A Four-Step Approach to Increasing Diversity in Jewish Day Schools

By Nicole Nash

As a JTA article from May 2019 reported, many Jewish day schools are looking to address diversity in their communities. The article states that there is “a growing effort by Jewish day schools across the nation to educate students and community members about people from different ethnic backgrounds. While Jewish schools in America remain overwhelmingly white and Ashkenazi, schools increasingly are looking for ways to welcome Jews of color and other Jewish minority groups while sensitizing students to the wide cultural milieu outside the schools’ doors.”

Like many other day schools, Hannah Senesh Community Day School has been engaging in work around diversity for the past few years. Senesh was founded in 1995 by a small group of visionary parents who were committed to building a welcoming and progressive Jewish community day school in Brooklyn. Throughout the past 25 years, we have grown to a K-8 school with 231 students, 241 alumni, and strong engagement with families and institutional partners throughout the Brooklyn Jewish community. Even as we have remained committed to our founders’ original mission to build an open and inclusive Jewish community, we questioned if we were doing enough to be truly inclusive to marginalized groups and to ensure that everyone in our community felt welcomed, celebrated, and had a deep sense of belonging. This is important in our 25th milestone anniversary year as we chart a course for our future.

The work of investigating diversity in our community has been enlightening and challenging, requiring commitment, intention, honest reflection, openness to listening and learning, and intensive planning. This process has helped us grow both personally and together as a school. Below is a window into the approach we have taken to incorporate more diversity into our community so that other Jewish day schools might benefit from our experience.

Set an Intention
The first step in our process was to engage our community in this work. We formed a Diversity Committee, including school leadership, trustees, parents, and alumni parents. The purpose of this committee was to formally articulate with intention for the first time in the school’s history a diversity statement that reflected our school’s mission and strategic priorities. This Diversity Statement was then approved by the board of trustees and would guide decisions in curriculum, programming, admissions and hiring policies, professional growth and training opportunities, and future community partnerships.

The next step was to engage in a reflective process and ask ourselves some important questions. Who are we now? Who do we want to be in five, ten, twenty years? We spent time reflecting on our community, branding, curriculum, programs, policies, and partnerships. We asked questions to determine where we were aligned with our diversity statement and where there were opportunities for growth. 

In order to better understand our community, we created a survey to collect data on our families and staff: where they come from, what languages they speak, their religious identities, holidays they celebrate, religious organizations they belong to, past Jewish educational experiences, past and present Jewish practices, experiences of marginalization in the Jewish community, and the ways they want to help advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community. Not only did the survey results give us a wealth of information, but the process of conducting the survey opened up many important conversations about identity and diversity within our community.

We also engaged in a listening campaign, where we met with members of our school community and the broader Jewish community who are in minority groups and may have felt marginalized. It is important not to assume how people feel, but to ask them how they feel and really listen to their stories and experiences. We also reviewed our existing curriculum and programs and the makeup of our staff and board.

Next, our entire community engaged in meaningful learning that included deep thinking, questioning, and having discussions that felt a little unsettling and uncomfortable. Students, faculty, leadership, and parents were able to participate in professional growth opportunities where we discussed our own experiences and described the type of inclusive community we wanted to create. We created safe spaces to encourage participants to share openly and foster honest conversations.

Our faculty received training from Be’chol Lashon, an organization that strengthens Jewish identity by raising awareness about the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. Staff also attended professional development through NYSAIS and Facing History and Ourselves. In these trainings, teachers reflected on building cultural competency and racial literacy, how to navigate current event conversations, and race and equity in the context of Jewish education. Teachers had the opportunity to examine their own practices, curricula, and resources, and to think more deeply about how to bring these learnings into their teaching. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) led anti-bias workshops with our seventh and eighth graders, prompting many important and insightful conversations, and Be’chol Lashon conducted diversity training for fifth and sixth graders about the history of the Jewish community and the impact of stereotyping and discrimination. Students reflected on how they define themselves and how people might stereotype them. The organization also hosted a three-part series for Senesh parents to explore Jewish identity, specifically as it relates to racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community.

Planning for the Future
After reflecting and learning, we moved forward, with the help of our partner organizations, by taking a close look at our curricula and programs. The partnerships we have had with organizations focused on diversity have been very important as they provide insight, education, expertise, and outreach into marginalized communities. 

Curriculum Development
Staff collected data about how our curriculum reflected our focus on diversity so we could determine where there were gaps to be filled. Over summer vacation, a small committee of Judaics teachers worked in partnership with Be’chol Lashon to update our K-8 holiday curriculum to be more inclusive of the diversity of the Jewish community. Guided by Teaching Tolerance, we also revised our K-8 social studies standards and benchmarks to reflect identity, diversity, justice, and action. 

We collaborated with Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of all LGBTQ+  Jews, to make sure our policies and programs were more inclusive of all gender and sexual identities, and we expanded our partnership with Facing History to better engage students in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism. 

Community Programming
Engaging the broader community in these conversations and learning has been critical to our own learning and has grown the impact of our work around diversity. For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we have had an ongoing partnership with Repair the World, an organization that seeks to make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life. This year, we welcomed 350 community members of all ages to join us for a day of service and reflection on the teachings of Dr. King. 

We have also incorporated learning about diversity into our community holiday programs. For example, our annual Hanukkah Art Festival featured a special reading of multicultural children's books, craft projects, and foods that reflect Hanukkah traditions from around the world. We advertised these programs as a way for the community to celebrate the diversity of the Jewish people in a safe, welcoming space where all Jews can feel a sense of belonging and home. We created a Parent Diversity Committee that meets regularly and has been working on the above-mentioned initiatives. This committee is currently seeking a speaker focused on diversity for our community speaker series and producing a book fair with books that focus on diversity and inclusion. 

Marketing and Branding
We have revisited our current marketing, branding and admissions approach with an eye toward inclusion and diversity. Our work with a nonprofit branding firm this year has given us the opportunity to pour over our mission, vision, values, and messaging to ensure that diversity and inclusion are better incorporated into our brand. 

Using this revised branding, we are creating marketing materials and events that speak to diverse populations. At a recent Hanukkah admissions event, we had a Senesh parent and chef teach prospective families how to make Moroccan donuts (Sfenj). We invited a current parent and a staff member who are Moroccan to relay their childhood memories of eating Sfenj for Hanukkah. Participants remarked on how nice it was to learn about a tradition from the Moroccan Jewish community. Inspired by ideas from the Parent Diversity Committee, our admissions director is also broadening our recruitment efforts with outreach to diverse neighborhoods and partnerships with schools and organizations that focus on diversity. 

Leadership and Staff
We have taken a close look at our human resource practices to ensure better representation of marginalized groups and to meet the shifting landscape of the Jewish community. Over the past few years, we have created a board matrix to examine the makeup of our lay leadership and have made changes to ensure our board is more representative of our community. 

The Jewish Community of Tomorrow
As the larger Jewish community and landscape becomes more diverse, Jewish day schools must continuously work to review our curricula, hiring policies, professional development opportunities, and admissions practices to ensure that we are being as inclusive as possible. We must represent the diversity of contemporary Jewish life with all kinds of Jewish families including varied ethnicities, races, nationalities, Jewish identities and practices, multifaith families, sexual orientations, gender identities, life experiences, socio-economic circumstances, perspectives, and worldviews. 

While doing this work, we have learned the importance of buy-in, support, and engagement from all constituents in the community: leadership, faculty, parents, students, and funders. There are tremendous resources available to all of us to ensure institutional change. Additionally, we have learned that this work is truly a process and not something that you can start and complete quickly. It is an ongoing endeavor that requires persistence, openness, and the belief that diversity, equity, and inclusion will benefit all of us in our day school communities and in the world beyond.

Nicole Nash is the Head of School at Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, New York. She was the first teacher at the founding of the school 25 years ago and is in her 12th year as head of school. Nicole participated on a panel about race and diversity in Jewish day schools at the Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools conference in Atlanta last year and continues to partner with UJA-Federation of New York to advance diversity work in Jewish day schools.