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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Diversity in the Jewish Classroom - No II, 5764

Diversity in the Jewish Classroom
No II, 5764

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V'shinantam will be dedicated to a specific aspect of building classroom community. Our operating enduring understanding is that building classroom community creates opportunities for educational success. Each issue will be written with input from another department at the UAHC.

V'shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah , Avodah , and G'milut Chasadim . We interpret each heading to focus on a different aspect of our work. Under the heading Torah, signifying the mind, you will find a teaching from our tradition; under Avodah (heart), a context to give us the proper intention for our work; and under G'milut Chasadim (hands), practical ideas for implementation.

Enlarging Our Tent: Welcoming the Changing Face of Judaism

Enlarge the site of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, do not stint!
Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm.
For you shall spread out of the right and to the left.
--Isaiah 54:2-3

“For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Thus declares the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
“I will gather still more to those already gathered.”
--Isaiah 56:7-8

Our religious school teachers are on the front lines of our outreach efforts, and their care and concern is for our synagogues’ most vulnerable population—our children. Because of their dedication and despite the challenges of demographic, ethnic and cultural change, our students are in good hands. The vast majority of our teachers recognize the need to create an open and accepting classroom community—one that respects and recognizes difference and celebrates the modern Jewish family in all its myriad forms.

Only 23% of families in our congregations are “traditional,” having two first-time married adults with children at home. 51% of Jews are in interfaith relationships or have extended families that are not Jewish. Our students come from a myriad of ethnic and racial backgrounds, as do their parents. They may face developmental and physical disabilities that are challenges to inclusion. What do these children have in common? They gather in our classrooms to learn about what it means to be a Jew—to shape their lives in a sacred tradition.

What is the mission of our teachers now? The same as it has always been—to nurture strong Jewish identities, to provide a safe place to ask questions and learn about our traditions, and to educate and thus to empower future generations of Jews.

What are the challenges? To protect the integrity of our community while welcoming those who wish to draw near to us. To be inclusive of everyone in our classrooms, honoring and respecting the variety of our students’ backgrounds and family models. To question old assumptions and look at curriculum through a new lens, embracing opportunities for family education.

Kathy Kahn
Assistant Director, URJ Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community

For more information, go to

In order to build classroom community in today’s diverse classroom, we need to consciously acknowledge diversity and practice hospitality, kindness and respect. Use the suggestions below to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses in reaching out to each unique student and recognizing their distinct circumstances. Then choose a few to try in your classroom.

  • Not all homes are alike. Learn about your students and their families. Become knowledgeable about Reform Judaism, including the policy of patrilineal descent. Read the 1983 CCAR Resolution, which resolves “that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life."
  • Make your classroom a safe and holy place. Reinforce for yourself and your students that each student is created in the image of God and therefore is unique and must be treated with honor and respect.
  • In our classes today there are students from different cultures and races, transforming the Jewish community and our understanding of what it means to look and be Jewish. Consider the special challenges for a Jewish adoptee from another country and culture, a minority within a minority. Remember that these students and their families enrich the tapestry of the Jewish people. Invite parents or family members from other cultures to class to speak about the way Jewish rituals are practiced in their family.
  • The diversity in our classrooms may come from special needs, physical or emotional challenges, sexuality, blended families, single parent families, or gay or lesbian parents, for example. Examine your own biases and refocus towards your goal, nurturing the Jewish identity of all your students.
  • Do not send your students home with lessons or assignments to “fix” their families. Identify areas of your own discomfort and in which you could learn more. Find a mentor or a colleague with whom you can share your work, challenges, and excitement.

Sometimes children will share stories or ask questions that challenge the Jewish values and customs we are trying to teach. These moments can catch us off guard. When you have an “outreach moment” like this in your classroom…

  • Hide any emotional reaction you may have to a startling statement: tie your shoe, erase the blackboard, or breathe.
  • Remember that you are the face of Judaism at the moment for that child. Be clear and as kind as you can be in helping the child clarify whatever is confusing him or her.
  • Clarify for children what is and what is not Jewish
  • Affirm that you are glad the child is in your class and that he or she is welcome there.
  • Use nonjudgmental language. A child who feels judged will shut down and be unable to learn. Remember that whatever the situation at home, it is often out of the child’s control.
  • Refocus. Once you have affirmed the child’s Jewish identity and clarified the immediate confusion, refocus the class on the lesson at hand.
  • Consult your Educator and Rabbi for assistance and also to provide information they may need to know.

Sources: Heller, Saundra. “Teaching Children of Interfaith Families” in The New Jewish Teachers Handbook . Denver: A.R.E. Publishing, Inc., 1994, and teacher development materials prepared by Arlene Chernow, URJ Regional Outreach Director, Pacific Southwest Council and Val Scott, former URJ Regional Outreach Director, Pacific Central West Council.

Below are several ideas for first steps in embracing the diversity in your classroom as well as resources for further study.

The CHAI: Learning for Jewish Life curriculum contains many lessons on tolerance and accepting diversity. The family education lesson included with the Level 4 Core, “The Many Faces of My Jewish Family,” explores different kinds of families by using Biblical models of blended families, intermarriage, and adoption. The G’milut Chasadim strand of the Curriculum Core in general touches upon diversity and the value of tolerance. To find out more about the CHAI curriculum, visit the CHAI website.

Idea Books from the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach have lessons and programs adaptable for classroom use. For example, the 2000 Idea Book contains a session called “Honoring Your Child’s Non Jewish Heritage” (Chapter 3). Visit the Outreach website for more books and resources about outreach, Judaism, and diversity. Browse the outreach titles available from the URJ Press. describes itself as a springboard for exploring Jewish identity and culture through art and multimedia exhibits, emphasizing meaning-making processes, diversity, and pluralism. Toldot is an online museum for kids, teens, and college-age young adults. It hopes to inspire kids and young adults from around the world to explore the cultural issues that affect identity. Students can create work that will then become part of an on-going exhibit in the online museum. Take a virtual tour of the museum.

Visit Teaching Tolerance online. “Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance supports the efforts of K-12 teachers and other educators to promote respect for differences and appreciation of diversity.” Find resources for your class as well as for your own development. For example, take a test to reveal your hidden biases.

Women’s Educational Media produced a film called That’s a Family! This 35-minute documentary features children from all kinds of families talking about their experiences and comes with a teaching guide. It is part of the Respect for All Project, designed to help communities talk openly about diversity. You can view clips from the film online.

The October 2003 issue of Educational Leadership , a magazine published by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is entitled Teaching All Students and contains an article by Elite Ben Yosef, “Respecting Students’ Cultural Literacies” (pp. 80-82). She writes, “We can create bridges by opening our minds and the doors of our classrooms to local and vernacular literacies and using them as building blocks on which to construct our teaching.” One teacher she sites encourages kids to bring in artifacts from home (menus, receipts, any scrap of paper with writing). The children interpret the meaning of the artifacts and use them to tell their own stories. Consider having your students bring in Jewish family artifacts for everyone to investigate and to tell their family stories.

Do you have a unique or especially successful experience celebrating diversity in your classroom? Send an e-mail to: Irene Bolton, and put “ V’shinantam ” in the subject line. We’ll post some of your ideas online!

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