A Curriculum That Celebrates Jewish Diversity

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, left, and Michal Avera Samuel. Courtesy of Michal Avera Samuel. 

Jewish American kids of color can face an uphill road. A minority within a minority, they have to deal with both racism and antisemitism. For children in interfaith and interracial families, even their own homes can’t offer respite from the minority experience. While they represent the richness of Jewish identity, Jewish kids of color face very specific challenges. For educators, these challenges mean that new ways of thinking and teaching are in order.

Enter the Shalom Curriculum Project.

Led by the Jewish Ethiopian researcher and educator Michal Avera Samuel, the Shalom Curriculum Project has ambitious goals: normalizing multiethnic Jewish identities in the minds of young children and their Jewish educators, and widening the Jewish self-concept for the next generation of American Jews. 

Samuel’s own experience gives her work a personal sense of purpose. As a child, she fled Ethiopia with her family and learned firsthand the biases minorities face. She wants Jewish children today to have a different experience. 

The Shalom Curriculum Project is a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Coalition for Jewish Learning. It’s intended for educators of children between the ages of 4 and 7 and consists of materials across multiple modalities, including music, dolls, and storybooks. As part of the project, educators will receive training to engage families in sharing their culture with the rest of the Jewish community. 

Prototypes of the materials are currently being developed, tested, and refined with families, who have the opportunity to give feedback. “It’s giving families these wonderful images and also the opportunity to be engaged in two-way communication about what they’d like to see in the images,” project director Shahanna McKinney-Baldon said. 

Rabbi Heather Miller is the mother of three boys who are proudly descended from enslaved Africans and Holocaust survivors, and the founder of The Multitudes, an organization for synagogues seeking to embrace Jews of color. She’s excited about using the Shalom Curriculum Project in her work. “[The materials] promote the discussion of culturally relevant topics among the children. We’re not just teaching academics, we’re teaching kids to be good humans and instilling these values,” she said. Miller expects to see long-term benefits for children who are exposed to the curriculum. “As they get older, kids will understand why all of this matters. They will be raised with the understanding that Jews look different.”

Samuel sees the Shalom curriculum being useful in a variety of settings. “From the research I did, there is a lack of understanding and a lack of materials to teach diversity in Jewish communities,” she said. Synagogue-based Hebrew school programs, JCC afterschool programs, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish day schools will be able to incorporate the educational materials into their curriculum and staff training. “We just need to give them the tools,” she said. 

The shortage of diverse educational materials is a particular problem at a time when the Jewish community is becoming increasingly diverse. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2020 study of American Jews, 17% of Jews surveyed live in households in which at least one member is a person of color. The survey also found that 15% of American Jews ages 18 to 29 identified as non-white, compared to 8% of all respondents. 

And yet, American Jewish communities still have the impulse to center light-skinned Ashkenazi identity, which can be deeply alienating to Jews of color. This might explain some of Generation Z’s disinterest in Jewish identity; in that same Pew study, 41% of young adult Jews described themselves as “Jews of no religion.”

When one or both parents have converted to Judaism, Jewish educators might question the religious sincerity or halachic status of Jewish children of color. Samuel’s own childhood points to these patterns. “As kids, [Ethiopians] were underestimated in what we could achieve,” she said. She hopes her curriculum can dismantle these biases. 

Samuel thinks the curriculum will ultimately change the way Jewish children see themselves and each other. The key is for this type of education to be consistent and sustained. “We should not just have a one-time event of food or folklore; we need to build a foundation with educators and a culture of celebrating diversity as a routine,” she said. With this curriculum, the rich diversity of American Jews will be with the children  year-round.

Early childhood is fertile ground for dismantling an insular or narrow self-conception of who the Jewish community is and what it looks like. Supplied with the educational materials from Shalom Curriculum Project, the next generation of Jews will be able to embrace each other and the spirit of Ahavat Yisrael in their pure and tiny souls.

To review the curriculum prototypes and provide feedback, go to: https://shalom.education.wisc.edu/request/

 

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Great article and love hearing about wonderful Rabbi Heather Miller- and her perspective! Representation is vital for everyone to feel the importance that our lived experience matters and we belong.This work is critical for all of us.

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How to cite this page

. "A Curriculum That Celebrates Jewish Diversity." 16 April 2024. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/curriculum-celebrates-jewish-diversity>.