At Schechter Manhattan, we share Emma Bronznick Goldberg’s conviction that Jewish educational environments needs new ways of talking, acting and educating about race in America as one component of a broader and more inclusive education. We aspire for 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.
To do that, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we need to help our students see beyond the Civil Rights era narratives that Bronznick Goldberg refers to, and even beyond public displays of hate by avowed white supremacists today, 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.
Over the last two years we’ve embarked on that process. This work toward becoming more inclusive and racially aware was initially sparked by input from parents of color in our school, and the current events have widened the spectrum of our community that feel its urgency. It continues to be supported by our partnership 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.
We’ve started by asking ourselves, as teachers, some hard questions. What do we hope our students — both the majority of them, who are white, and the smaller number of Jews of color among them — 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 our students the opportunity to explore these questions?
These are challenging questions. But 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.
Schechter Manhattan teachers who participated in the Be’chol Lashon workshops are asking a further set of questions about our work as educators, questions like, “How do we create spaces and opportunities in our school to notice or talk about race?” “How can this be discussed in a natural and more authentic way in a predominantly White Jewish school?” and “How do I take opportunities to talk meaningfully about race with young children?” Parallel to and in addition to the work of the faculty, Schechter Manhattan parents are also taking action to think together about what they hope to teach their children about race and racism.
I know that this process has led me to see many Jewish settings in new ways. I suspect that the same is true of my colleagues, and that their consciousness about the educational importance of talking about race will help them to take advantage of opportunities for learning that they did not see before.
Certainly, racial awareness is just 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 in Jewish day schools so important. Our students, our Jewish community, and our broader community all need us to work towards anti-racist Jewish day school communities, and in so doing to express our Jewish obligations to care for others and and to pursue justice.