The Lippman School and The Northern Cheyenne Nation – a Paradigm-shifting Educational Partnership

By Sam Chestnut and Rabbi Lee Moore

What do the Jewish community of Akron, Ohio and The Northern Cheyenne have in common? We each struggle with how to transmit our cultural heritage and a sense of peoplehood – to our young people.

When Jewish students from The Lippman School visit the Northern Cheyenne Nation in their homeland, they witness a people determined to remain in the land that is sacred to them. Northern Cheyenne prophets and leaders built a great nation there, have survived genocide and persecution, and are beginning to thrive again – seemingly against all odds. Sound familiar?

When Northern Cheyenne students visit the Jewish community of Akron, they learn about the ways in which a people in diaspora have developed mechanisms to maintain cultural identity, and yet continue to struggle to transmit their tradition in an increasingly diverse and distracted society. What can we all learn from this?

For the last three years, these two tribes have hosted each other to share our cultures and learn together. We ask 8th grade participants to present to each other on topics such as: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Northern Cheyenne? What are our defining historical events? What are our core religious practices? Core values? What do we have in common, and where do we differ? We use this practice of cultural mirroring to support each other and to deeply understand who we are as individuals and as a community.

The Jewish students, who visit Israel in alternating years, make important connections to their history. As they visit Deer Medicine Rock, where Sitting Bull’s vision prophesized the defeat of General Custer, and then hear from the elders whose great-grandparents triumphed on that day, they can understand the wisdom of their own patriarchs/matriarchs, prophets and sages in new ways. As they see a tribe functioning to maintain sacred tradition, ritual and language – even at times when such things were outlawed by the ruling power (the U.S. government) and forced underground – they can connect with countless experiences in Jewish history when communities worked together to keep traditions alive.

Not only have the students been inspired to learn, teach, and re-examine their own practices, histories and traditions, but the many adults who have participated in this cross-cultural identity empowerment program have grown as well. Through “mirroring,” sharing in parallel as we encounter the other, we learn about – and become proud of – ourselves and our own stories. As partners, our role is to bear witness to the wisdom we see in each other’s traditions and reflect them back to each other.

Cosmopolitan Jewish Education, Reframing Tikkun Olam

An eJP article by Ben Jacobs points to the strong need for Jews to not ignore other cultures but learn to engage with them as global citizens of the 21st century.  He calls it ‘Cosmopolitan Jewish Education’ and this cultural exchange program models one effective and compelling approach.

If cross-cultural empowerment weren’t enough of a benefit from the project, students are also learning and internalizing a model for social justice, or tikkun olam, work that goes well beyond bake sales, and even micro-grants. There is no doubt that the Northern Cheyenne students have more economic needs than The Lippman School students. Beyond sending art supplies to their school, or even donations, we are forging real relationships and understanding – a crucial element that must underscore all true empowerment work. One cannot ignore the significant social justice issues the Northern Cheyenne are working to reverse: 60% unemployment on their reservation, struggles with substance abuse, the on-going effects of racism and cultural oppression. This program demonstrates that effective work to repair our world begins with bearing witness to the struggles communities face. The right solutions elevate Northern Cheyenne culture instead of trying to replace it. Tikkun olam, as the mystics understood it, demands that one must first understand the “world” that one seeks to repair, and then, to act as a partner to help repair it from within. In this project, tikkun olam work is about transformational learning and healing, not providing band aid solutions for complex challenges.

While this partnership is unique, built on the long relationship of the Head of School’s family and the Northern Cheyenne nation – and the ensuing strong bonds of trust, we challenge other Jewish communities to seriously consider partnering with indigenous communities. There are tremendous benefits to learning from and with those who know what it is to be a tribe, and who struggle with keeping the riches of their traditions alive in our current milieu, which is so geared toward instant gratification.

To learn more about this cutting edge approach to both cultural empowerment and tikkun olam work in day schools, contact Sam Chestnut, Head of The Lippman School, schestnut@thelippmanschool.org or Rabbi Lee Moore, Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, lee@lippmankanfer.org. This educational model was recognized this fall by The Slingshot Fund, underscoring growing interest from those looking to share the work of institutions committed to Jewish innovation. The Lippman School is only the second Jewish Day School to receive this distinction over the 10 year history of the Slingshot Guide.