Earlier this year, I presented my final project in front of my Government & Politics class. The assignment was to pick a controversial issue in American society with a partner, each choosing one side of the argument, and debating the issue for the class. My partner and I picked the topic of affirmative action in college admissions. We exchanged points, rebuttals, and used statistics as much as possible. Arguing for affirmative action, I cited a study from the University of Michigan to support a point on the importance of diversity. The study found that informal interactions with people of different races “significantly enhanced an individual’s learning outcomes.”
While I believed in the argument I was making, it felt inherently hypocritical presenting a finding that concluded diversity “increased learning outcomes” when the community I am a part of is inherently homogeneous.
Within the last month our country has gone through a reckoning, fueled in part by the murder of George Floyd. In my own personal circle, my Instagram feed has been bombarded with black squares, friends have shared guides on how to speak out against racism, and I have witnessed a dialogue emerge online on this important topic. Protests are happening down my street, across my state, the country, and around the world.
As American Jews, we often find ourselves fully invested in the communities to which we belong. While our kehilot (communities) aim to be places to discuss diverse topics, we often lack diversity in other respects. Personally, I felt outraged with what happened, but felt limited in my ability to engage with and listen to people of different backgrounds other than with those in my predominantly white, Jewish circle.
Simply by virtue of being in the ‘bubble’ of a Jewish day school, my perspectives and the people I interact with are inherently different than my peers at public school.
A recent special program for 12th grade students at my day school, The Leffell School in Hartsdale, N.Y., aimed to open our perspectives and expose us to different voices.
On Friday, June 5, my 12th grade classmates and I gathered on a Zoom meeting at 9:30 in the morning. What was supposed to be an hour-long session ended up running around 30 minutes over, showing the need I felt, along with my peers, for a program like this.
We started off the session by hearing from different high school administrators about the events unfolding in our country. We had space to process the news, and discuss what actually happened in the unjust killing of George Floyd. In order to jog our thinking and begin to present these difficult questions, a teacher utilized the “Polling” feature to gauge certain information from our class.
“Have your parents had a conversation with you about how to handle yourself if you’re stopped by the police in order to avoid being seriously injured or killed as a result of that interaction?”
No, said 83% of students.
“Have you followed news about the killing of George Floyd?”
Yes, said 96% of students.
Students were shown a video of the moments leading up to George Floyd’s murder and were spoken to about what has been going on in the news, before shifting gears and hearing from the speakers that morning. One thing teachers made clear was that although we convened in light of the murder of George Floyd, this session wasn’t a conversation only about his murder, and if we thought it was, we missed the point.
We heard from a mixed-race couple with close ties to our school’s kehilah. The wife is the daughter of a longtime Hebrew teacher at our school and worked at our school for a few years, and her husband had worked at our school for 3 years.
We listened to their fears, apprehensions, and honest truths they have to address as parents raising a Black son in today’s world who recently turned 13-years-old. They addressed their fears sending their son out into the world, conversations with him about what to do when stopped by a cop, and their hopes for his future. To us, Jewish day school students about to enter the real world, we were glued to the screen listening to their story. But for children of color this is an everyday reality they live in. Personally, I wasn’t shocked but rather taken aback hearing how human their story was, and although common to the Black community, found value in hearing an individual family’s perspective.
They later opened the floor up to the audience, and my peers wrote questions in the Chat Box, as well as unmuted themselves to directly ask their questions and express gratitude for their participation in this program. While they served as panelists representing the ‘Black experience in America,’ they were simply one of millions of families going through the same struggles in society.
Later in the day, during a program titled “Becoming Alumni,” our Head of School began the Zoom mentioning a recent effort by alumni regarding a petition. After the murder of George Floyd, the school had sent out an email regarding their response to recent events. While to many, the statement seemed a sufficient response, an anonymous group of alumni disagreed.
On June 3, the group of alumni published a letter on Medium titled: “Letter from Alumni Who Care.” In addition to the post, a Change.org petition was created, calling out the response from the school as “tone deaf” and “distracting” from the racial injustices that are occurring today. At the time of publishing this article, the petition has over 280 signatures from alumni throughout different years. Notably, many alumni have written to the school to distance themselves from the petition.
During that 45 minute Zoom session, as we discussed what we wanted our roles as alumni to be after graduation, we were encouraged to think about this petition as a case study of what it means to stay involved and invested in a community. I realized that the actions of these alumni simply sent a larger message of what they believed the school—and more broadly, us as American Jews—should be doing. It’s not necessarily that people believed the School didn’t condemn the the murder of George Floyd, but believed that we should be doing more to implement anti-racist education.
The conversation of how to implement a diversity of voices into our community, while on-going for years, has been brought to the forefront in a different way due to what’s going on in our world. Various initiatives have been proposed and a Zoom call was scheduled with alumni to hear their thoughts and work together to improve how we cover anti-racist education in schools.
On Wednesday, June 10, a rally took place with African American religious leaders, who invited our community, among others, to take park in a rally for “Justice, Equity, and Reform.” The event featured various speakers from the Black community, as well as Rabbi Pell from my school who shared some remarks.
Reverend Dr. Verlin Williams of Union Baptist Church and Bishop Wilbert Preston of Christ Temple Greater International Pentecostal Church, who invited our school community to take place in the rally, were there for our community in comfort a couple years earlier. In October 2018, when the Jewish community was processing the horrific shooting in Squirrel Hill, PA, local Black pastors, including Reverend Williams and Bishop Preston, supported our community, giving words of comfort, as well as singing with us.
Learning about and processing the events of the last couple of weeks has been difficult, but hearing stories of Black individuals’ experiences, as well as seeing our different faith communities come together with the rally, has been extremely comforting. While all we can do in a time like this is listen to others, amplifying Black voices and educating ourselves, I hope in the future to take an active effort to surround myself with a diversity of perspectives in college.
Additionally, while it might seem like our Jewish spaces are inherently lacking in diversity, we must continually strive to make up for that facade of homogeneity with intentional programming. Taking the effort to bring in a diversity of speakers, welcoming guest teachers to educate about certain topics, and encouraging interfaith programs between Jewish day school and local public school students can go a long way.
If we make an active effort to listen to others outside our immediate circles, I truly believe that we can burst out of our Jewish ‘bubbles’ and become more understanding.