May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Silence, by nature, is often characterized as uncomfortable. To avoid discomfort, it’s natural for us to try to fill silent pockets in a conversation with words, as filling that void helps us feel excused from doing the hard work of confronting and even changing a status quo that has grown familiar. Even Thomas Jefferson knew this to be true when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Two hundred and fifty years later, our country has still found itself working on “abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”: namely, confronting and eradicating the systemic racism that permeates the fabric of our country.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the growing protest and unrest unfolding across America, it becomes more essential than ever that the Jewish community, among all communities, vehemently speak out against and condemn the violent and heinous behavior and prejudice that led to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. We must condemn this hatred and stand with the oppressed immediately, as doing so is unequivocally the morally right choice. Our Head of School Rabbi Rubin knew time was of the essence and addressed our community the day after, speaking candidly with our students, condemning George Floyd’s murder; he emphasized that it is no longer adequate to be a non-racist but now we must be anti-racists. In addition to words, it’s our obligation as educators to take an active stand against racism and all forms of bias, prejudice and hatred, particularly through our schools.

But what does that active stance look like? For some people, it’s easy to espouse politically correct statements, but teaching students in our schools how to confront uncomfortable silences borne from challenging issues relating to race is an entirely different, more complex, and critically important endeavor. Today, we must teach our students to be global citizens willing to and compelled to confront and fight against racism and prejudice wherever it surfaces, both in the classroom and beyond. As educators, teaching students to be anti-racists requires a willingness to examine the literary canon, an engagement with current voices, and the development of curricula that encourage empathy for the experience of the other.

At JKHA/RKYHS, teaching students to confront racism is more than the school making formal statements against it when it manifests in the news or in our neighborhoods. It is the daily–and taxing, exhausting, emotional – work of engaging our students in uncomfortable conversations with uncomfortable silences, often with the goal of examining and challenging uncomfortable personal truths, for teachers and students alike.

Across JKHA/RKYHS high school and middle school, educating our students to become anti-racists means reexamining the literary canon with a critical and honest eye in a modern context. The body of books, narratives and other texts that were once considered the most influential or important–written by predominantly male, white authors – no longer bear the same resonance they once did when read in the context of our lives in 2020. Conversely, their resonance and meaning can surprisingly become all the more important on other occasions, begging for reinterpretation and evaluation in that new modern context. For instance: try rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a modern context, and consider what it means when Huck, the affable white child protagonist, tells the reader he “ain’t gonna humble himself to no n*****” when he refuses to apologize to his friend, an adult, black man named Jim, for how Huck has knowingly wronged Jim. Juxtapose that scene with an honest class discussion of what systemic racism is and how deeply rooted it can be in our culture, impacting even children’s worldviews. Ask students to envision the scene from Jim’s perspective, and students will begin to skim the surface of how deeply discrimination and bias can influence our perceptions of self. If schools are to be successful in creating anti-racists, they must commit to looking at the canon. Within our community, which is often insular and homogenous, the literature we teach in our classrooms must examine the experience of the other. Certainly, we can rely on famous titles of the canon as our launchpads for brutally honest discussions about race and inequality, but there are also so many new and wonderful texts that offer compelling and transformative insight into the experience of the other: Brown Girl Dreaming, The Breadwinner Trilogy, Absolute True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian, and The Bluest Eye, to name a few.

While literature and discussions enable and encourage students to become more empathetic, books are not enough. Our students need to understand someone else’s experience by hearing from speakers who come from different walks of life from neighborhoods and communities unlike their own, beyond the insularity of the Jewish world. At RKYHS, speakers like Larry Hamm, Bakari Sellers and Reverend Steph and the Jubilation Choir addressed our students to help them understand what racial inequality looks and feels like. Hearing from someone who has experienced racial injustice can resonate with students in a way that literature alone cannot.

Finally, anti-racism can’t exist in a vacuum. For any of the work we do in a classroom to actually matter, our discussions of inequity, bias, prejudice and racism can’t be relegated to an English class. Teachers across all disciplines – from English to History to Judaic Studies – have to be willing to engage with their students in conversations on race and inequality because neglecting to do so unintentionally suggests quiet complicity. Our students crave their teachers’ honesty, feedback and authenticity, and giving them anything less than our whole selves as human beings in the classroom, where we discuss so much more than designated curricula, denies our students the opportunity to see how we, as adults, continue to wrestle with complex social issues as we strive to become the best versions of ourselves. The work of these conversations is only beginning, as it’s not enough to “check” others and their behaviors to see if they are anti-racist; all of us – adults and children alike – must acknowledge how our own implicit biases have shaped our worldviews. We must be willing, both as teachers and students, to do the hard work of recognizing and admitting to the prejudice in our worldviews – and that can be much more uncomfortable and painful than silence.

As our school processed and reflected on how to respond to and discuss George Floyd’s murder with our students, our hearts, like many, turned to the phrase

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדּף

“Justice, justice you shall pursue”. The word tzedek is repeated twice to remind us, always, that we must, as a community, pursue justice for ourselves, but just as significantly, justice for others. Difficult conversations today can lead us to a more promising future tomorrow.


Ariel Horn Levenson is the principal and a teacher at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy Middle School. Her first children’s book, DO NOT GO IN THERE!, about childhood anxiety, was published this month by Macmillan. She is a writer and keynote speaker on professional development topics in education.

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