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Feb 17 2014

Jewish Day School Made Me Appreciate Diversity & Now I’m Choosing the Same For My Kids

By at 9:59 am

Diversity and the case for day school

I was recently prepping a meal to the soundtrack of my new favorite song, “Some Nights” by the indie rock band Fun. Suddenly, I realized the breakfast-for-dinner eggs were burning, and I was transfixed by the YouTube video streaming from my nearby laptop.

What was it about lead singer Nate Ruess that drew me in? Sure, he’s conventionally attractive. And his voice is a force—at once strong and lovely. But it was something else. How different he looked from anyone I knew. With those defined cheekbones, blue eyes, slightly upturned nose; he’s no Yeshiva boy.

It only made me want to know him more.

I have one of those childhood memories that you know happened, but you were so young when it did that it just lingers like a single blurry snapshot in your mind’s eye. I was on the playground near my home by the beach. Not far away, a little boy and his sister were dizzily spinning on the roundabout. They were around my age. They were black. At the time, I’d never met anyone who was black. I went to Jewish day school during the year and Jewish overnight camp during the summer. I knew white Jews. And that was about all.

Oh how I desperately wanted to play with them. I mustered the courage and approached. We played together for a long time, or what seemed like a long time, until our parents called out to us to come home. I did, giddy with the memory of my new-found friends.

Fast-forward 10 years. I’m on a ski vacation with my family. We were staying at a rustic condo near the base of the mountain. So were Caitlin and Kristen. My first true non-Jewish friends. They lived just outside of Boston. They had the greatest accents. I envied their Irish freckles. We gallivanted around ski lodges and on the slopes throughout the week-long trip. And then became pen pals for years afterwards, sending each other school photos and friendship bracelets.

Five more years. Freshman year of college. I’m dating the most Episcopalian boy I could find, cheering at his squash matches, learning the word “regatta,” and how you come to have a “III” after your surname. Being flown to New Hampshire for a date—on a private plane that he pilots. Hiding the single iris he gave me before we parted for winter break so my parents don’t discover our relationship.

I’ve always been driven toward difference. Discovering what connects us and what divides. Enjoying the pleasant surprise of finding common ground in the most unexpected places.

I swore I’d send my kids to public school. Where the hallways are filled with kids of all races and backgrounds walking arm-in-arm, like a Benetton ad come to life. (My husband assures me it’s not quite like that.)

So why am I considering sending our son to day school? Some might argue that attending a school populated only by Jews is not the best way to foster awareness of diverse people and cultures. Until recently, I made that same argument.

It’s only now, with the wisdom that comes with age, that I realize my appreciation for diversity is not in spite of my upbringing, but because of it. Because graduating high school with only 20 kids in my class–all of whom were white and Jewish–allowed me to truly value their individuality, understand the subtle nuances of their personalities, and respect the vast differences among people who, on paper, may appear the same. Like how I have a keener appreciation for how different my three children are from each other because they are all boys.

And in high school, my classmates and I were different. We had siblings or were only children. We came from wealth; we had limited means. We were athletes and hippies, socialists and republicans. Gay and straight, believers and atheists.

We occupied a single hallway in an abandoned public school building, but we were a microcosm of the larger world. And we only realized the depth of our differences because of the intimacy of our surroundings–and because we felt the support and encouragement that propelled us to be our true selves.

Day school, it turns out, made me more attuned to diversity, not less. It was there that I learned everyone has a story to tell–because we had people who were listening. It made me feel comfortable in my own skin so I could see past the color of others. It taught me to take nothing at face value. It gave me the strength to share and the ability to connect–with anyone.

I’ll always believe that at the end of the day, we’re all more alike than we are different. That humanity is fundamentally good. That we can triumph over what divides us. That kindness trumps all.

I got all that from day school. I hope my kids will too.

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