My Jewish education has made me who I am today. It has taught me to learn, question, and debate Jewish texts. It has taught me to be proud of Jewish culture and customs. It taught me how to read, write, and speak Hebrew. It has taught me to remember the Holocaust. It has taught me to value community. It has taught me compassion and curiosity and critical thinking.
And yet, my Jewish education failed to adequately address race. Though I was taught the basic history of slavery and the civil rights movement, my history courses did not expose me to challenging conversations about race and identity. While emphasizing the importance of considering different voices, the humanities curriculum gave little to no voice to people of color. While highlighting the need for social justice, the schools I attended hesitated to confront their complicity in injustice.
The issues I have with my education — from the lack of literature by people of color or women to the limited discussion of African American history and systemic racism — speak to a larger American educational problem. Unfortunately, the dominant White culture in our country often suppresses marginalized voices. This educational problem is not unique to Jewish educational institutions, though it must be addressed within our education system as a whole.
Specifically, I am disappointed that as Jews, we often allow our Jewish identity to erase our racial identities. Our people’s experience with oppression and anti-Semitism, combined with an overflowing pride in Jewish identity and culture, often causes us to see Judaism as our one defining identity. And while it is a crucial identity, both religiously and culturally, it is not a racial identity. White Jews are still White. Middle-eastern Jews are still Middle-eastern. Black Jews are still Black. As a result, non-Black Jews, particularly White Jews, are a part of the systems of oppression in this country.
This erasure of Jewish racial identity was present in my elementary school, high school, and even summer camp. I went to college without ever having had any friends outside of my predominately white Jewish community, without ever having had teachers of color, without ever having emphasized voices of color. Though I completed my high school’s Race, Class, and Gender elective and attended a Jewish Civil Rights summer trip, I went to college unprepared to talk about race. Many of my friends have experienced the same discomfort. Even those of us who tried to learn about race didn’t know how to address our own privilege. Moreover, our Jewish education, which always stressed the importance of kindness and justice, never taught us how to be anti-racism advocates.
As a community that has historically been oppressed and excluded, it is uncomfortable to think that we have the capacity to be a part of the oppression of others. However, that discomfort makes addressing this issue even more crucial. I remember looking through history textbooks with my peers, outraged at how the whole Holocaust was only a few paragraphs in the 30-page section on WWII. This lack of historical representation occurs with women’s rights, Black rights, and indigenous rights. As a community that recognizes the importance of remembrance, we should be outraged at any erasure of marginalized histories. As a community that has suffered its own disenfranchisement and persecution, we should fight against the systemic oppression of others. To do so, we must educate ourselves and recognize our part in American racial structures.
This change can start in Jewish education. Instead of only focusing on race during Martin Luther King Jr. Day or in an elective class, racially conscious education needs to be woven into our curriculum. This means recognizing the racial diversity within the Jewish community, hiring more diverse educators, incorporating diverse voices and readings into humanities classes to understanding the lasting, tangible legacies of slavery, and making space for conversations about race.
This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. For the first time, people of all races and identities are united against systemic racism. People recognize that “Black Lives Matter” should not just be a Black issue. For too long, White people have benefitted from the power structures in this country. Now is the time for White and non-Black Jews to stop standing idly by. We need to use this time in history to reflect on our part in America’s racial history, to reevaluate how we move forward, how we teach our children, and how we make our own communities more inclusive. We need to teach our children that following Jewish values does not only mean condemning oppression. It means owning up to complicity in oppression, doing teshuvah, and changing our role. It means becoming actively anti-racist.
Eliana Robin is a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis studying political science and English.