A Call for Action: Jewish Day Schools address Racism by being Multi-Cultural
By Dr. Roberta Louis Goodman
This moment in history raises questions about Jews, our complicity in passing as white, our sense of privilege, and our own racism. This same moment, in history, is a time of change in our Jewish community where the familiar organizations and institutions of the 1900s are struggling to respond to the needs and demands of the younger generations in a changing world.
We suggest that now is the time to transform Jewish day schools, to become places where the population and approach are driven by kvod habriyut, respect for all beings, a multicultural approach (HaYidion, Fall 2019). A place where families raising Jewish children can be tribal and global, learning side by side with families of different races, ethnicities, socio-economic status, and backgrounds. A place where Jews’ encounter of the other, where the sharing of our stories, rituals, struggles and hopes, lead to dialogue and mutual understanding and a stronger sense of identity.
We already hear in the voices of day school alumni the desire for a new model, for deeper encounters and increased learning to address racism in our society. In an article published by the JTA June 11, the title itself “Alumni call on Jewish day schools to do more to fight racism,” is indicative of the concern. Alumni make accusations of their schools of “not getting it,” of failing to even use the language framing today’s conversation.
How might a day school respond deeply and authentically?
What might a different day school model look like? How might it address the focus on racism, the protests precipitated by the death of George Floyd and injustices of other African Americans all too recently?
Here’s one possibility.
The whole school, Shabbat assembly is starting. The faces on the video screen (a necessity during this stage of Covid) are of students, siblings, parents, and educators all from the school. They are of different colors, ethnicities, and family constellations. The Head of School speaks of Jewish tradition having values that compel us “to stand up for those whose rights are not recognized or taken away.”
The Head of School introduces three speakers.
The first speaker, a 6th grade African American student from the Jewish day school speaks of Black Lives Matters as a global movement, not just for one person. Speaking out about racism has “changed my perception on how people act.” She ends her speech with a personal statement: “it’s hard to be a student athlete girl while being a proud African American.”
Then comes the white, 8th grade Christian student from the Jewish day school. “I went to the protest to support my community against police brutality and racial discrimination. I was sad that there were people who did things just because of the color their skin. In my old school, we only focused on friends and classes. At this Jewish day school, it opened my eyes to what is happening in the world and how I can make a change.”
Finally, an articulate 9th grade Jewish alum of the day school shared: “I’m not black so I can’t understand the extent of racism. It is not a political issue, it is a human issue. …If we want to see change then we have to act. We must be better than our parents for the sake of future generations.” She admonished: “You must do your part to stop the hate.”
The Head of School then proceeds to connect the prayers the school recites every Friday to the concerns of the day.
One way we respond is to pray. Candles speak as Jewish people and all people often think this way – we should be a light to the nations and to others. I see that every day at our school. The way you support one another and the teachers support you. As we light Shabbat candles, how we can shine a brighter light on social justice?
After speaking about the symbolism of the other Shabbat rituals, he closes the weekly “TGIS – Thank God It’s Shabbat” assembly saying:
Tikkun olam is repairing or healing the world. It is our job to take action to make it a more perfect world. We support peaceful protest, students speaking up and standing up to make this world a more just and better place for us all. I wish you a Shabbat shalom.
This scenario is not aspirational, it is real. It happened at The Lippman School in Akron, Ohio the last week of school. It stands as a model of how universal values are explored through sources and perspectives from Judaism. A place where students and teachers examine and explore their cultural, religious, and familial identities, in a deep and meaningful way by sharing and exploring their life struggles, hopes, questions, rituals, and celebrations.
What drives the multi-cultural approach?
This example is merely the most recent one and it came about in light of current, national and local events that impacted families of the school community. At the core of the school’s philosophy is that we are a global society with much to learn from each other. The school leaders and teachers look for opportunities to create deeper learning around ideas of acceptance, compassion, and ultimately personal growth.
The statements of the 6th and 8th graders grew out of their classroom experiences. The Humanities teacher kicked off the year with a focus on slavery and enslavement. She shared facts from different sources pointing to racial inequality: “If you have numbers, it makes it totally understandable to them. Then they ask questions and the conversation flows.”
So when the protests surrounding George Floyd and racism occurred, this classroom environment of addressing difficult topics, provided a safe place for the 6th grader to share her anger and fear, including for her father’s life. At one point, the teacher addressed the whole class:
I never want any of you to forget this moment. You were seeing a raw and real emotion, if you are not African American you will never know how it feels, but I need you to empathize with this. What are we going to do with this? When you don’t have a voice, is when violence erupts.
As a response, students wrote letters; it was a way to do something.
Building partnerships with people and groups outside of the school community is one of Lippman’s hallmarks. The school has deep, personal connections with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a K-6 school in China. The school works with local entities such as the Summit County Historical Society, Kent State University, Akron Public Schools, and even Akron City and Summit County Councils. These collaborations and partnerships enrich the experience of all involved and make the learning experiential and multi-cultural.
What can we do next?
Sam Chestnut, Head of The Lippman School, shares this challenge:
We utter a call for action, a new way of thinking and being, for Jewish day schools to provide families raising Jewish children with the skills, language, values, and sensitivities to be contributing members of the larger society, global world while being deeply rooted in Jewish learning and living.
We call for this as a long-awaited response to examine white privilege and racism among Jews. We vouch for the richness of a pedagogy of kvod habriyut, respect for all living beings, a multicultural approach. We vouch that a school filled with students from a wide range of races, ethnicities, and backgrounds can produce committed, literate, involved Jews who are also well-prepared to navigate and contribute to a world filled with diversity. We advocate for this model to transform Jewish day schools in a model reflective of the 21st century.
Dr. Roberta Louis Goodman, consultant to The Lippman School, has done extensive work evaluating and consulting with Jewish early childhood schools as well as TLS with diverse, multi-cultural student and parent populations. She has identified opportunities and possibilities a diverse population brings for Jewish schools in terms of enrollment, curriculum, and the larger community/society. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Chestnut, Head of The Lippman School brought this vision of a multi-cultural experience to enrich Jewish learning and living, 10 years ago when he took on this leadership role, email@example.com
For more information about the mutli-cultural approach, see “Kvod Habriyut: How Multiculturalism can transform Jewish Day Schools,” Roberta Louis Goodman and Ed Frim, Hayidion, Fall 2019.