In grappling with race, Jewish schools rethink approach to Jews of color

Third-graders from the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan check out a mural in East Harlem as part of a social studies unit on ethnic groups around New York, March 2019. (Courtesy of Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan)

When Martha Nadell and her partner decided to enroll their daughter, Georgie, at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, they were  excited about the school’s pedagogical approach and values.

But Nadell, an English professor at Brooklyn College who is white and Ashkenazi, and her partner — who is of Puerto Rican and African-American descent and not Jewish — were concerned about the student body’s racial and ethnic homogeneity.

“Do we have any Jews of color applying to this school?” Nadell recalled asking an admissions officer. “What can we do to encourage families of kids of color to come to the school?”

The question helped push Hannah Senesh to rethink its approach to racial and ethnic identity, both within and outside the Jewish community. This year, the New York City school has held staff trainings and parent workshops, and discussed ways to recruit a more diverse student body.

“The goal is to broaden our narrative, and broaden our vision and understanding,” said Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, who led a training recently for school staff. Abusch-Magder is the director of education for Be’chol Lashon, an organization that aims to raise awareness of Jewish ethnic, racial and cultural diversity.

“One of the things that is often said about Jewish education — especially day school education — is that it is parochial and not diverse,” she said. “I think that we suffer from our own narrowness and don’t take advantage of the strengths and riches that we have in our own community to really showcase them. We are not a narrow and non-inclusive people.”

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