Petition leads to change: After pressure from alumni, school tackles subjects of systemic racism, inequality

Matthew Rabinowitz, Managing Copy Editor

After receiving two alumni petitions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests, Head of School Rabbi Mitch Malkus announced at the end of the school year that CESJDS is reviewing its curriculum, diversity policies, staff training, potential community partnerships and alumni engagement to address systemic racism and inequality as a school.

“CESJDS wants to be a leader among schools in educating the next generation to fight racism. Our school is committed to being anti-racist, to standing with the Black community in the fight against systemic racism and dedicated to taking the steps needed to ensure that we meet this moment and live up to the values we espouse and which guide us,” Malkus wrote in his second email.

However, alumnus Beth Birnkrant (‘07) was disappointed that alumni needed to petition JDS to take that stance after there was a “lack of strong language and anti-racism commitment” in Malkus’ first email.

“When I was in school, race never came up, and so many conversations were centered around American Jewish identity, and there was very little talk about what being white in America was like for the majority of us, and there was no conversation about those of us who were not white and what that meant for them,” Birnkrant said.

Both the Lower School and middle school have had significant changes over the past decade to have more widespread diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The Lower School now has a DEI Coordinator, and students discuss monthly themes such as Black History Month in assemblies and morning meetings.

Middle school students study race and community membership in their Humanities Experience and explore housing equity and white flight in Washington, D.C. Middle school culminates with an eighth-grade capstone trip to Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, where they further their studies of civil rights and Jewish involvement in slavery and racism.

“They also look at, during that trip, the fact that Jews were involved and owned slaves, were involved in the slave trade [and] were involved in the Confederacy,” Malkus said.

The high school recently added a required senior year history class, 21st Century American Identity, which covers later parts of U.S. history including the Civil Rights Movement.

Additionally, Argentinian Jew and Spanish teacher Deby Kijak, who helped write JDS’ diversity statement, was appointed Upper School DEI Coordinator for the 2020-2021 school year. As DEI Coordinator, Kijak is aiding JDS’ curricular review and increasing community engagement.

“We’re looking at all the curriculum maps we have for each class, and we’re trying to exactly look at what we’re currently doing,” Kijak said. “Once we know what we’re currently doing, we can go back to department chairs and have conversations with [Dean of Academics] Ms. Goldstein and they can have conversations within the departments to see what can be improved, what we’re doing well, what can we add, what books can we change, the perspective that we have in terms of what conversations we’re having, what voices are not being heard, and what can we add to have a better experience for everybody.”

In early August, the administration held a virtual town hall with approximately 60 alumni to see how JDS prepared former students to be engaged in racial justice.

Beyond appointing an Upper School DEI Coordinator, the administration is also looking to diversify its hiring practices.

“It’s one thing to say you don’t discriminate on the basis of race; it’s another to actively pursue having a diverse faculty and staff, so that’s an area we want to consider,” Malkus said. “We’ve talked about this topic at the Board, because we feel we want to cover this holistically. It’s not just about the education in the school; it’s also about our practices in the school.”

The administration also wants to implement professional development programs on implicit bias and managing uncomfortable situations in regards to social identifiers. Kijak is helping develop these programs.

According to Malkus, the administration is also finding ways to address the role white people need to play in fighting racism and how to use their privilege.

Central to all of these new policies are JDS’ values, Malkus said. Not only does Judaism recognize that all people are created in God’s image and to love your neighbor as yourself, but, according to Malkus, Judaisms’ core narrative is based around persecution and being freed of enslavement. This means that, “Jews have a unique and special obligation to partner with the Black community.”
Malkus hopes to receive more community input as changes are reviewed. A thorough report and update will be released in September.