Creating Support Structures for Jewish Diversity

Roni Ben-David, Lauren Cook

Jewish schools, as identity-based schools, and their leadership, can fall into the trap of assuming students share experiences based on a shared Jewish identity. This blind spot can compromise a climate of inclusion and interfere with student learning. Too much focus on unity can come at the expense of recognizing difference and acknowledging diversity within the community.

Because of the unique population it serves, The Jewish Community High School of the Bay has confronted this challenge head on. All of our students self-identify as Jewish; however, the diversity of our student body today goes far beyond denominational difference, and reflects the diverse Bay Area community from which our students come. Ten to fifteen percent of our students self-identify as a Jew of color. Many of our students come from multiracial, multicultural families. Many speak a language other than English at home, and many are children of first generation immigrants. Many have felt pressure to “prove” they are Jewish or choose between identities.

From hiring practices to ongoing professional development, schools must be proactive in creating structures to build a professional community that has the self-awareness, knowledge and skills to teach for cultural competency and respond to the complex dynamics and interactions between students of dominant and marginalized groups. Without creating systemic and structural supports from the leadership down, growth in the areas of equity and inclusion will not be sustainable, and we risk compromising the learning of our diverse student body.

Students perform better in schools where their teachers’ identities reflect the identities of the students. While the language of diversity and inclusion can be interpreted as political, our approach is rooted in the value that every student who comes to our school should be fully seen and contributes to a fuller expression of Jewishness. When students see themselves in teachers, the texts they’re reading and their classmates, they feel more confident in who they are as people, more represented, and can achieve the deepest and most authentic learning.

Four years ago, JCHS established the Diversity and Anti-Bias Steering Committee and a directorship of social justice and inclusion for the purpose of creating systems and curricula that facilitate school growth in the following areas:

  • Actively embracing diversity and enacting an anti-bias framework
  • Training professional community members who are skilled at teaching cultural competency as well as recognizing bias and intervening to facilitate critical growth conversations
  • Establishing learning goals and curriculum around identity, diversity, justice and action, for learning an anti-bias framework based on an integrated Jewish lens
  • Creating a space where students and professional community members in socially marginalized groups are heard and responded to, and feel empowered and affirmed in their identity and experiences.

This steering committee has been an important catalyst for change.

Humility plays a vital part in implementing and enacting change. The summer after we established the steering committee, the entire professional community was tasked with reading sociologist Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race. The head of school set the agenda: “We know a great deal about the values of embracing diversity and honoring differences, but there is a great deal we do not know about how these values are celebrated at times and trampled at other times by our professional community. We will learn from Tatum’s book and return in August better prepared to support student learning and growth in this area.” Every summer since then, the professional community is given an “equity challenge,” in which they take their own deep dive into areas of learning around equity and inclusion. The work of increasing knowledge does not happen quickly. It requires openness to change and a willingness to acknowledge our blind spots.

By acknowledging the breadth and depth of what we do not know, the school puts forth a growth mindset and creates a climate that allows for mistakes. For over a decade, we have used a weekly full school community meeting to bring in underrepresented voices, or those not represented at all in our population. However, these islands of learning are less effective than the systemic changes.

With the structural establishment of a committee and a director tasked with regularly thinking about these issues, we have been more successful in creating sustainable systems for change. Our hiring process now includes an interview with a team of people specifically tuned into candidates’ cultural competency and experiences with inclusion work. Diversity and cultural competence are values and attributes we seek out and reward in the hiring process. We have also brought student voices and experiences into the conversation by creating a Student Advisory Board. This has empowered students to share their perspectives and urge us to make changes. We are preparing to engage in curriculum audits, encouraging teachers to look deeply at the implicit messaging of their curriculum and seeking spaces for deeper, connected engagement with more inclusive imaging.

We have seen students become advocates for change. For the past three years, we have sent a contingent of students to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, part of the National Alliance for Independent School’s People of Color Conference, where more than 6,000 educators and students explore the themes of equitable schools and inclusive communities. Students who attend then share their experience with our school community through a panel presentation.

Students often return from the conference expressing how meaningful it was to have deep conversations with other students in affinity group meetings based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Thus far, most of the work at the school around affinity groups has been for faculty. For our professional community, we have held lunch-time affinity groups for women, people of color, non-Jews in a Jewish school, and LGBTQ+. Furthermore, we hosted a series this year called “Unpacking Male Privilege” for men. As sociologist Tatum states, affirming identity “is not contradictory to, but rather a prerequisite for building community” and “students who feel that their own needs for affirmation have been met are more willing and able to engage with others along lines of difference.” While our small size (180 students) can create challenges to creating affinity spaces for students, we are constantly looking for ways to support students finding or creating those spaces and help our faculty have those spaces as well.

We continue to audit our Jewish studies curriculum, looking for how to more fully present the variety of expressions of Jewish peoplehood, which includes representations of Jewish men and women from a variety of heritages. How can we amplify the voices of different types of Jews? It is vital that we provide our students with “mirrors” to see themselves and other stories/histories of Jews of color. When done well, students are given many opportunities to process difficult experiences; feel affirmed in having felt pressure to prove their Jewishness or choose between different parts of themselves; see that they are not alone, that they have the power to lift up others and be lifted up; feel equal claim to their Jewish identity even if it isn’t rooted in lineage; and confront the assumption that Jews of color are part of one uniform group, that they only exist within binary of “Jews of color” or Jew. Moreover, they can see themselves as potential leaders in the Jewish community with the insights and self-awareness that our community must value and learn from.

We continue to strive to create a relational community where students of all sorts of identities feel seen, understood and reflected. Creating systems and structures that support these strong interpersonal connections will move the needle toward making our community more self-aware, inclusive and adept at centering the voices and experiences of Jewish teens of color and other minority groups. Moreover, what we see is that in creating spaces for and empowering those who have historically been disempowered, we create a learning environment where everyone feels more connected, seen and engaged.

Articles on the Impact of Teachers Reflecting Students’ Identity

Julie Pennell, “Girls Do Better in School When Taught by Women”

Jill Rosen, “With Just One Black Teacher, Black Students More Likely to Graduate”

Alejandro Fernandez Sanabria, Antonieta Cadiz, and Ronny Rojas, “Hispanic Students Perform Better When Their Teachers and Administrators Are Latino, Too”

Ty Tagami, “Study Reports How Race Matters in the Classroom”

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019