Since our founding, the essence of JIMENA’s mission has always been to educate students and the larger Jewish public on Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage and history. Through the years, we’ve provided and led hundreds of diverse educational programs for Jewish day schools, campus organizations, and young adult programs throughout the United States. Given that North American-based Mizrahi and Sephardic educational organizations are few and far between, JIMENA has always worked hard to meet short-term educational requests and needs as efficiently as we can. We find ourselves moving through requests for content, for information, and for Sephardic facilitation and leadership quickly. With the support of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and the Koret Foundation, we were able to take a step back to research, strategize, implement an educational pilot program, and build a sustainable curriculum.
When we tasked ourselves with formalizing our educational work by building the Journey to the Mizrah curriculum we dug in deep to find out what the needs of students and educators are that weren’t being met and required the support of Sephardic and Mizrahi thought-leaders, educators, rabbis, scholars and activists. The list was, and is, very long and we see Journey to the Mizrah as a contributing step on a long path towards a Jewish educational paradigm shift that truly embraces and reflects the heritage and needs of ALL students. The irony is that this shift forward is in many ways, a step back towards an age-old Sephardic educational paradigm that is inclusive, participatory, progressive, and open to students of diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Diversity and Inclusion
Across the board, we are seeing Sephardic, Mizrahi and Israeli students increase their enrollment in Jewish day schools and their participation in Jewish life – yet Jewish schools and informal Jewish education institutions are unprepared to meet the needs of shifting student bodies. Because so little research has been done on the contemporary, demographic trends of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews – we rely heavily on anecdotal research. We know for example, that one in four students at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay identifies as Sephardic through a parent or grandparent. We know that Sephardic students are becoming an increasing majority at Jewish Day Schools in Los Angeles and New York.
Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews likely comprise the largest sub-ethnic Jewish group in North America, yet our history, heritage and contemporary needs are largely excluded from Jewish curriculum and educational programing. The Journey to the Mizrah curriculum was designed to provide educators with twelve introductory lesson plans to begin integrating Sephardic Studies into their classroom in addition to resources for further learning. Our ultimate goal is to see Sephardic education modules be incorporated as a regular component of Jewish education initiatives and departments across the board.
Sephardic Studies - A Missing Piece
Simply stated – our curriculum was created and designed to provide Jewish Day School educators with additional tools to use to teach Sephardic Studies. The lesson plans utilize Sephardic pedagogy and incorporate text study, discussion and Sephardic activities such as Mimouna and mock Henna ceremonies. By no means does this initiative purport to meet all the needs of educators wanting to incorporate more Sephardic and Mizrahi content in their classrooms. With few resources available to educators and schools wishing to incorporate Sephardic Studies into their classrooms and learning spaces, our hope is to continuously add materials to this curriculum and do our best to ensure that Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage is ultimately incorporated into every element of Jewish learning spaces rather than as additions to.
Answering Contemporary Questions
This curriculum is intended to teach on the vibrant Jewish rituals and traditions of tolerance, inclusivity and spiritual flexibility which are core components of Sephardic heritage. The lesson plans provide a platform for students to explore fundamental Jewish values while answering questions of how to navigate contemporary issues and issues of personal and communal identity. Lesson plans explore current issues related to refugees, bullying, Arab-Jewish relations, human rights and acculturation.
Our hope is to provide students with a compelling answer to the fundamental question of “why by Jewish?” by providing guidance and insight to help students examine and embrace their historical and contemporary place in an ever-changing world.
Empowerment for ALL Students
This curriculum was designed utilizing traditional Sephardic pedagogy, which creates space for every single student and teacher – regardless race, ethnicity, level of religious observance, ideological orientation, sexual orientation, and gender. Our curriculum was created to broaden and strengthen students’ knowledge, understanding and language around issues of Jewish diversity, Jewish and Middle Eastern demographics and values, and contemporary Jewish identities and experiences. It teaches on the vibrant Jewish traditions of tolerance, inclusivity, acceptance, and open-hearted communal participation, which are core components of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage. Regardless of family and individual background, all students, but particularly those who identify as the “other”, are given safe classroom space to explore and share their Jewish identities and backgrounds.
Educating the Educators
To date, the study of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish heritage, Jewish multiculturalism, and the ethnic diversity of the Jewish people has not been integrated as a regular component of Jewish education in the USA. Despite the fact that over 50% of Israeli Jews and an estimated 20% of American Jews identify as Mizrahi and Sephardic, most North American Jewish educators are unprepared to teach on these subjects.
As Jewish communities throughout the United States becomes more diverse, it is essential that our Jewish educators receive content, training and support to begin fully integrating the heritage and history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews into their classrooms and learning spaces. By doing so, they will increase their own levels of Jewish literacy and history and enrich their student’s understanding and knowledge of diverse Jewish experiences and Middle Eastern heritage. By increasing their ability to incorporate Sephardic and Mizrahi history and heritage in their classrooms and learning environments, educators, will effectively provide a pluralistic educational paradigm that welcomes and meets the needs of diverse student bodies.