Whenever I think about diversity — about whether workplaces, conferences, panels, etc. need to be diverse — I think about Orthodox Jews.
Given who I am and where I’m from, it’s natural for me to think this way. The “suburban shtetl” is a cliche but it describes something real. The (Modern) Orthodox world I grew up in really is a culture apart from the rest of the world. Sometimes, when I want to scandalize my students, I let slip a detail or two about what my high school was like. Like that hours went from 7:30 AM (prayer) to 8:30 PM (when evening Talmud study wrapped up), or that we ate three meals a day at school, or that we didn’t even start studying “secular” studies until 3 PM. (Pity my teachers!)
And despite a few boring intra-Jewish technicalities (we’re members of a decidedly non-Orthodox synagogue) it is still my life now. You can tell this as soon as you see me, because I wear my yarmulke everywhere I go.
So when I think about diversity, I use my own situation to help think things through.
Wherever I go in education, I’m usually the only Orthodox Jewish person around. (Assuming that I count as Orthodox, it’s complicated, etc., almost no one cares about this hedge so I’ll stop making it.) This is particularly true when I’ve traveled places for conferences or other edu gatherings, as it’s ridiculously annoying to travel while keeping traditional Jewish dietary practices i.e. kosher. The details truly are boring so suffice it to say that restaurant eating is, in general, out of the question and it’s always a scramble to find food when in e.g. Oklahoma or downtown Denver.
There is a lot of other stuff too that can conflict with conferences. For example the Jewish holidays or fast days, or anything that ever happens on Saturday, etc., etc.
And wherever I go, I also experience a lot of…I’m not exactly sure what to call it. Heckling. Shouting things at me. Stopping me on the street. On the subway today some guy was having a bad day and he walked past me and shouted, “Even the Jewish guy isn’t paying attention! What’s wrong with you? Does God like that?”
Right, right, back to diversity. So the thing is that there are very few Orthodox Jews who are part of these educational conferences or gatherings. And whenever I think about the value of diversity for an educational space I ask myself, is there a diversity problem with Orthodox Jews? Is there an imperative to make sure more Orthodox Jews are part of these spaces? Should more Orthodox Jews be in positions of power and influence? Is it a problem that more Orthodox Jews aren’t serving on panels or keynoting?
I think the answer is absolutely not. No. There is no diversity imperative that is relevant for Orthodox Jews in education.
The thing is that this immediately would contradict a lot of the reasons people give for valuing diversity. So if you say that you value diversity because you want to make sure your conference is open to everybody, then you have to really start worrying about Orthodox Jews. Or if you say that you want to learn from diverse people or diverse cultures, because different people have different perspectives…well, Orthodox Jews have a different perspective. Nothing special about Orthodox Jews as a group here, obviously, but that’s the point.
And another thing: it’s fair to say that Orthodox Jews have been systematically kept from attending these conferences, in the sense that (a) they often happen on Saturdays and (b) in places where it’s hard to get kosher food. So if the reason to value diversity is to undo systematic exclusion, Orthodox Jews should be part of the discussion.
But, again, I don’t really think that’s right.
As a (more-or-less) Orthodox Jew, I encounter a world that was not made for me, or people like me. There are professional opportunities or conferences that I have to pass on — I am excluded from them. And yet I also think that, basically, this holds no moral weight when it comes to diversity.
That’s because there isn’t anything valuable about diversity, in general. There’s always the question of who and why. So let’s get concrete and very specific about this for a second.
There are very many Black children in schools. There are not very many Black teachers in classrooms, compared to the number of Black people in the country. There are good reasons to want to increase the number of Black teachers a Black student encounters. Besides this, Black educators have been less likely to rise to influential positions within education. This is because of plain-old prejudice, geographic segregation, higher levels of poverty, more things too, and further this is a bad situation, because better decisions would be made if the system had marginally more sympathy for Black students.
Contrast this with the case of Orthodox Jews: there are very few Orthodox Jews in the public school system, further they are on the whole not educationally mistreated, there is no particular imperative for increasing the number of Orthodox Jewish educators and there isn’t any reason to think things would be better if more Orthodox Jews had power in education.
My point is this: exclusion is not always a big deal.
I mean, sure, if you can easily not exclude people, go for it. But it’s really not a big deal. Everyone — every conference — excludes people. If your conference is in California, it excludes poor people who live far away. If it’s on a Thursday, it excludes people who hate Thursdays. If it’s anytime or anywhere outside of a major Jewish area on a weekday, it excludes Orthodox Jews. Look, it’s tough. What can you do?
Exclusion only becomes a problem if…it’s a problem. Diversity is only an imperative if there is some imperative reason why you need to include a group of people. There is no such imperative for my own group, but there is for Black educators.
(There is also likely an imperative for the inclusion of other groups too. My point is that it needs to be considered on a group by group basis, that’s the only way the whole thing holds together.)
The whole language of diversity seems to me an elaborate way to beat around the bush. It’s popular precisely because it allows us to talk about race without talking about race, but the whole thing only holds together if we think about racism in frank terms. Whenever I think about my own group, the value of diversity in education just slips away.
Here’s how it is, I think: Orthodox Jews have very little power in education, and that seems about right. Black people should have more power in education. That’s why diversity matters.