The Big Jewish Question on My Mind:
Talking About Race in Our Jewish Day Schools
By Benjamin Mann
[This is the first in a five-part series on “Big Questions on Our Jewish Minds,” featuring alumni of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), part of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education JTS. You can join our series’ authors in conversation at the “Big Jewish Questions on Our Minds” session during the Prizmah Jewish Day School Conference coming up in March in Atlanta, Georgia.]
I was worried and not sure how to respond to the open letter posted on my school’s Parents’ Association listserv in March 2016. It was from a parent of a student of color, who was expressing her anger and sadness about the curriculum at Schechter Manhattan, the school at which I am the head. While she focused on the school not marking Black History Month that February, she also raised a deeper question about whether we accepted a narrative of history that was without people of color. She challenged me, and the school community, to engage in conversations about race, and suggested we were avoiding this important and morally charged topic because within our predominantly White school such discourse made us feel uncomfortable.
She was certainly right about being uncomfortable. I was feeling what I have learned many White people feel when asked to confront race – uncertain about what to say and worried that whatever I said would be hurtful, or worse, outright racist. I was not practiced at having such conversations about race. In the 20 years I had been a Jewish day school educator, the primary identity marker that inspired me was Jewish identity. Nurturing positive Jewish identity in my students was at the core of my educational aspirations, and I had spent a lot of time, thought, and energy on creating learning communities that offer students opportunities to connect to their Jewishness. But I didn’t think much about race. The predominantly White Ashkenazi schools I taught in and led did not include much racial diversity and (until recently) I cannot remember any open conversations with colleagues about how race played out in our schools.
Looking back, I can see that in fact those schools did include people of color, including colleagues on the school staff, students, and their parents, and it seems likely that those people thought a lot about race. Of course, issues of race have been prevalent in America throughout my life and career. So why was race as a societal and educational issue invisible to me for so long?
Over the last few years I have been grappling with that question (and many others) as I engage in dialogue with Schechter Manhattan parents and colleagues about our approach to race. In addition to conversations I had with caring parents and members of the faculty, in my own professional development work, I have reached out to experts in the field of race in education, reading a variety of sources on the subject, and attending workshops for educators. This process of exploration led me to new understandings and compelled me to think about my racial identity as it relates to my experience as a Jewish educator.
It seems to me that I didn’t think or talk about race because I am White, so I didn’t have to. In not having to address my race, or other people’s race, in my daily life, I benefit from living in a culture where being White offers advantages. This advantage of not engaging with race was reinforced for me at a meeting of the Ma’yan Social Justice Educators Group. A Black presenter shared her relationship to talking and thinking about race, noting that it is a relationship she cannot even for one day avoid, while I have the ability to opt out of the conversation. There is actually no opting out though, because the advantage I am accorded to ignore race is correlated to racism that puts people of color at a disadvantage.
Why is talking about race important for our students and Jewish day school communities? First, our Jewish beliefs underscore that all human beings are created in the image of God, btselem elohim, and as such deserve to be treated with caring and respect. The value of btselem elohim calls on us to surface our biases and see past cultural blinders to the holiness within each human being.
Second, we believe in klal yisrael, maintaining positive and supportive relationships with Jews of all sorts, and our Jewish community is racially diverse. According to the American Jewish Population Project of the Steinhardt Social Research at Brandeis University, around 11 percent of Jews in the United States are people of color. Our commitment to klal yisrael compels us to create Jewish communities where all of us are welcomed, seen, and valued.
Talking about race in Jewish day schools is also important as we prepare our students for the world in which they live. Our society is racially diverse and full of racial discord. We aspire for our students to be both successful in a diverse society and agents of change towards a more inclusive, less racist world. Our graduates will be better equipped to navigate the complications of race that surround us if they have the opportunity to think and talk about the implications of race for themselves and others.
I have worked the last couple of years with the faculty and parents of Schechter Manhattan, and amazing partners including Be’chol Lashon, to think deeply about what we believe about racial diversity and inclusion, and what content, concepts, skills, and values we hope our students will gain about race and racism. The Conversations About Race committee of the Schechter Manhattan Parents’ Association has led conversations about race among parents and a cohort of Schechter Manhattan teachers has identified racial diversity and inclusion as their primary professional development area. This work is hard and it still makes me feel uncomfortable at times. That said, I am grateful to that brave parent who shared her experience publicly, and urged me and our community to start talking about the important issue of race in our school.
Benjamin Mann is Head of School at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, an alumnus of the Day School Leadership Institute (DSLTI), part of the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson School of JTS, and also an Executive Doctoral Candidate at the William Davidson School.