We knew our daughter’s Jewish identity was going to play an important role in our lives when she named her imaginary friend “Rivka.” Isabella would point her out to me in public places as she passed, directing me to a mocha-skinned girl with curly dark hair who inevitably would look almost identical to our own sweet multiracial child.
As parents, a white mother and a biracial father, both from a mix of religious backgrounds, my ex-husband and I agreed on raising our child with a strong Jewish identity and education. The decision came to us easily but discovering the Jewish diversity that reflected our family’s folklore was a bit more difficult. We searched through a number of channels, including recommendations from friends and strangers alike; we frequented listservs of such groups as the Jewish Multiracial Network and Be’Chol Lashon. Walking the streets of New York City I knew we were not alone, that multiracial families were virtually everywhere.
When Isabella was a toddler, we moved from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn in search of more space and to be closer to our families. Our primary concern had always been that our daughter’s Jewish experience should include the strength that faith offers, the joy of tradition rich in meaning and a true sense of belonging to something larger than herself. We struggled with how that would happen as our daughter got older and we began the search for a school. I had grown up Orthodox, attending several Jewish day schools, including Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford, Providence Hebrew Day School and an all-girls high school in Brooklyn. My ex-husband had been schooled abroad and gone to public school in New York. We appreciated how much money we could save by sending her to a public school, but we were still hoping to find a Jewish school that would offer some infrastructure for my daughter’s yearning for a Jewish identity. As we began searching for a school for her, diversity was high on the list of criteria. I hoped to combine our search for like-minded people with the school we wished to discover.
We began touring different types of schools, and I was struck by the different reception I got depending on whether or not I brought Isabella along. (Her dad and I were no longer together and were living in different cities by then.) When I came alone, the tour included the teacher-student ratio, the school philosophy and the description of the daily schedule. When I visited with my daughter in tow, the interview would begin with an in-depth investigation of her parentage, a request for conversion papers and a visit to the one class with a child of color, who was cited often as an example of the school’s strong commitment to diversity. We looked at day schools and yeshivas known for their progressive curriculum, as well as a small selection of liberal Jewish schools. Some schools seemed a bit more liberal than our comfort would allow, especially with a predominantly Orthodox family background. Amidst our frustrating search for schools, an interesting prospect arose: an invitation to join several other Brooklyn parents exploring alternative education options. That fateful evening, we each took turns introducing ourselves and one by one we told tales of our desire for a unique education experience for our children, an experience that would be radically different than the yeshiva or school experience with which we had grown up. I shared that I had always hoped that my daughter would have a solid secular and Jewish education that would still provide a foundation to make her own choices about her own Jewish identity and support her as a Jewish woman of color. That evening seven years ago began a journey as a group of parents from a remarkably wide range of religiosity and careers started a new venture; Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school.
Initially it was painfully small, six children in a one-bedroom apartment converted into a multifaceted Montessori classroom. The parents involved became the very first board members, also known as the administrators, human resources, property management and maintenance crew. We hired a remarkable and dedicated young woman to become our education director. Under her direction the school hired more staff, and seemed to go from running on adrenaline and a prayer to a full-grown progressive Jewish day school. Luria allowed my child to explore the meaning of being Jewish and encouraged her to reflect on how to make that all her own. She was able to represent herself with pride, to share our own family traditions and practices as a part of her educational experience. Similar to my own Jewish education, the academic learning was thorough but unlike in mine, the Montessori curriculum offered a more creative approach and surpassed my every wish for a warm, loving environment.
Today Isabella is 11 and about to start her seventh year at Luria. Every day when I drop her off the peaceful experience and the aesthetically and educationally beautiful school we have created astounds me. I am moved to tears of joy, as the school has grown in six short years to 100 students. and the remarkable dynamic we appreciate so much continues. What makes us even happier is that every day our daughter goes to a school she loves, and the contentment in the decisions we have made are loud and clear.
Dina Lipkind, a founder of Luria Academy, is a participant in Parent- To-Parent, a Jewish Education Project initiative empowering day school parents to share their experiences and personal reflections.
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