HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Professional Development Towards Becoming an Anti-Racist Jewish Day School

by Benjamin Mann Issue: In These Times Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan

Asking Race Questions

“Where are the Jews of color?” I asked myself as I sat in an auditorium full of Jewish educators. The daylong conference was focused on civics education in Jewish educational settings and drew hundreds of Jewish educators from throughout the New York area. And as I looked around, I noticed we were mostly, almost entirely, white.

I thought about how there was probably more cultural diversity in the group than I could see, perhaps Jews from Sephardic or Mizrahi backgrounds, Jews by choice, or people with a variety of Jewish journeys that brought them to the conference. We know that 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. But if there was racial diversity in the room, I could not see it.

The first conference speaker introduced the topic by describing America as a place where diversity and pluralism are elevated as intrinsic values and aspirations. As I listened, I asked myself, “What would Native Americans think of that characterization? Or African Americans?” And then, in a moment of introspection, I realized that I was asking questions I never asked before and seeing things in new ways. Just a couple of years ago, I would not have thought about the racial makeup of a conference or the place of racism in American society.

These questions, new to me though not really new, reflect the work we have been doing at Schechter Manhattan to become an inclusive, racially aware school. I 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. I believe that this work starts with our Jewish values: that all human beings are created in God’s image and deserve to be treated with caring and respect.

Teachers with racial awareness can provide students with learning opportunities to address issues of race that arise in society and in their classrooms, thereby helping the students see things that otherwise remain hidden to them: racial diversity in the Jewish people, holiness in each and every human being, and systems of racial discrimination that devalue some people’s innate worth. With this in mind, at Schechter Manhattan we have tried to raise race questions through professional development for teachers.

Planning Professional Development

Doing this work in a predominantly white, Ashkenazi Jewish day school is hard, since many of us are not practiced at talking openly about race. So in the 2017-2018 school year we 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. We invited them to help us plan and implement professional development workshops for all Schechter Manhattan teachers.

The Schechter Manhattan faculty participated in half-day workshops in November 2017 and January 2018 with the goals of expanding our awareness of Jews as a diverse multicultural people, practicing active listening and speaking with awareness, and growing in comfort with talking about race and identity. These seem like modest goals, as they don’t yet approach curricular change or teaching practice. Before we could discuss how we will talk with our students about racial diversity and inclusion, we had to give our teachers the opportunity to explore their own perspectives and perceptions of their racial identities. Talking about race required each participant to draw upon his or her life experiences, beliefs and feelings. As such, this professional development can feel high risk, asking teachers to step out of comfort zones.

The activities we engaged with during the workshops with Be’chol Lashon started with the personal. An initial activity asked participants to consider how they identify themselves and how others perceive them. In a session about bias, participants shared the messages about race and identity they got from their family of origin and how this impacted them. In order to build tools for engaging in conversations across difference, participants told their personal story (about their name, or family, or Jewish journey) and listened to others.

As a Jewish day school, we also approached racial diversity as a Jewish issue, and participants discussed excerpts from an article by Diane Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg, entitled “Racial Diversity & the American Jewish Community: Best Practices to Build Cultural Competence in Jewish Communal Organizations.” We considered both the authors’ contention that Jews have historically been one of the most diverse peoples in the world and whether we still are diverse. We also explored concepts of whiteness and privilege by viewing a video from the Whiteness Project (vimeo.com/161215716), responding to whether the portrayal of racial and Jewish awareness presented by the speaker connects with our students.

What We Learned

The workshops went very well, and teachers largely responded positively. Teacher responses to an anonymous survey about professional development at Schechter Manhattan included these comments: “Be’chol Lashon was a very meaningful PD opportunity.” “I really enjoyed the PD on race. It really got me thinking about race conversation in our classroom.” “I found the work with Be’chol Lashon to be eye-opening, both personally and professionally.”

That said, it was clear during the sessions that some teachers were more comfortable with the topic than others, and we heard some participants’ voices more than others in whole group discussion. During small group and pair conversations, I observed that all participants were actively engaged.

Speaking about racial diversity with a group of predominantly white teachers presented its own challenge. It can feel strange to talk about race in that setting, and potentially fall into dichotomies of “us” and “them.” One of the presenters from Be’chol Lashon is a Jew of color, and her presence and guidance was very important to help us feel safe and brave to talk openly. This also raised a challenging question about which members of the school community were included in the dialogue. There are people of color who work in the office and maintenance; teachers asked why they were not included. The workshops were implemented within the structure of the teaching faculty’s annual professional development calendar, a part of their professional responsibilities, but not a regular part of the non-teaching staff’s work. This is a challenge we are still grappling with.

A few months after the workshops, we asked teachers about any times race or racism had come up with students and reflections on whether or how the Be’chol Lashon workshops impacted their teaching. Teachers reported that the Be’chol Lashon workshops helped them to reflect on their own identities, and that many of them would like to do more to bring conversations about race to their classrooms, but aren’t sure how to implement this in practice.

Next Steps

This year we are working with a cohort of teachers to figure that out. Nine teachers self-selected racial diversity and inclusion as a core professional development area. They have identified a variety of possible ways to extend their learning and build their skills. Some teachers may review curriculum to identify opportunities to raise questions and conduct conversations about raise with students. Others may practice how to engage these issues in authentic ways as they emerge in classroom discourse. Some teachers may develop lessons for students to explore their own identities, racial and otherwise. And others may choose to learn more themselves about race, racial diversity and inclusion in education. We are working with the group to help them find common areas of interest to explore and to plan their professional development process.

We hope that this continuing process will lead to positive outcomes in our pedagogy and curriculum, so as to support our students’ growth in their understanding of race and their capacities for engaging with a racially diverse Jewish community and world.

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In These Times

This issue shows how Jewish day schools help students engage with serious social issues in ways that cast more light than heat. Whether the issues concern race or feminism, gun violence or identity, day schools of all kinds foster conversations and create programs that build understanding and give voice to opposing, often passionately held positions, while finding paths to achieve communal unity amidst divisiveness. They do so by adhering to the school's mission and to those values that unite us.

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