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Teaching Justice and Equity in a Divided World

(Note:  This week’s blog was also written by Beryl Bresgi, Head Librarian and IB Coordinator. Beryl is leading our staff in ensuring that our curriculum is balanced, promotes diversity, and respect and dignity for all people on this planet.)

In last week’s blog, Justice, Justice We Must Pursue, I wrote about our obligation to participate in building a more just society for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. As educators and parents we must partner together in raising children steeped in Jewish values that recognize the dignity and sacredness in each person along with a sense of responsibility to work to build a better society without prejudice, that embraces differences, and allows all people to thrive and reach their fullest potential.

Last week I alluded to the controversies facing several elite Independent schools around their handling of teaching an anti-racist curriculum. This controversy is another reminder of the challenge in figuring out how to have a conversation around race and discrimination and hatred in general. In order to create an environment where people can be open to this conversation, we believe it is unproductive to begin from a position that “all white people are somehow guilty,” or to begin a conversation with “white people are privileged.” By making these statements, many people shut down and become defensive, no longer open to the conversation.  If the goal is to lay blame and look for collective guilt, we fear little progress will ever be made. While we believe older students and adults must engage in these difficult conversations, this is not where we would begin, especially in an Early childhood – 8th grade school.

We are inspired by the approach that Isabel Wilkerson took in her book Caste: The Origins of our Discontent. She does not suggest that people alive today, specifically white people, are guilty of the sins of the past. She likens America to an old house that we have inherited.  The house was built generations ago and now has cracks in its foundations, leaks in the roof and more. “An old house is its own kind of devotional, a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be”. 

She goes on to suggest that ignoring the disrepair, however, will not make the issues go away – and while it is no fault of the current occupants, the current occupants are responsible for the repairs.

And so it is with us. We may not be guilty of the transgressions of the past, but we are responsible for the repairs. 

At Schechter, any conversation around justice and compassion is based on our school Mission which drives our Values. Our Mission states: “We inspire our students to be engaged, independent learners who embrace Jewish values and practices and strive with confidence and compassion to better the world.”

We want our children to grow into compassionate adults who actively work to build a better world.  That is, in part, our purpose as Jews in relationship and partnership with God.  In our studies and our learning we want our children to grow to embrace constructive, principled, civil discourse – Mahloket L’Shem Shamayim – with empathy and kindness.  We want them to distinguish between people and their viewpoints and treat everyone as B’tzelem Elokim – made in the image of God.

This happens through teaching and modeling. And it begins with us. We may not always agree with how to define and solve problems, but if we listen to each other and challenge our own assumptions, we can make progress on behalf of all people.

To help Schechter to create an environment that invites conversation, understanding and action, last spring we established a committee comprised of educators across the School that is thinking deeply about how we incorporate, frame and teach our students that regardless of background and perspective we must humanize and empathize with diverse peoples and cultures. 

Like so many important topics of our day, it is not about creating a stand-alone anti-racism curriculum, rather we want to ensure that topics that address discrimination and prejudice are integrated throughout the grades and subjects. We want to make sure that how we teach and present people of different backgrounds is done accurately and with dignity. It should fit authentically in any number of subject areas in both General and Judaic Studies. 

We know that biases and prejudices often result from a lack of knowledge, understanding, or exposure to people who are different from us. At Schechter, we believe it is important to expose our children to the beautiful tapestry that is our country and world.  We think that the ability to understand another person’s experience and being able to talk across differences are much needed skills. In order to provide our students with these skills, we have looked at our curriculum and have been intentional about examining our teaching and learning to address equity in a variety of ways. Our Kaplen Library is filled with books that reveal stories of the diversity in the world. In addition, in our classrooms,  we are choosing to read literature that reflects our students’ own experiences, and enables them to joyfully understand their own lives and culture. And we also have been thoughtful about including literature that provides “windows” –  stories that help our children to see and understand the diverse experiences of people and cultures outside of their own worlds. These stories have been presented through excellent pieces of literature as well as through inviting a diverse group of speakers to meet with our children and to share their unique experiences. 

We approach the study of history from many different perspectives, understanding that the telling of history is framed and told from the teller’s perspective. We feel that it is our responsibility to critically examine the story as well as the ”storyteller.” We have also introduced classes in News and Media literacy to encourage our students to consider the source of the information they are exposed to and to question the speaker’s objective, as well as how to engage in difficult debate and conversations. This critical thinking is a Core Value of a Schechter education and is supported in the study of Torah.

Our Judaic Studies and Advisory classes give our students the opportunity to debate our unique responsibility as Jews and as students attending an independent school in Bergen County. We encourage our students to examine their responsibility for Hesed in  their community. This approach to teaching equity at Schechter is a dynamic one, open to frequent review and refinement. 

We know there are members of our own Jewish community that believe we as Jews need to focus all of our concern on anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred. The data shows that there are more acts of hate against Jews than any other religious group in America, and this is a real problem. We believe deeply, though, that this is not a zero sum game. The fight against hatred, discrimination, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, is a collective battle for all people who believe in the sacredness of each person and the idea of B’tzelem Elokim

As Jews we must care for our sake and for the sake of all people. As Beit Hillel taught long ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

5 Comments

  • Deborah A Kirschner - May 6, 2021

    Amen!!!
    I like how you point out the need to critically examine not just the story but the storyteller too, as well as the reference to Isabel Wilkerson’s “inherited old house” idea. I totally agree.

    Reply
  • sara winikoff - May 6, 2021

    thank you! These are important lessons for our children to have re-enforced at school, with their peers around them. My children have watched world and local news with me, their whole lives, and thus, they understand, I hope, that not everything is perfect. There is pain and suffering, and horrible tragedies happen, and as you say, it is our responsibility to improve it all. What affects ‘others’ affects ‘us’ too. We are all others and we are all us. Please include G-ds ‘other’ creations in the “do no harm” lessons. ie: non-humans. All species deserve to live free of purposefully inflicted pain, suffering, family separation, and death, and have the right to enjoy pleasure and happiness and love. -sara

    Reply
  • Alex Kontorovich - May 6, 2021

    Morah Beryl, Thank you for this thoughtful post. I would just like to add that if we want our children to learn to examine everything critically (as we should!), we must make them resilient, not indoctrinated one way or another. We should let our children hear the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr (that people should be treated on the basis of their character and not gender/race/class etc), side by side with the ideas of anti-white racism (abbreviated these days to “anti-racism”). We should expose them to enlightenment ideas of equality of opportunity (working to ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstances of their birth, has a shot at a meaningful, productive life, their path chosen by their own free will), as well as to what “equity” now commonly refers to (that it is necessary at all cost to ensure that certain preferred groups have equal outcomes along certain preferred dimensions). I would hope that they come to what I consider to be the right conclusions, but not by being “told” that it’s right.

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - May 6, 2021

      We absolutely agree that teaching multiple perspectives in a respectful way and recognizing the dignity of all people should be our focus. All conversations should be developmentally appropriate as well. It is sad that equity is so misunderstood. It means fairness and impartial – it does not mean preferential. Fair is not the same for everyone; it is what each person needs. In school we call it differentiation – each child should be able to reach their full potential. If we taught the exact same way for every child, many would be left behind. Instead we differentiate, we find ways to adjust the instruction for the different learners so each child has the opportunity to learn and grow. That’s equity.

      Reply
  • Alex Kontorovich - May 6, 2021

    Dear Mr. Freedman, Thank you for the clarification, I love your use of the term. And a million thanks to all the faculty and staff; you are heroes doing the impossible for our children in very difficult times. My family and I are blessed to be part of this kehilla.

    Reply

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