Antiracism and JCHS

Antiracism and JCHS

On June 8, 2020, JCHS Alumni sent an open letter to school leadership and professional community members outlining the steps they hoped JCHS would implement to ensure that our actions and curriculum reflect anti-racism. Below is the response from Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, Head of School.
June 10, 2020

Dear JCHS Alumni,
Thank you for your email this week urging JCHS to double down on its commitment to racial justice and equity. All of us at JCHS are proud to have so many alumni who are joining the struggle to create a society of justice and equity. You powerfully expressed the best of yourselves and our tradition. Thank you also for acknowledging the impactful and resourceful work by Roni Ben-David, Director of Social Justice & Inclusion, along with our innovations like organizing the first regional Jewish Teens of Color Summit in 2019. 
I agree with you. Even with our effective work through the years, it is not enough. Our tradition calls on us to reflect on the gaps between our aspirations and our actions. Now is the time for JCHS to do more. 
In the wake of recent racially-charged tragedies in our country, here are the concrete steps JCHS and I are taking now. After listing our action steps, I’ve added some context and framing:

  • JCHS will scrutinize our internal systems, policies, and programs toward:
    • Eliminating settings and environments that are in any way harmful to our students of color, (who represent about 20% of our student body.)
    • Ensuring that systemic bias and inequities are eliminated from recruiting and enrolling students and employees and bringing more people of color to our student body and professional community.
  • JCHS will scrutinize our curriculum and graduation requirements in every department toward ensuring that we both eliminate systemic bias and integrate voices, narratives, and histories of people of color in ways that are authentic.  
  • JCHS will host a two-day Courageous Conversations “Beyond Diversity” training for our professional community and board, toward deepening their understanding of the impact of race on student learning, and grappling with how it influences the culture and climate of our school.  
  • JCHS will continue to deepen our work with the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which JCHS joined in 2019, to create more opportunities for students and families to engage directly in antiracist work. 
  • JCHS will continue to deepen our relationships with Western Addition community organizations (like the Village Project and the New Community Leadership Foundation) to build partnerships based on solidarity.
  • JCHS will form an alumni advisory board to work with the school’s “Steering Committee” (see below.)
Ms. Ben-David and her JCHS partners on the school’s “Steering Committee” (the group we launched in 2015 to address issues of equity and inclusion across JCHS) have been working on many of the efforts you suggest, along with the school’s Student Advisory Board to the Steering Committee. Those two groups are poised to work on your specific recommendations. Ms. Ben-David and I look forward to meeting with a number of you in the coming weeks as JCHS continues this antiracist work. Please designate a group of alumni with whom you would like us to begin working. There is much we can learn and accomplish together! 
JCHS as a school is committed to pursuing racial justice and integrating education about racism across disciplines. Over the last several years in particular we have begun weaving that pursuit into our program from ninth grade through twelfth grade. For example, we begin with teaching a unit on identity, power, and marginalization as part of Freshman Seminar; we build diversity training into the Senior Buddy program, preparing them to facilitate activities about difference and bystander intervention into the Welcome Retreat for ninth graders; we have changed the authors read in Humanities classes to better reflect the world in which we live; we immerse sophomores in an “Identity Matters” series; we send JCHS students and educators annually to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference and its parallel People of Color Conference; we have annual cohorts of white educators attend the White Privilege Conference; we require the entire Professional Community to participate in workshops that include "Systems of Racial Inequity,” "Unpacking Cultural Appropriation," and "Interrupting Bias;" we include in the hiring process for every position a screening interview around cultural diversity competence; and our Community Block programming continues to feature social justice and equity issues in our Western Addition neighborhood, such as one recent panel of neighborhood leaders addressing gentrification and redevelopment; we’ve been convening a robust White Antiracist Educators group and book club, which are invested, among other topics, on developing anti-racist responses to racism and building relationships of accountability with one another; and we facilitate other identity affinity groups. 
I want to pause to thank those of you who joined the June 8 letter to JCHS leadership for teaching me and helping crystalize my thinking about pursuing racial justice. As Rabbi Hanina taught I have learned much from my teachers, more from my friends, but most of all from my students! (Taanit 7a). A friend recently reminded me that Viktor Frankl (the noted Austrian psychoanalyst and philosopher who survived four Nazi death camps) said, “There are two races [of humanity and] only these two - the ‘race’ of the decent and the ‘race’ of the indecent.” For me this resonates with what Ibram X Kendi (American historian who is launching the new Boston University Center for Antiracist Research later this summer) said, "The opposite of 'racist' isn't 'not racist.' It is anti-racist.” You, our alumni and our students, have reminded me that in the pursuit of racial justice there are two types and only these two - activists for racial justice and opponents of racial justice. When we cry out “Black Lives Matter,” if we are not activists to some degree then we are opponents to an unacceptable degree. 
Our people’s history demands that we do all this and more. Those of us who are Jews know well the vulnerability of being othered. Still, this assault on the lives of people for no reason other than the color of their skin is different. Only by listening, seeing, and doing can we protect and dignify black lives on the path toward building a more just and equitable world. 
One of our explicit goals in launching the Steering Committee (which has included a range of nearly two dozen faculty, administrators, and staff over the last five years) was to inspire students to “recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice, and injustice.” Your work in these ways since graduating JCHS makes us incredibly proud. We look forward to partnering with you in the vital advocacy and activism our country and community needs. 

L’Shalom - Toward Wholeness,
Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben
Head of School
Jewish Community High School of the Bay
1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: 415.345.9777
The Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) is a unique college preparatory high school committed to integrating deep learning, universal wisdom, and Jewish values. We empower each student to embrace her or his Jewish identity, generate empathy and compassion, delight in lifelong education, and improve the world.