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Karen Reiss Medwed
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Teach all children: Jewish affirmative action

The US Supreme Court's ruling is an ethical, moral and – for Jews – religious failure
07/19/22- Boston, MA - Dr. Karen G Reiss Medwed, Senior Assistant Dean of Faculty Affairs and Network Engagement in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University and Special Advisor to the Dean at CPS for DEI, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 outside the Catholic Center on St. Stephen Street in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University
07/19/22- Boston, MA - Dr. Karen G Reiss Medwed, Senior Assistant Dean of Faculty Affairs and Network Engagement in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University and Special Advisor to the Dean at CPS for DEI, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 outside the Catholic Center on St. Stephen Street in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Teach a child in the way they need, even as they grow older they will not deter from it (Proverbs 22:6)

What is our understanding of our obligation to educate children?

Early rabbinic teachers and prophets understood that education is personalized and differentiated. The rabbinic obligation of education begins at home, with the family, “a parent is obligated to teach their child to swim. (Kiddushin 29a). In cases where the home might not suffice for educating all children in the community, the notion of teacher training to educate all teachers emerged: “They seated the teachers of children in Jerusalem (for all), (Baba Batra 21a).” 

As to access to equitable education, one might learn from the Rambam who ensured that schooling was healthy, accessible and available, “If a teacher desires to open a school and be accessible to the children there, the neighbors cannot protest. (Mishnah Torah, Study of Torah, 2:7)”  

There is a moral, ethical and halakhic (Jewish law) prescription to educate our children, all our children, an obligation that applies to all members of society.

The United States Supreme Court reversal of affirmative action is an ethical, moral and for Jews, religious failure, this week.  

As a rabbi, as an educator, and as an invested member in the well-being of my community and broader society, it bewilders me to find ourselves facing this reversal by the United States Supreme Court of affirmative action policies for race in higher education. These policies in higher education have served as a safeguard and a response to centuries-old racism and systemic inequalities across university systems. They ensure a vibrant and diverse community of learners which ensures a vibrant exchange of ideas and creative addressing of solutions among the learners.  

More importantly, affirmative action is one societal solution to the challenges we have addressed across the centuries of learning that all children deserve equal and equitable access to education. While our rabbinic literature might have represented this in the language of their times, there is no question that in the US today, the obligation to “teach a child in the ways they need,” means “take into account the racial inequities, disparities and exclusions” which are an obstacle to inclusion and success.  

Can we also learn from our Jewish legacy?

As a religious leader, I am sensitive to the legacy of discrimination prevalent across the system of Higher Education in the United States. Looking back just 150 years, I recall how the Jewish community was forced to establish hospitals in the US to provide a space for Jewish doctors and other medical practitioners to both train and practice, and to create a culturally sensitive environment for religious Jews for their healthcare. A legacy of higher education in the US is the very unfortunate practice of discriminatory traditions of exclusion. 

What is the urgency?

The United States Supreme Court this week reinforced that discriminatory legacy in ways that are harmful not only to individual students but also to institutions of education and the system of higher education.  

Can we be part of the solution? 

This decision requires interesting and creative solutions from institutions of higher education that have recently committed themselves to a system of education that leads from a place of inclusion rather than exclusion.  

The Court’s ruling must be viewed as an opportunity for Jewish religious leaders to take a vocal stance, recalling our own suffering of discrimination in the past, to be part of an inclusive solution that addresses the systems of racial oppression preventing all students from equal access to all education and not allowing this recent Supreme Court decision to get in the way of fulfilling our communal obligation to teach all children and provide then all equal and equitable access to robust communal and societal education. Affirmative action ensures that we are providing access to all educational opportunities and taking into account the systemic racism that otherwise creates systems of exclusionary racial discrimination. 

Our society deserves better as do our children, than the devastating decision this week of the United States Supreme Court. 

About the Author
Rabbi Karen G Reiss Medwed, Ph.D. is the only certified practicing female identifying mesadder gittin in the Conservative movement, and is an appointed member of the Joint Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly. She works as a Teaching Professor at the College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University.
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