No Ashkenormativity

JIMENA launches new tool kit for day schools to better teach, include Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry

With a grant from the Covenant Foundation, the organization built a new website full of resources and recommendations for teachers, staff and families

Does your Jewish day school expect students to understand Yiddish terms? When learning about Jewish practices, which customs and traditions are discussed? What does “Jewish food” look like at your school?

These are some of the questions that JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa poses to Jewish day schools as the first stage — a self-assessment — in its Sephardi & Mizrahi Education Toolkit, a new guide released on Thursday offering “content, resources, and strategies” to better teach Sephardi and Mizrahi culture and history and to make students of all backgrounds feel more welcomed and included.

“What Israeli artists do students learn about? What melodies are used in Tefillah? How are holiday programs structured?” Ty Alhadeff, JIMENA’s director of education and its Sephardi Leadership Institute, said in a statement. “To meet the needs of Jewish families today — and to celebrate our history and people in their entirety — schools must embrace this type of change.”

The online tool kit was created with a $50,000 signature grant from the Covenant Foundation.

Following the self-assessment, the tool kit offers teachers a variety of resources and ideas for ways to integrate Sephardi and Mizrahi culture and history in the classroom, including source sheets of Sephardi religious texts, recommended activities — for Purim, play Ladino music and eat foulares and biscochos (traditional Sephardic pastries) — and even short biographies of Sephardi and Mizrahi scientists that can be taught in STEM classes.

“While our schools have become more diverse, many day schools have long been rooted in Ashkenazi culture and do not yet reflect the full diversity of the Jewish people,” Elana Riback Rand, who edited the toolkit, said in a statement. “Broadening the curricular scope of Jewish experiences will help more students and families feel represented and valued, and students will then be better set up for academic success.”

According to the 2020 Pew study of American Jews, at least 10% identify as Sephardi, Mizrahi or having mixed-Ashekanzi-Sephardi/Ashkenazi heritage. Yet JIMENA believes — based for now on anecdotal data — that Sephardi and Mizrahi students are overrepresented in Jewish day schools.

“Sephardic and Mizrahi families and students have high enrollment in Jewish schools,” JIMENA’s executive director, Sarah Levin, told eJP in June. “But the schools were built and the curriculum was created at a time when Jewish life was ‘Ashkenormative’ – Ashkenazi Jews catering to Ashkenazi Jews. And there’s a need for the schools to meet the current needs of their student populations.” 

In addition to the resources for teachers, JIMENA’s new tool kit includes recommendations for administrators, lay leaders and families. 

“There are broad stroke strategies in here but also very concrete curricular recommendations and policy suggestions,” Levin said. “Taken together, schools will be able to provide students with a more expansive and more accurate understanding of Jews throughout the world and in the United States in particular.”