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Day schools can change: Incorporating Sephardic culture and traditions

When students feel like they belong, they achieve, and when schools celebrate students’ diverse backgrounds, the kids know they are valued
Inclusive day schools. (Image courtesy of JIMENA's Sephardi & Mizrahi Education Toolkit)
Inclusive day schools. (Image courtesy of JIMENA's Sephardi & Mizrahi Education Toolkit)

In this era in which diversity is rightfully embraced, Jewish day schools need to break out of their reliance on Ashkenazi norms as their default. The challenge for these schools is that, until now, they have not had the resources to do so. Many schools continue to be rooted in Ashkenazi culture and use lesson plans developed from Central and Eastern European Jewish communities that were adapted for American students. Unsurprisingly, this approach does not reflect the full diversity of the Jewish people. JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, developed a new toolkit to change this.

We’ve spent the last 20 years raising awareness about Sephardi and Mizrahi communities. Now, thanks to the generous support from the Covenant Foundation, we have the opportunity to expand our efforts and reach K-12 students with a Sephardi & Mizrahi Education Toolkit. This is the first-ever comprehensive guide with content, resources, and strategies to help schools shape campus events, develop campus culture through videos, displays, and essays, and provide learning experiences that both welcome and reflect Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish life.

School leaders are prompted to ask basic questions to help understand their school culture: who are the Sephardi and Mizrahi artists that students learn about? What melodies are used in tefillah (prayer)? How are holiday programs structured?

Furthermore, to benefit more than just day school teachers, the toolkit includes resources for guidance staff, lay leaders, programming staff, school leaders, families, and others. To meet the needs of Jewish families today — and to celebrate our history and people in their entirety — everyone at a school must embrace this type of change. Together, we can shift away from a monolithic narrative of American Jewry, and instead embrace a multicultural view of American Jewish communal and religious life.

This change would benefit us all. Research shows that when students feel they belong in a school environment, they are more likely to demonstrate academic achievement, academic motivation, and resilience. Certainly, developing a school culture that recognizes and celebrates students’ diverse backgrounds can enhance students’ sense of school belonging and the feeling that they are valued.

To do so, the toolkit offers concrete curricular recommendations that draw from a wide range of resources, including primary sources, archival materials, newspaper articles, and videos. Having access to this content can both deepen and expand students’ learning experiences. As just one example, much of Holocaust education, understandably so, is centered on Europe. However, there is a vital Sephardic and North African experience to discuss when relating to the Shoah. Educators, until now, may have been stymied when looking for lessons and information on the subject. Our resources on the devastating impact of the Holocaust on Sephardi and North African communities will provide useful guidance for many Jewish educators and be able to provide a more thorough and comprehensive lesson plan.

We are excited about the potential to create this change in day schools across the country. Day school educators need guidance and resources to create learning environments that respond to the cultural, religious, and social-emotional needs of Sephardi and Mizrahi students and families. By bringing Sephardic curricula and worldviews into education today, Jewish schools will become more inclusive of all students, including those who are ethnically and culturally diverse. With this approach, schools will be able to provide students with a more expansive and more accurate understanding of Jews throughout the world and in the United States in particular.

About the Author
Ty Alhadeff is JIMENA’s director of education, at the Sephardic Leadership Institute.
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