would collapse. There would be an oligarchy or dictatorship and until people were educated, there would be no democracy. A good way to educate citizens for a democracy would be to show them the three branches of the United States government and show them how fair it is. The teacher would show how none of the branches can overpower the other two and no one branch can do anything without backup from at least one other branch.”
“I think education is important in a democracy because democracy means “people’s power”. If the people are not educated, then they will have the power to do stupid things.”
“Education is the most important way to ensure people living in democracy aren’t hooligans and idiots. Knowledge to many people means power and having this special power provides confidence, basic understandings, and access to a society full of people who comprehend the world in a closer way than if they acted without knowledge. Democracies need smart people to help the country act sharply in hard situations that might occur when deciding to do something like go to war. In 2016 we learned that too many people in the United States are uneducated and believe in false news, which causes erratic behavior.”
“I think that education is important to living in a democracy because to live in a democracy the citizens need to have a basic enough education so that they know what is happening politically and can vote efficiently. For example, Donald Trump attracted a lot of new voters in the 2016 presidential election. According to CNN exit polls, 72% of the white non-college male vote and 62% of the white non-college female vote were voters that Donald Trump attracted. Although he was encouraging more American citizens to vote, I personally think that we should have sought quality over quantity.”