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Heschel Reaffirms Anti-Racism Initiative

Zoe Singer ‘23, Assistant News Editor

Following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, discussions about racial inequality permeated, and have continued to impact, virtually every community throughout the United States, including the Heschel student body and administration. During the spring and summer, Heschel committed itself to promoting allyship with the Black community and making advances in its anti-racism initiatives. 

During the spring, broadcast and cable news outlets, social media, and class discussions centered around racial inequality in the United States. Heschel developed an Anti-Racism Task Force that was divided into subgroups representing Early Childhood, Lower School, Middle School, and High School. The High School Task Force, also known as the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC), met several times over the summer to develop anti-racism programs to get students engaged and involved. ARC is led by English teacher Elana Anderson, Social Studies teacher Lisa Cohen, and Spanish teacher Ivania Marinero. 

Marinero explained that the task forces’ commitments are  “to disrupt, interrupt, educate, learn, relearn, and unlearn information.” Cohen explained that while ARC’s anti-racism work is meant to benefit high school students, teachers are learning as well. Cohen said, “We are working on developing programs for the full faculty, so that faculty is better equipped both to plan discussions around race and to respond in situations when race-related issues emerge.” She also shared that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings have helped drive ARC and herself in an ongoing social justice initiative. Cohen explained, “I hope to help students see how most members of our community benefit from this racially skewed system, and to recognize that [to work with Rabbi Heschel’s well-known statement] we are all responsible for its inequities, though we may not be guilty of being outright racists.”

Director of Jewish Programming N-5 and Director of Hesed and Tzedek Rabbi Anne Ebersman shed light on some of the specific work and programs that students across all ages can expect in the coming weeks. Ebersman explained that each Anti-Racism Task Force needs to approach racial discussions differently based on students’ varying ages. For example, Early Childhood and the Lower School use simpler vocabulary when discussing racism so that children feel encouraged to participate in conversations. Additionally, the Early Childhood and Lower School teachers have been and will continue using storybooks to teach children what racism is and how it relates to fairness and unfairness in our world. 

After speaking about the importance of reading books, Ebersman said, “as you [learned] at the Yom Iyun (day of study), the reading is not enough. Then, the question is what actions we will take in response. That is our challenge as a school and as individuals.” The specific discussions that occurred during the Yom Iyun, including a conversation with guest speaker Tre Johnson, will be addressed in an upcoming article. Ebersman added that Middle School and High School students will be having in-depth conversations about race throughout the year because teachers can rely on older students’ abstract thinking skills when addressing structural racism, microaggressions, and white privilege. 

Anderson shared that the English Department is dedicating more time to discussing racial issues during class. All high school students were required to read a book over the summer from a compiled list of books written by Black authors. Anderson said, “All of the books are fierce, gorgeously written narratives that have the power to change lives and perspectives, and we’ll be putting them in conversation with our other texts all year long.” Anderson is trying to challenge both herself and her class to make positive changes in regard to the way we view racism. She commented, “First, as part of the discussion about race, it’s important to make whiteness visible as a fluid, constructed identity. I am often asking myself whether I am willing to risk my own social or professional capital in order to further an anti-racist mission. The answer for me, as a white person, I believe, must almost always be yes.”

Lastly, Heschel Head of School Ariela Dubler offered insight as to what should be discussed during these difficult conversations throughout the year. Dubler said, “[These conversations aren’t] worth it by just talking about what’s out there. We also really need to look at our own role, and our own biases, and our own sort of struggles to do this work.” Dubler also shared that she believes addressing these issues in a Jewish school offers an interesting perspective. She explained, “We need to be mindful because we were גר היית במצרים, strangers in the land of Egypt, and we are meant to be part of a community of understanding the power of exclusion, and the pain of exclusion.” 

In addition to many administrative and faculty-planned events, Student Government has dedicated time to addressing racism in our communities. The Hesed Council and Programming Council have both promised to initiate events and fundraising in order to further address racism and bring about change.

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