Racism in the USA Curriculum
Rabbi Heschel, in the speech he gave at the White House, in 1963, said: “In several ways man is set apart from all beings created in six days. The Bible does not say, God created the plant or the animal; it says, God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1: 11 12, 21-25). In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man. From one single man all men are descended.” And yet, racism, hate and fear of those we view as different from us, is, unfortunately, everywhere and throughout history. Instead of trying to find what unites us as human beings, we search for the differences, we mark the borderlines between us and others, we sometimes like to feel superior....
The discussion about racial justice is not a new topic in the United States, but the related incidents last summer have brought up a heated and profound debate over systematic racism. At JTC we wanted to touch the topic with our older students, and provide a safe and comfortable space to speak about it. We were happy to learn about an opportunity for our 9th and 10th graders to participate in an interactive online experience, organized by JTS, Repair The World, and The Workers Circle, focusing on systematic racism in the USA. Through these three sessions program our teens got to meet with activists from Alabama, Arkansas, New York and Washington DC and hear their personal journeys touching on Jim Crow, poverty, mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.
In the first session we met Curtis and Michelle Browder, father and daughter. Curtis Browder grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and as a child was a neighbor and a classmate of the four girls who were killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. He vowed to kill the people responsible if he encounters them and felt he can no longer stay in the south. He left to New York, hoping never to return. In New York he had some rough experiences that would have probably put him behind bars, if not “for the grace of God” as he simply explained. He found hope, and the power to bring a change through his belief. Almost a decade later he returned to Alabama after being called by then Gov. George Wallace to serve as the state’s first black prison chaplain. in 1978, one of his first tasks led him to sit beside the bed of one of those bombers, who was now dying from cancer, and pray with him for peace. In the near five decades since Browder dedicated his life to the service of others, he had many inmates kneeling next to him in regret for their sins, and he had placed the burden of forgiveness in God’s hands. His daughter, Michelle Browder, believes art can change worldviews. She founded the non-profit “I Am More Than” where she uses her artist talents to create restorative justice programs in juvenile detention centers, failing school systems, and after school programs for underserved youth. Through art she tries to help young people channel their anger in non-violent ways.
In the second session the teens met Kuntrell Jackson from Arkansas, who was 14 years old when he was arrested and 17 years old when he was sentenced to life without parole. In the night of the incident that caused him to spend 16 years behind bars he was walking with an older cousin and friend when the boys began discussing the idea of robbing a video store. Kuntrell, who initially chose to stay outside of the store, decided to enter just as another boy shot and killed the clerk. His presence at the scene left him tried as an adult and convicted of capital murder, receiving a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) challenged his sentence as cruel and unusual punishment and won the right to a new sentencing in the U.S. Supreme Court. Kuntrell was released 16 years after he was sentenced, at the age of 33. Since then he remains involved in the fight for prison and sentence reform. He speaks to young audiences about the systematic abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty leading to mass incarceration. His mission is to help lost kids find themselves, believe in themselves and change their future, while in the worse places.
In the third session we were introduced to Free Minds book club and writing workshop, and organization that uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youths and adults to their own potential. Through creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach, these young adults achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community. We were offered the opportunity to meet some of the young poets who went through the program, hear their stories and how this program made a huge difference in their lives. We were able to read poems written by incarcerated youths and to respond to them with messages of support. Our teens wrote beautiful notes and expressed their emotions beautifully! I was very proud!!
These three sessions opened a very necessary continuance discussion about racism. We wanted to look at the topic of racism from a Jewish lens and explore what our sacred texts and great rabbis and commentators have to say about it. We learnt about the Black-Jewish Alliance formed in the 60’s and explored the basis for this alliance and the close relationship between Martin Luther King and Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We tried to explore the similarities between antisemitism, racism and hatred to “others” who are not part of our defined group. We presented the students with the speech Rabbi Heschel gave at the White House in 1963, and we analyzed his ideas and explored his references. We read his words stating: “To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul” and we learnt that “Kavod Habriyot” (human dignity) is so important to an extent that it may supersedes rabbinic law.
Our discussion heated up when we talked about Black Lives Matter! Some Jewish organizations and individuals criticize the movements platform for using language describing Israel as committing genocide or calling for support to the BDS. We wanted to give a room for the debate whether this is a reason not to support the movement or whether their cause is important enough for Jews to ignore such problematic messages. We also talked about the connection BLM activists made between the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman and the killing of Iyad Halak, an unarmed Palestinian, by the Israeli border police. We tried to touch racism in Israel and learnt about the Ethiopian Jews there and whether color plays a factor there as well. We talked about Implicit Bias – something that makes it hard sometimes to achieve empathy towards others.
At JTC we believe that we can deal with it all – even things that are hard and challenging to our minds and to our believes. We do not want to always stay in the comfort zone! We want to teach our teens to seek knowledge, think things through, speak their mind freely, and come to their own conclusions. As long as we communicate honestly and with respect to one another, we can face any challenges.