April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Building Bridges Across the Bronx

Twenty students from SAR High School and 20 students from Comp Sci High (CSH), a Bronx charter school, gathered together to meet each other and explore their own and each other’s identities in the first in a series of programs over the course of this school year. One of the program’s main goals is for students from different backgrounds to learn about each other in an attempt to build bridges, establish connections, and work towards combating racism and antisemitism. The meeting was more successful than any of us could have imagined, kicking off what has been a meaningful and impactful partnership.

For the better part of the past year, I have worked with two other SAR teachers and one Comp Sci High teacher to develop a program to fight antisemitism and racism. After Kanye West’s antisemitic outbursts in November 2022, we began thinking about effective programs we could run for students. We were fortunate to receive a generous grant from the Nagel Gen-3 Fund, which has enabled us to run this very special intercultural exchange. In 13 years of teaching, I think this is the most important work I have ever done.

No Jewish students attend CSH, where the majority of students are Latino and Black. The school invests heavily in college guidance and career placement, and their relationships continue well beyond graduation. One of the educators’ dreams is to create a community of graduates who come back to live in their neighborhood and serve as role models to youth in their communities.

Fighting hatred feels like an overwhelming, sometimes impossible task. We were blessed to find a colleague at CSH who is as invested in this work as we are and who has played an integral role in the design of this partnership. While planning this program, we spent tens of hours thinking about its goals and how to meet them. In conversations with our amazing CSH counterparts, who have also put tremendous time and thought into each meeting, we chose to expose each cohort to the wonderful parts of each other’s cultures and explore the many challenges of living as a minority in the United States. We hoped that meeting and taking the time to get to know one another would lead our students to be more open to each other’s communities in the future, correcting assumptions they might have held and preventing stereotypes.

In each meeting so far, students from both schools have arrived ready to participate in open, respectful dialogue. We have had some difficult conversations. For example, in a breakout discussion on stereotyping, students from CSH spoke about the impact that white-passing has on their identities. Students spoke about how certain expectations have been placed upon them and how out of place they can feel at times, not quite fitting into any one community because of their skin color. One other student shared how they have been met with aggression because of their skin color. In that same discussion, an SAR senior spoke about some of the stereotypes of being labeled a Zionist and the fallout they faced after posting pro-Israel content on social media. Reflecting on this session, students shared how frustrated they felt by the hurt generalizations can cause while others shared how powerful it was to hear each individual story. All of the students agreed that they wanted to learn more about each other and gain constructive tools to fight stereotypes.

It has also been heartwarming to see the Jewish pride our students have exhibited. While this program was planned long before October 7, students realized that this opportunity could not be more timely. After volunteering together at a food pantry and before eating our own lunches, an 11th grader from SAR stood up in front of the whole cohort to explain the process and origins of netilat yadayim and birkat hamazon. At our Chanukah event, SAR students proudly taught their CSH friends how to play dreidel and explained the Chanukah story. Later that day, they engaged in a difficult conversation about Jewish life after October 7 and examined antisemitic images popular on social media, explaining why they are so hurtful. One challenge our students have noted is that we are all Jewish and can explain our traditions in a uniform way while the students at CSH come from diverse backgrounds. Nonetheless, we have still gotten a rich taste of what it means to be Dominican, Black, Puerto Rican and Senegalese in America. We have learned about the importance of cooking with family, the meaning of holidays like Dia de los Muertos, and the frustration of being told what one’s identity should be, not what they know it is. Through these exchanges, our SAR students have seen how important it is to widen their worldviews and open themselves to hearing about others’ experiences.

As an adult and teacher, I began this process worrying about missteps. We developed a protocol of what to say if a student offended someone so that everyone could move forward productively with a new understanding about a hurtful word or phrase. This unique and special group of 40 students have never once needed to use this protocol. Their thoughtfulness, curiosity and innate goodness have helped them to navigate difficult conversations with incredible patience and understanding.

What will students take from this program? I often think about the future of this first cohort. Will they keep in touch? Many are connected on social media, and some will attend the same colleges or colleges in the same cities. I hope they do maintain their connections. But even if no one keeps in touch, I hope that all 40 of them will take this experience with them for life, having learned about new cultures and been challenged to consider different viewpoints and outlooks on the world while reinforcing their own beliefs and identities. Many have reflected on the importance of hearing directly about the impacts of prejudice on the Black and Latinx communities, noting how these discussions will shape their own actions in the future. Most of all, I pray that these students will take the lessons they have learned in civil discourse and be able to see each other as more than “Jewish,” “Zionist,” “Black,” “Latina” or some other label; I pray they will all take the time to see each other’s communities in the future. I envision the day when I get an email from a student in college who tells me that they saw a sign about fighting racism or learning about another culture and they did not just walk by. Instead, they will show up to strengthen these connections, stand up to injustice, and be part of a better world they are helping to build.


Dr. Caryn Keller received her BA in history from Stern College for Women; her MA in the teaching of social studies from Teachers College, Columbia University; and her EdD in Jewish education from the Azrieli School at Yeshiva University. She previously taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School.

About Machon Siach:

Machon Siach was established in 2015 with a legacy gift from Marcel Lindenbaum, z”l, honoring the memory of his wife, Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, z”l.

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