After George Floyd was killed in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and protests and demonstrations spread across the country, students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland also came out found upset.
Many of the school’s roughly 900 students, including a few who are black, were asking questions about police brutality and systemic racism in American society. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the school’s principal, wanted to make sure these issues were encouraged rather than silenced or ignored.
This is one of the reasons Charles E. Smith School decided over the winter to enroll in a unique race and school culture initiative created by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.
As a first step in what is envisioned as a multi-layered, multi-year approach to help schools foster greater diversity, equity and inclusion, educators from approximately 40 schools met five times online over the course of a month to trainings focused on overcoming implicit biases, why fairness in the workplace matters, and how schools can create a welcoming climate for discussions about race.
“One of our core values is that all people are created in the image of God and should 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 a better place through tikkun olam. And it’s important for us to participate with other Jewish day schools who share these values to have that conversation – even though it can be an uncomfortable conversation at times.
The strong interest in Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive reflects the growing attention to issues of race and social equity among educators and students in Jewish schools.
“It’s not just a conversation that has come and gone in a matter of weeks when it was a hot topic,” Prizmah CEO Paul Bernstein said. “This has been an ongoing conversation for Jewish educators, and with recent events that have raised the temperature on these issues, there has also been a very strong undercurrent from the students themselves as they begin to see themselves as the leaders of tomorrow.”
The initial five sessions of Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive, which took place 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; tackling implicit biases; learn about currently successful anti-racism programs in Jewish schools; and mapping ways to advance work in these areas that is already underway.
Beyond these initial sessions, each participating school works with a consultant to continue the effort, and lay and professional school leaders join collaborative working groups to advance their work on race and school culture. with specific, goal-oriented next steps. These groups focus on topics that include creating a professional development program on race and school culture for teachers; teaching about identity, prejudice and race in elementary school; and identify interdisciplinary curricular resources on race and equity. Prizmah also offers a peer-to-peer professional development community to share resources, ask questions, and celebrate successes related to race and school culture.
“The urgency of this work cannot be overstated,” said Tonda Case, a diversity, equity and inclusion professional working with Prizmah on the project.
“How do we do the work of co-creating a world that is based on fairness 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 colored Jew. “How can 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 the institutions, systems, Jewish language, rituals, and cultural norms that organically hold together all of who we are while maintaining the integrity of our beautiful and blessed difference?
The main funders of the Prizmah project are the Jim Joseph Foundation, the 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 time when our country takes our legacy of racial injustice more seriously than it has in decades, the Jewish community must face up to its own responsibilities, both to Jews of color and within the of our broader national commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for all Americans,” said Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
Steve Freedman, principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, New Jersey, which has 415 students, said his school is participating in the Race and School Culture initiative to help get guidance to take better decisions about how to teach children.
“It’s a complicated time we live in. We’re dealing with complex issues, so we want the collective wisdom of different experts in the field to help us,” Freedman said. “We explored these questions at Schechter for many years, dealing with the larger issue of race and discrimination using our own experience as Jews.”
Years ago, the school began reviewing its library and curriculum to ensure students studying history and civics heard multiple voices — an approach inspired by Jewish tradition, Freedman said. .
“To be 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 is true of our own heroes in American history. We must not be afraid to teach honestly children and help them think critically.”
Tikvah Wiener, principal of IDEA School in Tenafly, New Jersey, a project-based Modern Orthodox high school that opened in 2018 and now has 51 students, said addressing racial justice issues makes integral part of the program.
During its first two years, the school ran a “justice and righteousness” program that used Talmudic texts to show how Judaism cared about seeking justice. For the next year, Wiener and his team are working with experts to design a program that weaves together the history of American slavery and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Students will interview survivors and descendants of both horrors, Wiener said.
“We will inevitably make mistakes and we will have to learn from them, but by providing us with information and resources, schools can then decide how they will start, continue and grow racial justice work and be there for each other. “Wiener said. She quoted a well-known Jewish aphorism from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to finish the job, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
In addition to the 40 Jewish schools participating in the initiative, many of the more than 300 Jewish day schools in the Prizmah network do their own work in educational programs related to equity, diversity and inclusion.
The Portland Jewish Academy, a community day school in Oregon with about 180 students, began working on diversity issues several years ago, reviewing everything from its printed teaching materials to its wall art, teachers language used to educate students and the design of the school to ensure inclusion. .
The school also brought in educators from the Jewish Museum of Oregon and the 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 in the Pacific Northwest.
“Our students are activists who express themselves and their passions in a variety of ways, including attending protests, researching and teaching about important causes, and going out into the community to feed the hungry,” said the school’s principal, Merrill Hendin. “Our goal is to send mensches out into the world – whether that’s at the age of 3 or 14 – and we’re doing everything we can to achieve that.”
Debra Shaffer Seeman, director of networking at Prizmah, said while many schools are already doing this work on their own, there is an urgent need to address inequalities in the Jewish community and beyond.
“Why are we doing this? Because educators at Jewish day schools and yeshiva feel a deep sense of responsibility to their students, including instilling in them their own sense of responsibility to the world around them,” Seeman said. “We can best serve the next generation by instilling in them the value and responsibility to better themselves and the world.”