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Nicole is the head of school at Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, New York. She participated on a panel about race and diversity in Jewish day schools at the Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools conference in Atlanta and continues to partner with UJA-Federation of New York to advance diversity work in Jewish day schools.

DEIB: Building a School Culture of Belonging

Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn has been engaged in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work since we were founded nearly three decades ago. Over the past five years, our work has accelerated as we have put a stake in the ground by forming a diversity committee, formally articulating a diversity statement, and incorporating DEIB as a priority in our strategic roadmap. A core value of our school is “Belonging/Shayachut: We create a culture that honors the dignity and self-worth of each person.”

We were fortunate to receive a grant to create a parent survey, in collaboration with the Nachshon Project Graduate Student Fellowship and in conjunction with Prizmah, focused on identity and belonging in our community. A team of graduate student fellows being trained as emerging leaders in the Jewish world partnered with Senesh leadership, faculty and parents to create, disseminate and analyze a survey to better understand the demographic diversity of our families and the experience of being in the Senesh community through the lens of identity.

We hoped the survey would answer the following question: What demographics of Jewish day school families are being served, and how can we better reach, serve, incorporate and invest in marginalized and underrepresented groups?

Our School's Demographics

The survey gave us information about the demographic makeup of our parents. We looked at many different areas including family make-up; languages spoken at home; religious identity, practice and affiliation; gender and sexual orientation; political affiliation; income; drivers for enrollment to day school, and more. Most relevant here is what we discovered about race and culture. Four percent of our families identified as Asian/Asian-American, Black, African, African American or multiracial. Three percent identified as Hispanic and three percent identified as Latina/o/x. 

Relative to non-Jews of Color families, more JOC families noted that they experience stress due to being one of few members of their identity group in our community. They were also more concerned that their children could be treated differently by their fellow Senesh students as a result of their social identity, and they believe that others make assumptions about their family based on their identity. Most families, whether they identified as JOC or not, feel that Senesh is a welcoming environment, feel a sense of belonging, and believe that Senesh is an open space to express their identity. They also feel that Senesh leadership and faculty authentically celebrate the full diversity of our community.

We also sought to understand if parents’ motivations to send their children to Jewish day school (and specifically Hannah Senesh) were different for JOC than for non-JOC. JOC families reported that being part of a diverse Jewish community was paramount. Both JOC and non-JOC families highlighted the following reasons to attend a Jewish day school: being part of a strong Jewish community, academic excellence, school culture and Jewish values guiding moral development, valuing the whole child including social and emotional learning, and small classes and strong relationships among faculty, students and parents.

Using Data to Make Change 

Our learnings from this survey and additional data were edifying in that JOC in our community felt that Senesh is a place of belonging and that their identity is celebrated. On the other hand, the data reinforced that JOC are underrepresented in our community and that they have concerns about being treated differently because of their identity. Even before having access to the survey results, we have been doing much to address these concerns. 

We have sought to live out the values stated in our Diversity Statement and the goals set forth in our current Strategic Roadmap, which prioritizes DEIB. With the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York, we have engaged in ongoing DEIB trainings for board, faculty and staff, created a parent diversity committee to create a series of events and programs for Senesh parents; facilitated faculty learning groups; participated in Nafsheinu, a cohort of NYC day schools focused on racial equity and inclusion, and led events for the broader community to center and lift up the voices and stories of those who are often not heard or seen in the Jewish community. In addition, we audited and developed our school curriculum, libraries and classroom materials through the lens of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity.

Building Partnerships

We have examined the demographics of our leadership, faculty and staff, and families as we aspire to grow our community in a way that better reflects marginalized Jewish communities so that children and families can see themselves at Senesh. Most recently, this foundational work has led to building meaningful relationships and partnerships with Jewish organizations and leaders who serve the JOC community. 

With the generous support of the Covenant Foundation, we are benefitting from DEIB consulting and from the wisdom and expertise of a newly created advisory group that includes Jewish leaders in local and national Jewish institutions who serve the JOC community. This group meets regularly to share their experience and expertise; to brainstorm strategically with Senesh leadership as we continue to build a community where JOC feel a sense of belonging, see themselves as an integral part of Jewish community, and where diverse voices, stories and experiences are celebrated. The advisory group is also helping us to plan for the launch of a weeklong multiracial day camp at Senesh next February.

Senesh has also expanded partnerships with Be’chol Lashon, LUNAR and the Jews of Color Initiative (JOCI). Senesh was elected to have two JOCI Fellows for six months to gain professional experience in a Jewish nonprofit organization. The fellows worked on community engagement, curriculum and programs to center JOC and highlight the diversity of our community.

As a part of our strategic goal of growing representation of Jewish families of color at Senesh, we invested in the establishment of an admissions grant opportunity to grow the number of JOC families in our lower school. Since the launch of this grant, we have increased the number of Jewish Families of Color at Senesh. Thanks to this year’s JOC recruitment initiative, we will have nine JOC families in our lower school next fall. In the past year, our school has seen an increase in JOC students from four to seven percent, and 25 percent of our incoming kindergarten class identify as JOC. 

Our mission-driven goal is that JOC and multiracial Jews will see themselves at Senesh and feel a sense of belonging within the Senesh and larger Jewish community. We hope that a survey in a few years will demonstrate significant growth in this area.

Our track record for getting real work done is clear, and we continually build upon our learnings and successes. Senesh has and will continue to invest scholarship funds for families who identify as JOC and to allocate funds towards programming and events that deepens their engagement in our community. Senesh will also continue to act as a model and share our learnings with our Prizmah colleagues in the day school field, in the larger Jewish community and beyond.