Leaning Toward Inclusive, Racially Aware Jewish Day Schools
White supremacists and neo-Nazis marched this summer through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. They ostensibly protested the removal of a monument honoring a Confederate general, yet their chants of “Jews will not replace us” suggested a broader agenda of hate. What will we, as Jewish educators, tell our students about such public expressions of racism mixed with anti-Semitism? What impact should such terrifying expressions of hate have specifically on us, on our educational and religious aspirations, and on our Jewish day school communities and our students?
As a day school leader at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, I am compelled to respond to these events by creating learning communities and experiences that will prepare my students to be successful in a racially and ethnically diverse world. I hope to empower them to be positive agents for change that will help lead us toward a more just society. To do that, my colleagues and I need to help our students see beyond public displays of hate by avowed white supremacists to more easily ignored systems that perpetuate racism. We need to start with our own predominantly White, Ashkenazi school community, where a “colorblind” approach to education risks perpetuating false assumptions about American and Jewish culture and history—such as the implicit and explicit message that being White is the norm against which individual and ethnic value is measured.
We must start talking about race. We should ask ourselves:
- What do we hope our students will understand about their racial identities?
- What do we want them to think and feel about racism when they encounter it?
- Why doesn’t our school community reflect the racial diversity of the larger Jewish community of New York City?
- How does what we do at school offer them the opportunity to explore these questions?
Our Jewish values compel us to talk about race. We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim) and, as such, deserve to be treated with care and respect. This value calls on us to bring our biases to the surface and see past cultural blinders to the holiness within each human being. We also believe in klal Yisrael, maintaining positive and supportive relationships with Jews of all sorts. The Jewish community is racially diverse. According to the American Jewish Population Project of the Steinhardt Social Research at Brandeis University, at least 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.
At Schechter Manhattan, we are taking steps to examine our racial knowledge, increase our inclusiveness, and implement efforts to be an anti-racist institution. We have partnered with Be’chol Lashon—an organization that provides opportunities for Jewish professionals to actively engage in conversations about race, ethnicity, and identity in the context of Jews as a multicultural people in America—to help us plan professional development workshops for our teachers so that they can:
- Think about their own racial identities;
- Analyze the politics of race in America;
- Raise awareness of race in a Jewish context; and
- Create an environment of inquiry and openness to talk and encourage discussions about race and its impact on individuals and the community.
Our hope is to open up avenues for Schechter Manhattan teachers to think critically about our curricular and instructional decisions through the lens of what we hope our students will understand about race.
I want Schechter Manhattan to be an anti-racist Jewish day school, one in which students and faculty have opportunities to consider their racial identity, where the racial diversity of the Jewish community is reflected and valued, and where graduates have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be successful in a racially diverse world and to be positive agents of change toward a more just society.
Our racial awareness work is also happening among our parents. Last year a group of parents stepped forward to lead a Conversations About Race Committee to discuss how they talk with their children about race in their lives. At one event, parents shared personal stories of how they talked about race growing up, in their family and community contexts, and then considered ways they can talk to their own children about race and racism. The dialogue brought both sadness and frustration, as well as a commitment to growth in racial awareness. The committee continues to disseminate useful information to Schechter Manhattan parents and plans to have more opportunities for parents to learn together.
Certainly, racial awareness is but one of many intersecting aspects of our students’ lives. This specific work must be integrated within our broader mission to nurture young people with strongly grounded Jewish identities. But it is our aspiration to inculcate Jewish values and inspire our students to make Jewish commitments that makes teaching them about race and racism so important. We should be leading toward anti-racist Jewish day school communities because it is an expression of our Jewish obligations to care for others and pursue justice.
When anti-Semitic hatred is spread by white supremacists, I am reminded of how important those obligations are. Let’s use this critical moment in time to compel us to make our day schools more race conscious so we can root out racism wherever it exists.
Benjamin Mann is the head of school of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. For nine years, Ben worked as the head of middle school and Jewish studies coordinator at Schechter Manhattan. Prior to that he taught humash and served as middle school coordinator of special services and Judaic studies curriculum at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. Ben is currently pursuing doctoral studies at The Davidson School and is a DSLTI alum.