Gefilte fish, large noses, Seinfeld, kugel, light skin, doctors, lawyers, accountants and last names like Friedman, Goldberg, Katz, Rosenberg and Schwartz. When a Sephardic student sees these American-Jewish stereotypes, he does not see his family, friends or community reflected.
The Sephardic community in North America is growing quickly. It’s not just the burgeoning enclaves of Syrians in Brooklyn and Deal, Bukharin in Queens and Phoenix, Persians in Great Neck and LA, and Moroccans in Montreal. Though each Sephardic community has its own norms and mores, on the whole Sephardim marry younger, have more children and are more traditional than Ashkenazim. They are the fasting growing Jewish community in (of all places) Manhattan.
As Sephardim venture forth from these enclaves and become significant minorities (and in some cases, majorities) in day schools from coast to coast, we must ask, “Are we servicing our Sephardic students and families as best we can?” Are we tailoring our curriculum, programming, and messaging to speak to our Sephardic families? Does our school’s culture reflect and deepen our students’ Sephardic Jewish identity?
Not long ago there was a prevalent, unstated opinion amongst rebbeim that we have to supplant the strong Sephardic ethnic identity with a theoretically-ethnically “neutral” religious identity.
I would argue that the opposite is true- the stronger a student’s Sephardic identity, the stronger their commitment to Judaism. We have to remember that Sephardic Jewry isn’t fractured into Chassidish, Conservative, Orthodoxy, Reform, etc., so the Sephardim who send their children to an Orthodox day school adhere to a wide range of observance and beliefs. On this background, the Sephardic fidelity to tefilla b’tzibbur and taharat hamishpacha are remarkable. As Ashkenazic educators, we need to understand our Sephardic families’ food, dress, slang, humor, piskei Halacha, minhagim, and cultural norms and mores, so we can plug into and strengthen our students’ Jewish identity.
My experience of being a teacher in an Ashkenazic-minority school (which was originally thoroughly Ashkenazic) truly informed and inspired the culture that we created in the new school I started in a different region of the country (where our student body was consistently 20% Sephardic). Having seen the world through the eyes of the Ashkenazic minority, I was determined to make our Sephardic students feel as “at home” as possible.
You may find it helpful to think of our Sephardic students as “Students of color”. Many of their parents were not born in the US, and English is not the mother tongue of many of their families. Like Ashkenazim, the first generation of Sephardim in North America earn(ed) their living through business (as opposed to professions). They are assimilating into western culture slower than other Jews (which is arguably a good thing). Just like political parties, corporations and public schools go to great lengths to be welcoming and accessible to people of color, Ashkenazic-run schools need to be thoughtful and proactive in creating well-designed Sephardic programs and curricula. I’d like to suggest a few.
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell taught at the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal, NJ, and was the Founding Head of School of the Katz (formerly Weinbaum) Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton. He is the Founding Director of the Torah Educators Network, whose mission is to enable yeshivas to share innovative ideas and do things that they could not do on their own. He is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, YU, RIETS and the Graduate School of Education of the College of New Rochelle.