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With federation funding, JIMENA launching new study of Sephardi and Mizrahi students N.Y. Jewish day schools

Organization also due to start similar initiative in L.A. as part of efforts to better understand communal needs

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, more commonly known by its acronym JIMENA, is launching a new effort to assess Jewish day schools in the New York City area as a first step toward making them more inclusive toward “Sephardic and Mizrahi students, history, and culture,” the organization said.

The project is being supported by UJA-Federation of New York with a $25,000 grant, JIMENA’s executive director, Sarah Levin, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

For JIMENA, the goals of this project are both immediate – to better understand Jewish day schools in order to develop and implement new curricula, policies and programs – and part of a long-term strategy by the San Francisco-based organization to expand its reach and impact, moving away from single events and toward broader culture shifts, according to Levin.

“It is very much reflective of the shifts that JIMENA has made these last few years, we have really pivoted away from front-facing events and lectures and events that are one-off, where people come and they experience Sephardic and Mizrahi life and then they leave,” Levin said. “Our interest right now is in creating cultural shifts in the Jewish community. And this is a perfect way for us to sort of start doing that work in New York.”

Levin said the organization was now in the process of recruiting a consultant who will run the assessment. Once that person begins, Levin expects it will take roughly eight months for them to complete the study.

“We’re doing an exploratory assessment. So the methodology will probably start with a deep dive into five schools that are strategically chosen. And then from there, a survey will be designed by the consultant that will be distributed to at least 10 more schools in New York and probably more like 15 to 20 more schools in New York,” Levin said.

Levin said JIMENA is in the process of launching a similar but larger assessment in Los Angeles. Though talks between her organization and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are nearing completion, the paperwork for it has yet to be signed, she said.

According to Levin, both of these initiatives were driven by a real dearth of firm data about Mizrahi and Sephardic students in Jewish day schools and in the Jewish community in general.

“All of the data that we have is anecdotal because there really hasn’t been much research conducted on these subjects. We’re hoping that these assessments will give us some information that we didn’t have before,” Levin said.

JIMENA, which was formed over 20 years ago, has until now worked without this kind of concrete quantitative research. When UJA-Federation of New York reached out to them a little less than a year ago about a potential partnership, they intended to do the same, Levin said.

“Our instinct is to just jump right into the work. What we did with UJA was have a number of conversations, and they asked us to take a step back,” she said. “They support us doing different types of interventions and leading trainings in Jewish day schools. But first, they wanted to conduct an assessment of 20 Jewish day schools in New York to find out what their needs, challenges and opportunities are around building schools that are more inclusive of Sephardic and Mizrahi students and families and what their content needs are.”

Based on some existing anecdotal data from schools that track students’ heritages, Levin said that Sephardic and Mizrahi children appear to be more likely to attend Jewish day school than average, yet many of those schools were founded at a time when that was not necessarily the case.

“Sephardic and Mizrahi families and students have high enrollment in Jewish schools, 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,” Levin said. 

“There are examples of programs that have emerged of teachers who have taken it upon themselves to create shifts in school culture, but the schools need a much deeper intervention than that. And the first thing we need in order to design those interventions is good data, good information,” she said.