The Call to Action
The Jewish community in New York is the largest outside Israel. Unsurprisingly, New York is also home to more Jews of Color than anywhere else in the country. Yet despite this unique opportunity to have Jews of Color included in all parts of Jewish life, Jews of Color are deeply underrepresented in the Jewish communal landscape.
In fact, years of outreach and conversations with Jews of Color have shown us that Jews of Color do not feel authentically included in our schools, synagogues and other Jewish communal settings. While this past year brought a long-overdue national reckoning on racial equity, many corners of Jewish communal life have been quietly facing our own shortcomings and working to build a more inclusive community. However, the time had come to accelerate the pace of this effort and do a better job at creating welcoming spaces for Jews of Color in New York.
New York features a wide range of day schools and yeshivot, distinct in terms of geography, size and culture, who are at vastly different points on their journey to build a culture of racial equity both within their organizations and in their broader communities. Some schools that are mostly heterogeneous and relatively new to discussions about racial equity are searching for ways for educators, parents and students to learn about and practice racial inclusivity. In others, school leaders are interested in learning from colleagues and experts how to overcome challenges to building a strategic equity roadmap.
In response to this environment, this February UJA launched Nafsheinu: UJA’s Race, Equity and Inclusion Cohort: Equity in Jewish Day School Education, in partnership with four New York schools that want to actively engage in REI work. The Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Hannah Senesh Community Day School, Rodeph Sholom School and Schechter School of Long Island span Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island, serving K-8 and K-12 student bodies.
We created the program in collaboration with The Jewish Education Project, which has deep experience in school change and leadership development. We also engaged Martha Haakmat of Haakmat Consulting, an expert in REI. Our goal for the program was to deepen school leadership’s knowledge, expertise and skills necessary to foster a more inclusive day school community.
Digging Deep With Challenging Issues
The intensive program brought together several members of each school community—the head of school, senior educational leadership, admissions/development personnel and teacher leaders—to learn about and explore specific REI topics.
Facilitated by at least one REI expert, joint sessions included a focus on the power of language and an examination of unconscious bias. Leadership gained resources and tools to implement a strategic vision of REI with different constituencies immediately and in the long term. They discussed alternative approaches, such as building REI goals into each administrative team’s annual goals. For parents, that might look like better understanding and upholding community agreements related to equity and inclusivity, as outlined in family handbooks and enrollment contracts.
Schools sharpened their understanding of what it takes to move an institution and openly discussed some of the challenges they faced, including educational staff and parents who are concerned that curricular changes aimed at inclusivity might distract from other educational goals. When disagreements arose on how to achieve the goals of REI, school leaders grappled with how to work with the whole school community on developing shared communication skills, without compromising a school’s commitment to REI.
“It's hard work to put into practice actions aimed at becoming more racially equitable and inclusive. I have been impressed by the openness to collaboration between schools and school leaders,” said Martha Haakmat, an experienced educator of color who has spent her 34-year career teaching and leading in independent schools.
The four-school cohort has been particularly powerful when it has benefited from the collective wisdom of colleagues. Participants enjoyed moments when they realized that other educators in different settings face similar challenges, and as a group they explored alternative approaches.
For instance, one school had already been challenged trying to communicate curricular shifts to parents and other stakeholders. That school’s participants shared how they built productive conversations with the student body about the goal of a diverse community. Rather than sending out a string of emails to the school community, this school is planning to convene a series of coffees between parents and senior educational leadership and create a parent book club highlighting books by diverse authors.
REI Work in Different Schools
Beyond multiple-school sessions, the individual school teams meet with the REI expert to explore school-specific challenges that surface. One school is working on revising its mission statement and is thinking through whether to explicitly add language about racial equity.
Other schools are developing professional development for teachers to increase racial awareness, help them teach about racism and provide tools for engaging students in meaningful conversations. Schools are asking questions such as, What type of professional development is needed to increase the knowledge of our own educators? and Which Jewish sources should be included in our broader REI curriculum?
Key takeaways from the Nafsheinu program include that engaging in REI practice more deeply requires a close study of language, as well as honest and respectful conversation and listening for understanding, and an investigation of implicit bias within our policies, procedures and systems. The process requires adults to be in learning mode in ways that typically do not come easily.
Engaging in REI work brings up related issues that are also critical for creating communal inclusivity. Some schools are talking about the relationship of subcontracted employees (e.g., paraprofessional aides) within their broader educational community. The REI learning is solidifying schools’ convictions about the work’s importance and underscores that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a school culture of racial equity.
As schools clarify their priorities for the post-Covid phase, they may have a new opportunity to consider how REI efforts could benefit their community. UJA envisions convening new cohorts that represent the full spectrum of our day schools and who seek to build fully inclusive and representative environments. We are grateful to the schools who have begun this effort and look forward to working with more schools to help make our community inclusive for all Jews.