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Expanding the Face of Jewish Education

This article first appeared in and is reprinted with permission of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Visit

If Abraham and Sarah came from Mesopotamia, what was their race? Were they light skinned like Ashkenazim (Jews with roots in Eastern Europe), or were they darker like Sepharadim (Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal)? Does it seem incongruous to be Jewish and African, Asian or West Indian?

For many American Jews, these questions never arise; most Ashkenazim and the general Jewish community assume that all Jews are white because of a process Shahanna McKinney calls "ashkenazification . . . a self-imposed homogenization of our culture as American Jews."

Since accepting a volunteer position some six months ago as Midwest director of the Jewish Multicultural Project, McKinney is trying to change that perspective by expanding the face of Jewish education to include its many colors.

According to JMCP's web site,, the global Jewish community has had the opportunity and responsibility to embrace ethnic differences, but has failed: "In most Jewish community venues . . . there is virtually no representation of Jews of color . . .

"Jewish community leaders are a product of their own education, which has been almost exclusively about [Ashkenazim]. As such, our community has become trapped in a cycle of ignorance."

JMCP, launched in 1999, is working toward breaking that cycle by becoming the clearinghouse of Jewish diversity work, McKinney said. It conducts training seminars for organizational staff, provides a growing resource guide on Jewish multicultural resources worldwide and is continuing to develop a curriculum for elementary through high school students.

The curriculum follows Jewish migration around the world from the days of Sarah and Abraham through modern times, and includes lesson plans and first-person accounts about Jewish life celebrations in different cultures. Some of the groups included are: ancient Jewish civilization; the Ethiopian Jewish community; "lost tribes" such as the Lemba of Zimbabwe; Middle Eastern and North African Jews; Central and East Asian Jews; Southern European and Latin American Jews; Jews of the United States with diverse heritage and recent converts.

The curriculum engages children through games, storytelling, art projects, theater, discussions, videos, music, dance and food. According to the web site, a comprehensive curriculum guide will be available for teachers, camp counselors and youth group leaders next fall. Tools for combining the JMCP materials with existing curricula are also provided.

Local participation

So far, five local organizations have signed on as "coalition sponsors," a process that requires a nominal fee and allows them to use the materials. They are: the American Jewish Committee-Milwaukee Chapter; Congregation Shir Hadash; Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation; Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Moreshet Network, a local project that builds relationships between Jews of African descent and their allies.

Both MJDS and Shir Hadash plan to incorporate JMCP's learning material into their own curricula. "I've reviewed the material and it's outstanding. It's exciting," said Sandy Brusin of Shir Hadash.

"When it came to our attention," explained Rabbi Philip Nadel, co-director and Jewish Studies principal of MJDS, "I wanted to support the project. I said 'Yes, absolutely' because I really believe in what it's doing."

McKinney, who holds a master's degree in social justice education, believes that this program is particularly important for Milwaukee.

"One of the reasons I agreed to be [Midwest director of JMCP]," she said, "is because we lead the country in racial separation. Jews, because we come from all over, are the perfect ones to be a light onto the nations in terms of modeling unity among people of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds . . . "

McKinney also runs Merkaz, formerly Machon, CJL's supplementary educational program for Jewish high school students. In that capacity, she developed materials that will be incorporated into JMCP's curriculum. One of the programs is a multicultural class, slated to begin in February, that "trains youth and then sends them into the world, to teach in schools," explained McKinney.

An English teacher at John Marshall High School, McKinney said multiracial children often approach her, telling of a Jewish mother, father or grandparent.

"If Jewish education was better equipped to serve these kids, then maybe the parents would have felt differently about getting them Jewish education."

Jews with family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Elana Kahn-Oren

Elana Kahn-Oren is assistant editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

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