For the better part of the past year, our synagogues, organizations and schools have been making decisions about the extent to which the racial identities of their community members is going to factor into their visions. We have been awakened to the reality that while we all saw our spaces as being welcoming, Jews of Color have not always felt embraced. We’ve engaged in uncomfortable conversations about why we might not see the 12-15% of American Jews who identify as Jews of Color in our spaces. We’ve had to look inward and examine how “Ashkenormativity” has given us our definition of who is a Jew and realize that we have been othering our own Jewish siblings.
Jews of Color have shared their stories of being called dirty on the playground, being called the Black Jewish N-word in hallways, being thrown into trash cans in the lunchroom and what it feels like when their teachers were surprised at their Hebrew fluency. We have been left to reflect on whether the cumulative impact of our actions (and inaction) in response to these incidents is that we’ve reinforced a set of values that makes the parents of Jews of Color question whether a day school education is a viable option for their children. Schools who are undertaking this work are saying very clearly: This doubt is unacceptable—our schools must do even better to create an embracing, nurturing culture for all.
My Experience and Debate
As a Jew of Color and day school parent, some of my most difficult experiences have been exacerbated by feeling a lack of leadership response to incidents involving my children. As a professional educator and school leader, I hold the schools my children attend to the same standard that I set in my own. When conversations with administrators ended with a defense of the assumed intentions of the aggressors, I was left feeling like the severity of the incidents were not taken seriously. When my eldest was called the N-word for the first time and the administrative response was to give their parent my phone number (so they could convince me that their family isn’t racist), the impact was that I felt unsupported and that it was up to me to resolve the issue. When my children came home crying about what happened to them at school, I agonized over how to present the issues in a way that I would be heard. When the response was either brief without resolution or forwarded along without any follow up to ensure that my concerns were addressed, I was left feeling defeated, powerless and unable to protect my sons. The net result has been a feeling that my children were not completely safe and that the mission and vision of the schools they attended did not include any consideration of their race.
For years, I have been locked in an ideological debate with myself because, despite the experiences my children have had, Jewish education is still a value of mine. It is from the day school environment that my children will build their Hebrew literacy, which will give them access to any future prayer space they want to attend. Their Jewish education will lower the barrier to entry into organizational spaces and may even spark within them a calling for leadership positions or the rabbinate. But that is difficult to reconcile when sending them to school might do them harm.
DEI Work in Jewish Schools
The demographics of the United States have necessitated DEI work to be mainstays in the public school system. From book clubs to professional development, to examining the cultural responsiveness of their curricula, day schools have begun diving into this difficult work as well. As an educator who has been immersed in SEL (social-emotional learning) work for well over 15 years, I think a lot about the long-term impact on Jews of Color who have been exposed to micro- and macro-aggressions, at times daily, in their day school environments.
As schools opened this year, some of us had the opportunity to engage in work around becoming trauma-informed educators, learning about toxic stress and how trauma affects the brain permanently. We have to classify incidents that have happened to JOCs in our schools as traumas and work towards ensuring both their physical and social emotional safety. One only has to look at how many JOC students return year after year, how many return as faculty and how many are seen in leadership positions to note the changes that need to be made.
So what can be done? We’re approaching the end of the school year, the time when we examine our EOY data and make curricular decisions for the upcoming year. Many schools have started thinking about what an ELA curriculum would look like that reflects the diversity of our Jewish community, or a history curriculum that includes the histories of JOCs intertwined as part of American history instruction. As those decisions are being made, consider this lens:
What would a person think about race in the Jewish community if all they knew was their experience in your school?
What qualitative and quantitative data would you look at to answer that question?
Who would you call to your table to shape the decisions you will make?
Engaging Multiple Stakeholders
As you’re organizing around what the outcomes will be for the DEI work you are doing, ensure that your vision is clearly articulated from your head of school so that everyone on the faculty, in parent groups and among your students can speak to the values you set forth. If you’re creating spaces such as affinity groups in your school, ensure that it is an embedded practice for a representative from those groups to have a seat at your decision-making table. Without additional voices to help hold you accountable to your vision, you will set families up for failure if they do not feel empowered to be part of the change you’re making for the benefit of all students in your school.;
Expand the vision of equity to examine all of the places where improvement may be needed so that focus on one group isn’t at the expense of another. We are instilling within our children the responsibility that we have to live up to the promise of the words in our daily tefillah; in order for them to do that, the onus is on us to create environments that foster a lifelong love of learning that supports the personal growth of all—the discovery of who they each came into this world to be.
What’s at Stake
I now only have one child remaining in day school, and I am in awe of his resilience. He has had more racial slurs hurled at him since entering the day school system at age five than I have in my entire lifetime, but nevertheless, he persists. I am heartbroken that I couldn’t pay my middle child to attend a day school again after his last experience (which was compounded by his IEP needs). There are still days when he asks if he has to be Jewish, which leaves our family to rebuild the sense of Jewish identity that his lived experience broke. And that is what’s at stake if we don’t get this right in our schools.
After eight years of these stories, I wish the choice about sending my youngest to day school were simple. I wish that my process didn’t involve immense research, one-on-one conversations with admissions directors and combing through websites and other sources to determine each school’s hidden curriculum, because I need to know that his beautiful brilliant light will not be dimmed.
We must now answer the call to put these new tools into action because families like mine need your help. It is my hope that you feel inspired to embody the leadership of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and remove the barriers to entry so that all who want to learn within the walls of your schools feel safe to do so.