By Larry Luxner
After George Floyd was killed in May at the hands of Minneapolis police, and protests and demonstrations spread around the country, students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, found themselves upset, too.
Many of the school’s 900 or so students, including a few who are Black, were asking questions about police brutality and systemic racism in American society. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of the school, wanted to ensure those questions were encouraged rather than silenced or ignored.
That’s one of the reasons the Charles E. Smith school decided over the winter to enroll in a unique initiative on race and school culture created by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.
As a first step in what is envisioned as a multilayer, multiyear approach to help schools foster greater diversity, equity and inclusion, educators from about 40 schools gathered five times online over the course of a month for trainings focused on overcoming implicit bias, why equity work is important and how schools can create a welcoming climate for discussions on race.
“One of our core values is that all people are created in God’s image and are to be treated with respect,” Malkus said. “We Jews have experienced thousands of years of persecution, so we feel we have an obligation to make the world better through tikkun olam. And it’s important for us to participate with other Jewish day schools that share those values in having that conversation — even though it can sometimes be an uncomfortable conversation.”
The strong interest in Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive is reflective of the increasing attention to matters of race and social equity among Jewish day school educators — and students.
“This isn’t just a conversation that came and went in a few weeks when it was a hot topic,” said Prizmah CEO Paul Bernstein. “This has been an ongoing conversation for Jewish educators, and with recent events raising the temperature on these issues, there was also a very strong groundswell from the students themselves as they begin to see themselves as the leaders of tomorrow.”
The five initial sessions in Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive, which ran in February and March, focused on continuing to build a culture and community of change; strategies for building a diverse Jewish community, including welcoming Jews of color; addressing implicit bias; learning about current successful anti-racism programs in Jewish schools; and mapping out ways to advance work in these areas that is already underway.
Beyond those initial sessions, each participating school is working with a consultant to further the effort, and lay and professional school leaders are joining collaborative working groups to move their race and school culture work forward with specific, goal-oriented next steps. Those groups are focused on topics that include creating a professional development agenda on race and school culture for faculty; teaching about identity, bias and race in elementary school; and identifying interdisciplinary curricular resources on race and equity. Prizmah also offers a peer-to-peer professional development community for sharing resources, asking questions and celebrating successes related to race and school culture.
“The urgency of this work cannot be overstated,” said Tonda Case, a professional on diversity, equity and inclusion working with Prizmah on the project.
“How do we do the work of co-creating a world that holds at its core equity and justice? For our children, our elders and ourselves, how do we reframe our experience of ‘the other’ by coming to see all human beings as a different version of ourselves?” asked Case, who is a Jew of color. “How do we deeply root our work — emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually — in our Jewish belief that each of us is created ‘b’tzelem elokim,’ in the image of God, and recreate Jewish institutions, systems, language, rituals and cultural norms that hold organically the whole of who we are while maintaining the integrity of our beautiful and blessed difference?”
The primary funders of the Prizmah project are the Jim Joseph Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Crown Family Philanthropies, which have partnered to fund the program for at least three years, according to Bernstein.
“At a moment when our country is reckoning more seriously with our legacy of racial injustice than it has in decades, the Jewish community must confront our own responsibilities, both to Jews of color and as part of our broader national commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for all Americans,” Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, said.
Steve Freedman, head of the 415-student Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, New Jersey, said his school is taking part in the Race and School Culture initiative to help get guidance in making better decisions about how to teach children.
“This is a complicated time we’re living in. We’re facing complex issues, so we want the collective wisdom of different experts in the field to help us,” Freedman said. “We’ve been exploring these issues at Schechter for many years, dealing with the broader issue of race and discrimination using our own experience as Jews.”
Years ago the school began examining its library and curriculum to make sure that students studying history and civics were hearing multiple voices — an approach informed by Jewish tradition, Freedman said.
“Being human is to be messy,” Freedman said. “Our biblical heroes all contributed significantly to the betterment of civilization, and yet they were all flawed. The same goes for our own heroes of American history. We must not be afraid to teach kids honestly and help them think critically.”
Tikvah Wiener, head of The IDEA School in Tenafly, New Jersey, a Modern Orthodox, project-based learning high school that opened in 2018 and now has 51 students, said that addressing racial justice issues is an integral part of the curriculum.
In its first two years, the school ran a “justice and righteousness” curriculum that used Talmudic texts to show how Judaism is concerned with seeking justice. For next year, Wiener and her team are working with experts to design a curriculum that weaves together the history of American slavery and the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. The students will interview survivors and descendants of both horrors, Wiener said.
“We will inevitably make mistakes and need to learn from them, but by providing us with information and resources, schools can then decide how they will start, continue and develop racial justice work and be there for each other,” Wiener said. She cited a well-known Jewish aphorism from a Mishna in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Aside from the 40 Jewish schools participating in the initiative, many more of the over 300 Jewish day schools in the Prizmah network are doing their own work in educational programming related to equity, diversity and inclusion.
Portland Jewish Academy, a community day school in Oregon with about 180 students, began working on diversity issues several years ago, examining everything from its print educational materials to its wall art, the language teachers used to educate students and the facility’s layout to ensure inclusion.
The school also brought in educators from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education to work with students and adults on issues of racism and discrimination. Over the winter, 12 middle-school students participated in a three-day diversity workshop for students across the Pacific Northwest.
“Our students are activists who express themselves and their passions in a number of different ways, including attending protests, researching and teaching about important causes, and going into the community to feed the hungry,” school principal Merrill Hendin said. “Our goal is to send mensches out into the world — whether at the age of 3 or 14 — and we are doing whatever we can to accomplish that.”
Debra Shaffer Seeman, Prizmah’s director of network weaving, said that though many schools were already doing this work on their own, there is new urgency to addressing inequity in the Jewish community and beyond.
“Why are we doing this? Because Jewish day school and yeshiva educators feel a deep sense of responsibility for their students, including instilling their own sense of responsibility for the world around them,” Seeman said. “We can best serve the next generation by instilling in them the value and responsibility to improve themselves and the world.”
This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Prizmah, the network for Jewish day schools across North America. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.