Debra is Prizmah's Director of Network Weaving.

Multiple Pathways on a Shared Journey

Over the past few years, Jewish day school and yeshiva leaders across the religious, political and geographic spectrum have committed time and resources to deepening their school’s investment in the area of race and school culture.

Starting Points 

Different school leaders describe different reasons for investing in this work. Some began their work in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, describing that moment as a historic turning point. Others explain that if 12-15% of the North American Jewish community self-identify as Jews of Color and 20% identify as non-White, then our schools can strive to have similar representation in the student body, parent body, board and faculty. Additional school leaders point to the fabric of their communities, and share how this work grows out of the mission, vision and values of their particular school. 

Some also talk about grappling with the Jews of Color Initiative study, Beyond the Count, as an important moment in their desire to lead differently. This study of over 1100 respondents shared stories of racist encounters based solely on skin color: “Respondents described the variety of assumptions made about them. They have been repeatedly mistaken for security guards or nannies and presumed to be the non-Jewish partner or guest of a white Jewish person.” A Black school leader shared her primary reason for investing in this work as follows: “My child will be joining this school in the fall. The conversation about race is not theoretical for my family. It’s my job to safeguard my own children, just as we safeguard every other child in this school.”

Prizmah's Offerings 

Whatever their reason for starting the work, one common theme of all schools in the Prizmah Network has been the commitment to making sure that all voices, including the full range of political and religious opinions in their communities, are heard and included in this work. Diversity, equity and inclusion has been a subject in North America, including the Jewish community. Some stakeholders are comfortable with this language and others are not. Our goal at Prizmah is not to be prescriptive, but to serve school leaders and communities in their particular context.

Given the reality of that communal diversity, there are a variety of needs that school communities have in growing, deepening or focusing their work on race and school culture. In an effort to provide differentiated support to the field of Jewish day schools and yeshivas, Prizmah designed an opt-in model of customizable offerings for school leaders this year. We were able to do this thanks to our funding partners, Crown Family Philanthropies, the Jim Joseph Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. 

Building on last year’s work, we offered schools fully-subsidized access to a race and school culture consultant of the faculty’s choosing. Schools primarily used the consultants for five main areas of work.

  1. Analysis of the school's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT), together with decisions and execution of achievable next steps.
  2. Creation of a shared language to use with the school community as they engage in race and school culture work.
  3. Articulation of multiple answers to the question, "Why is our school engaging in race and school culture work?" Then using those answers to align the school's lay and professional leadership teams, ensuring that everyone is guided by the same goals.
  4. Establishment of a reading and discussion group composed of school faculty members, or an internal working group, composed of faculty, parents and board members.
  5. Creation of a plan to bring school practice into better alignment with a variety of existing school values, such as equity of opportunity for all children, careful thinking about the nature of community and the human dignity of every stakeholder in the school. For some schools, this was the adoption of a diversity, equity and inclusion plan by the board of directors. For others, this plan focused on the school's values and context, while elevating the culture of belonging they hope to ensure. 

In addition to the offering of consultants, Prizmah hosted four multi school collaboratives. 

  1. Engaging stakeholders (board, parents, community) in race and equity work, facilitated by Nishant Mehta and Ilisa Cappell. 
  2. Addressing aspects of race and school culture work unique to Orthodox schools, facilitated by Nishant Mehta and Debra Shaffer Seeman.
  3. Teaching about identity, bias and race in an elementary school, facilitated by BetterLesson and Amy Wasser.
  4. Developing a faculty professional development agenda on race and school culture, facilitated by BetterLesson and Rachel Dratch.

Each of these collaboratives worked to design tools and resources to address the topics at hand, utilizing regular group meetings to build models for approaching this work, holding each other accountable and workshopping results. The Prizmah team spent dozens of hours in direct consultation with school leaders as a part of these collaboratives and responded to their specific needs, including the creation of templates for leaders to use in talking about their work, with sophisticated language that recognizes the complexity of this topic.

Prizmah intentionally views this work through a networking mindset. As one of the first North American Jewish organizations taking on this scope of work, we openly share our learning with leaders in other organizations and compare notes to strengthen the work of everyone involved. We share hundreds of resources with Jewish day school and yeshiva leaders through our thought leadership and multischool learning modalities. We host podcasts and research fellows, and, perhaps most importantly, we connect school leaders one to another so that they can learn from each other and elevate this sacred work.

Lessons Learned 

Expansiveness is necessary.

School culture shifts require many years. Individuals need space to do this work—not just financial resources, but mental resources and space for strategic thinking. Around a topic like race, which has the potential to trigger fear or caution, individuals benefit from approaching this as a long-term process of learning and growth.

Including all voices is essential. 

Leaders who are starting this work by focusing on discussion and prioritizing relationships are reporting that their communities have been strengthened by these difficult conversations. The key here is that individuals in school communities trust that they will be heard, and prioritize their relationships with one another over differences in their political beliefs and religious practices. School leaders are actively working on how their learning on race and school culture can embrace all the students and families in their community, without regard to political perspectives. This component of school culture is best put into place in a proactive manner to ensure that all voices are truly welcome.

Alignment is critical. 

School professionals need to ensure alignment with their lay leadership in order for this work to take root. As master educator and consultant Nishant Mehta explains, “We want this work to be systemic and not just programmatic. If the premise you start with is that this is part of your system and not just an add-on, then the critical part is to ensure the people in leadership are really committed to this work. That includes the board, who holds fiduciary responsibility of the school, your head of school, and the individuals who are charged with the implementation of the school’s mission, vision and values.”

Deepening the bench. 

We need a solid bench of coaches to partner with school leaders in order to do this work in meaningful ways. There are not yet enough professionals in this space who have a strong understanding and facility in both how schools work and Judaism writ large.

Staying in the discomfort.

Many children, and many adults, have not yet learned how to have difficult conversations. Being willing to get messy and commit oneself to stay in the discomfort of a difficult conversation is a critical life skill, especially in this context.

Forward thinking.

As Caroline Blackwell, VP Equity & Justice, National Association of Independent Schools, explains, an essential aspect of this work is “not assuming that paradigms of the past will be sufficient for our children of the future.”

Prepare for pushback.

The more educated a leadership team is around the topic of race, and exactly what their school’s values are in this area, the better equipped they are to respond to any pushback they may receive. Pushback is a normal reaction to any change. Any perception that a family’s (or society’s) values might be called into question can create a heightened awareness and sense of reactivity.

Belonging does not mean agreement.

To create a culture of belonging does not mean that everyone agrees or sees eye to eye. It does mean that we make space to listen, and to speak, with a generosity of spirit. 

Change is happening.

Jewish day school and yeshiva leaders are doing the hard work. Classroom materials are being considered, scholarships are being created, boards are receiving training, faculty are teaching in new and thoughtful ways, and school leaders are grappling with their answer to the question which underpins all race and school culture work: “How can we ensure that our school is truly a culture of belonging for every person in our community?”

Traveling Together

While politics add complexity to this conversation, and context is essential in doing this work, school leaders want to ensure that their school is a culture of belonging, where every stakeholder feels seen and heard. How we each reach that destination varies, and Prizmah is here to support the multiple routes each school leader takes in this work with the understanding that our journey is a shared one.