Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
When Juicy Couture closed its doors this summer I felt a certain schadenfreude. While I attended Ramaz High School, a modern Orthodox prep school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, there was nothing I wanted more than an $80 Juicy Couture zip-up.
During our morning prayers, my classmates walked down the aisle that ran through the girls’ side of mechitza showing off designer knee-length jean skirts and soft cotton blouses. I eyed the visible labels with envy.
Wealth was noticeable at Ramaz in students’ references to ski vacations, Hamptons beach houses, family lineage at elite universities (albeit a short lineage due to Jewish quotas at universities) and in their last names, which were recognizable for libraries their families had donated. For girls, there was an added expectation to look pretty, which often involved scrupulous grooming and expensive clothing.
Despite the high visibility of wealth and material consumption, teachers and administrators never addressed the subject of money. I rarely heard students discuss money among themselves, even those like me who received need-based scholarships. It wasn’t until college that I realized how few Americans had the amount of wealth that I assumed was the norm.
I had a hunch that not much had changed in the nine years since I attended Ramaz. Last year I started working at Ma’yan, an organization that works with teenage girls, parents and educators to examine social justice issues through a feminist lens. Ma’yan’s flagship program, the Research Training Internship (RTI), allows our teen interns to conduct their own research project on social issues. RTI workshops encourage interns to examine the tensions they experience as a result of the intersections between their different identities: between being Jewish and their gender, race and sexual orientations.
When I sit in on these workshops I often find that I can closely relate to the interns’ experiences. Many of our students attend Jewish or private high schools in Manhattan. During a workshop on class privilege, students from both private, secular schools and Jewish Day Schools spoke about their discomfort with unacknowledged tension surrounding wealth and income inequality at school. Intern Maya Rubin commented:
I go to a New York City private school where many of the kids have a lot of money, but there are also many who don’t and receive financial aid. The wealthier kids are all friends and the kids with financial aid are all friends. Even when we were in the sixth grade, there was a big class divide. Who told eleven-year-olds who had money and who didn’t? How did they know to only be friends with others of their class background?
Other interns spoke about their frustration with classmates who skipped classes to get their hair and or nails done, displaying an unfair sense of entitlement. Yet there was an undercurrent sympathy for these salon-going girls, who while wealthy and privileged, face the same pressure to conform to beauty standards as women and girls of other race and class backgrounds.
If the experience of feeling sidelined or uncomfortable about money in private high school is common, why is it so rarely addressed at school? The New York Times recently ran a story about new initiatives at elite New York high schools to address white privilege and explore identity politics. Schools such as Dalton, Collegiate and Friends Seminary, are encouraging students to tackle the concept of their own privilege.
I wondered about the unique implications of exploring power and privilege in the New York Jewish world. The conflicting state of holding some power and experiencing oppression is applicable to women of high socioeconomic status as well as to many American Jews.
Money and power are taboo subjects in our culture and they are especially fraught in the context of American Jewish communities. Many of us fear that acknowledging Jewish wealth in America provides fodder to anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews who use their power for exploitation.
A 2013 Pew study revealed what many of us might have already suspected: that American Jews are a largely well-educated, high-income group. A quarter of American Jews report having a family income of more than $150,000.
However this study and its methodology should be looked at critically. Contrary to anti-Semitic stereotypes, Jews make up a small concentration of American wealth overall.
Anti-Semitism informs our understanding of wealth among Jewish Americans, making it difficult for Jews to talk about money and class privilege. Discussing this intersection of class privilege and anti-Semitism may actually be the best way to begin a conversation about the complexities of power and oppression. Young people can begin to see the importance of understanding the oppression of other marginalized groups by learning about how it has affected their own lives.
We all have a responsibility to examine our position in a society with persisting economic inequality. Jewish high schools are a place where Jewish communities can begin to address the topics of money, class and privilege.
In an era when elite, secular private schools are beginning to examine the subject of privilege, it is important that students at Jewish schools can participate in the conversation. This means developing workshops and curricula that break silence around the topic of class and address inequalities in America and within the Jewish community.
The majority of Jewish day school students go on to secular universities where they are often forced to re-evaluate their Jewish identity in the context of a diverse, new environment. Yet issues of power differentials emerge long before college, within mostly white, wealthy Jewish worlds. We can develop resources to involve students in conversation about privilege long before college, at a time when youth are beginning to make sense of how the world works around them and what kind of role they will play in the future.