The Sephardi/Ashkenazi Divide

Demographics as well as parental and student choices affect the cultural make-up of the student body at a school.

As we debate, we also need to examine the effects that cultural diversity has in an educational institution. With so much emphasis being placed on “Whole Child” education, we should be asking: How does cultural diversity affect the social and emotional climate in an institution?

Demographics as well as parental and student choices affect the cultural make-up of the student body at a school. Administrative decisions often impact how the cultural diversity is treated. Are efforts made to quash the differences and create a melting pot? Is lip service being paid to the cultural differences? Or is there a concerted effort made to celebrate the diversity? Administrators can set policies and curriculum in schools that embrace the cultures represented by their students. Alternatively, they can ignore cultural differences, or even suppress any efforts young people make to proudly explore their cultural background. In the public school system, administrators and teachers ignore cultural diversity at their own peril.

This article will reflect on the workings of three schools with Ashkenazim and Sephardim in their student body. My observations regarding demographics and programming are based on on-site experience.

Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, in the 1980’s - 1990’s, with a student body of 750 - 800, was approximately sixty percent Ashkenazic and forty percent Sephardic. The school day began with prayers, a requirement for all students. There were both Ashkenazic and Sephardic prayer services held each morning. The Judaic Studies faculty included both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

Class make-up was often culturally homogeneous, a de facto result of choices made by students and parents. The Beit Midrash program, a Judaic Studies option which required more hours of Talmud study, was rarely favored by the Sephardic students. Families were mostly focused on building wholesale and retail businesses. The understanding was that Judaic Studies education was important, yet investing extra time in it would not benefit those boys who hoped to join their father’s business. While Sephardic parents agreed it was valuable for girls to learn Talmud and sharpen their reasoning skills, they did not agree that girls needed to take on extra hours of Gemara. The expectation was that the girls would marry soon after graduation. There was a school policy – if a student married during the school year, she could not continue to attend classes. I saw this rule enforced twice. The young men were working summers in their dad’s or uncle’s businesses. One young man boasted to me: “I make more money in a summer than you do all year.”

He was right.

Students from homes of Ashkenazic heritage were college-bound as a matter of course. And Ashkenazi boys and girls from religiously observant homes expected to spend a year post- high school in Israel. Differing life views affected the way students of the two cultural backgrounds sometimes interacted. The lines drawn between the material “haves” versus the “have-nots” were often drawn across cultural lines. Sentences beginning with “Rich SY” and “J-Dub” were used derisively by Ashkenazim and Sephardim respectively. Celebratory greetings by Ashkenazi students to newly engaged Sephardic girls were often followed by whisperings about “How crazy is that?”

Yeshivah of Flatbush faculty and administrators make a concerted effort to celebrate the cultural diversity of their student body. At their Shabbatonim they sing both Ashkenazic zemirot and Sephardic pizmonim at each Shabbat meal. The school’s co-curricular activities include speakers from both communities. I clearly recall the excitement that rippled through the entire student body when YFHS hosted a visit of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

At The Frisch School, in Paramus, NJ, with close to 700 students, there is a small contingent of Sephardim. Their minyan fills a classroom – fewer than fifty students. Some years the room is more crowded than others. The Sephardic students clearly see themselves as a minority. A number of them, having discovered my Yeshivah of Flatbush roots, would often quiz me on my knowledge of their cultural background, reveling in having an adult in the building who knew about kibbeh and lachmajee, and who knew that “mabrook” was the equivalent of “mazal tov”.

As assistant principal, I organized students and helped run a Sephardic Culture Day at Frisch. The enthusiasm was palpable among both Sephardic students who were eager to show off their culture, and Ashkenazic students who were curious. There were exhibits of artifacts. Students created a corner “room” with cushions and draperies where students could join their peers, who were dressed in traditional Sephardic robes, and learn to play the drums and finger cymbals. The various food stations featuring traditional Sephardic foods, served up by other costumed students, were a big hit. Recorded music played and students learned some new dance moves to use at the next Sephardic wedding they might attend. The Sephardic students were gratified to be given a chance to share their heritage; the Ashkenazim found it fascinating to sample foods, and hear music. They marveled at some of the exhibits, which included photographs of family celebrations that featured Sebet celebrations and Henna ceremonies. Many were heard to remark: “They really do that?” “Your sister wore that costume?” “Are you going to do that stuff when you get engaged?”

The Hillel Community Day School in N. Miami Beach, Florida has seen a cultural shift in its student body in the past decade. The shift is reflective of the Latin American Jewish community whose children now constitute a major portion of the student body. They come from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela. Many of them have stories to share of actual kidnappings or close calls.

In comparison to Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, which is not the automatic default for all students in the YF elementary school, and The Frisch School, a high school with a number of local feeder schools that reflect the Northern Jersey Jewish community, Hillel is a Jewish community day school, which draws from diverse communities, although typically, students begin in pre-kindergarten and continue on until high school graduation.

Hillel began doing a formal demographic study of its student body this year. My personal observations of how students react along cultural lines, is intertwined with their religious practice as well as their ancestry. My observations were corroborated by others who have been at the school for many years. Eighty percent of the current student body of 1,100 students from pre-kindergarten through high school, come from families who are non-practicing or liberal in practice, yet the school follows Modern Orthodox guidelines. This provides an interesting conundrum. Hillel requires attendance at tefilah, and there is a Sephardic minyan available to middle school and high school students. There are approximately sixty students who attend this minyan. The high school seniors who were among the founding members of the Sephardic minyan at Hillel when they were in middle school are fiercely protective of the minyan. Yet the stark differences in cultural attitudes about Jewish education do not cut across the Sephardic and Ashkenazic lines; it plays out as American versus Latin American.

Hillel parents who are first-, second- and third-generation American are intent on their children acquiring a solid Jewish education typical of the Jewish community day school. A great percentage of parents and grandparents of current Hillel students (and a small number of third-generation students were born outside the United States) grew up with a different notion of Jewish education. In South America, Jews attended Jewish schools often as a security measure. Parents wanted their children to be safe from harassment, to have the opportunity to be among Jewish peers (insurance against intermarriage) and to learn something about their Jewish heritage. They did not expect an intense Judaic curriculum.

Hillel was founded by a group of parents who were of Ashkenazic background and Modern Orthodox in practice. The community day school they envisioned followed the American model where all Jewish children could be educated and Judaic Studies were vitally important. The mission statement they created reflects Modern Orthodoxy and Zionism as guiding ideals.

As the Hillel student body became more Latin, there was a shift on the board of trustees as well. The current board reflects a religiously left moving trend that is a reflection of the fewer strictly observant families joining Hillel. As is true in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, when Latin American Jews attend synagogue, they generally pray in the Orthodox tradition, but, that does not necessarily mean that their daily practice follows Modern Orthodoxy. This is informing the overall running of the school as well as the day-to-day programming. Parents who send their children to Hillel attend Shabbat services and have festive family dinners and/or lunches on Shabbat. The way they spend the rest of the day affects social interaction among students. The more observant teenagers feel isolated; they cannot join many of the activities planned by classmates for a Saturday afternoon.

The cultural divide, as informs religious practice, is at issue. To avoid complications, for example, Hillel provides all lunches and snacks. Judaic faculty monitor snack items that students bring, looking for Kashrut symbols, and school policy forbids home-baked goods on campus. Uniforms are the dress code; and they clearly prevent students from wearing debatably immodest clothing. Conversations among administrators include whether to implement punitive action for boys who do not wear their kipot during lunchtime.

Latin American students are proud of their heritage and many get involved in activities outside the school where they have the opportunity to meet up with their fellow Latinos. There are dance troupes that perform for and athletic teams that play against other Jewish teens in Brazil and Argentina. Spanish is spoken in the corridors among Latino students. The Spanish Language program has classes on each level for Spanish speakers and non-speakers. Recently there were parents who asked to remove Hebrew language as a school requirement because of the level of difficulty. Those among the parent body who advocate for this feel that their children can learn what they need to know about their heritage by reading the Bible and other Judaica in translation.

In all three schools I saw how cultural diversity is embraced and often celebrated. Students in Jewish high schools tend to be accepting of their peers, except when they are not. Creating friction is one characteristic of adolescent behavior, and though it may stem from something else entirely, cultural diversity, often compounded by lack of cultural knowledge, can exacerbate these situations. Sensitive administrators and faculty members can use teachable moments to celebrate differences. In a country where diversity is part of the cultural landscape, celebrating differences can lead to tolerance and appreciation of others – Jew and non-Jew alike. There are valuable lessons about our differences that we need to impart to our students. ♦

Chaye Kohl is an educator, writer, and lecturer. Chaye can be reached at
Chaye Kohl
Published: Fall 2007