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Teaching About Race in a Jewish Day School

Dr. Eytan Apter, CESJDS History Teacher

This article was originally posted by Prizmah.org in HaYidion The Prizmah Journal. 

In today’s world, teachers have to teach about race and racism in our country, delving into the complexities of race relations throughout American history, the progress that has been made, and the areas in which growth and change need to occur. As a classroom teacher in a Jewish day school, I have embraced the challenges that come with teaching about race in a predominantly homogeneous class. Prior to teaching any unit centered on race, I consider several key questions.

What unique challenges do teachers face teaching a class of middle- to upper-class white students living in a suburban environment? For a majority of my students, racial tensions and challenges are something they read about rather than experience firsthand. For many, the realities of the inequities in this country are unknown. At the beginning of a unit on civil rights, I prepare my students with numbers and statistics that clearly demonstrate the inequities. By exposing students to these realities, they can move beyond what Boston College research psychologist Janet Helms has called the “contact phase” of her White Racial Identity framework, in which people do not understand the issues because they are not exposed to them nor do they have contact with people of color who have endured these inequities and hardships.

How do Jewish values prepare students for this unit? As a Jewish educator in a Jewish setting, I am able to draw upon Jewish values before teaching about race. Values such as “Love thy neighbor/ Ve’ahavta le’rei’acha kamocha” connect to our learning, as the concerns and issues impacting those living in our greater neighborhood deserve our attention. I remind them of the value “Don’t stand idly by / Lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha” to show them that we cannot ignore the inequities either. I strive to create lessons that allow students to express opinions with respect / derekh eretz, and I push students to think about the issues of race in the context of repairing the world / tikkun olam. Sometimes we may find it easier to just demand that our students embrace an outlook because we feel that it is right or just, but we better serve our students if we can make explicit connections to the values that they have been taught throughout their years in Jewish day school.

How do we foster dialogue in a safe environment without condoning ignorance? Gloria Ladson-Billings, researcher and teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, warned against silence in the classroom, arguing that silence is not a measure of acceptance. Students need to feel comfortable sharing ideas, questioning one another and learning from their language choices. It is crucial for teachers to set up class norms or standards before opening topics for discussions. In my classroom, these include: Be mindful of the way you present your ideas. Educate rather than criticize others. Assume the best intentions. Use “I” statements.

While there is so much more that may go into planning lessons or units on race, teachers should not shy away from addressing these issues. Rather, through education and preparation, teachers can begin the conversation to help their students be change makers in the years to come.