“There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you” (Numbers 15:15-16).
The Torah in Parshat Shelach describes the ideal Jewish society, in which the people are commanded to ensure that they fully integrate the stranger. Forcing the people to overcome their natural fear of the other, the Torah highlights on numerous occasions that our experience as a stranger in the lands of others requires that we empathize with those who are marginalized in society and refrain from any form of oppression.
Following the death of Geroge Floyd, communities all across the country are asking themselves this very basic question: Is there really one law for each and every person in America? What would it look like if we lived in a world where no one was above the law? For the vast majority of us in the Jewish community, explicit racism can rarely be found in the public sphere as acceptable discourse. Yet, in many ways, individuals and communities in this country are beginning to grapple with the ways in which we may be blinded to our own inadvertent and unconscious biases, and our unintentional contribution to systemic racism. As a Jewish day school teacher, I have been reflecting both on my place in American society as a private school teacher, and on the place of our private Jewish school system in our country.
There are many beautiful aspects to our Jewish private school community. We are afforded the opportunity to explore deeply our shared religion, culture and peoplehood, and constantly work toward educational excellence. Our community deeply values our educational institutions, and we support our schools with the financial backing of our communities, drawing on our amazingly dedicated teachers, passionate lay leaders and engaged students.
Yet, there are three things that have been in the back of my mind that I can’t shake. The first is the reality that many of our students who go through our Jewish school system will not have a sustained relationship with non-Jewish peers. Sports leagues and competitions are often within the scope of all Jewish leagues and organizations. As much as we educate our students to be thoughtful, empathetic, open to the real world, and educated about the history of racism and discrimination, it is another thing entirely to be in a naturally diverse community of peers that you would find in the public schools system. What implicit messages do we teach our children and students when we send them through a school system in which they never have to interact with someone not of their own religious persuasion?
Secondly, I have seen firsthand how many incredible and thoughtful educators we have working in our private school systems. I wonder sometimes what it would look like if we, as a community, were integrated within the public school system. Would our lay leaders advocate for better education for not only our Jewish students, but for the community at large? Would our students influence and contribute to the communal education system in a positive way? Would we channel more resources into our community public school systems at large, contributing to a more positive community culture? Our community is thriving here in America, baruch Hashem; what could it look like to share those resources beyond our own community?
Lastly, and most personally, I myself have attended only Jewish schools and summer programs my entire life. While some of my Modern Orthodox friends began to develop peer connections in college, I attended Yeshiva University along with many of my community members. Many of my fellow yeshiva students have now gone into the workforce, and will now interact with those who come from different backgrounds than them. A small subset, however, like myself, will work in Jewish education and never join the American public workforce. We will not have had the benefit, first hand, of joining in fellowship with those from different religious and ethnic backgrounds than ourselves. Yet, it is we who will be the ones to engage in the difficult discussions impacting society, educating our students, and attempting to find a way forward drawing only from our Jewish texts, but not from our lived experience.
We will be the ones to engage in the difficult discussions of race in our schools and attempt to find a way forward from our Jewish texts. Yet, many of us may not have had the opportunity to join in fellowship on a consistent basis with those from different religious and ethnic backgrounds than ourselves.
Jewish educators are some of the most thoughtful and morally sensitive people I know. I call on all Jewish educators: What steps can we take as a community and profession to connect and listen to the greater community around us, setting an example for our students in these deeply troubling times? Our response will not only help the general community; it will help us truly internalize and reach toward the value of “one law for you and for the resident stranger.”
Aryeh Laufer teaches inquiry engineering and inquiry beit midrash at The Idea School, but mostly teaches students. He is passionate about democratic schooling.