When and Why Diversity Matters

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.

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12 thoughts on “When and Why Diversity Matters

  1. Thank you for this deep and complex and personal response to diversity.

    How much of this meditation is based upon a group’s self-imposed choice to exclude itself versus a group’s having exclusion thrust upon its members?

    As another NY teacher, it is impossible for me not to think of the East Ramapo schools situation, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Re self-exclusion and East Ramapo: It’s a good point, but see my response to David below.

      I guess I don’t know if people know this, but Orthodox Jews are a biggish tent that include the following groups (and more):

      – Modern Orthodox Jews: On the whole, pretty wealthy, almost fully engaged with the world and with culture. Pretty much everyone goes to college. This is where I grew up.

      – Ultra-Orthodox Jews: A confusing term that is used to describe Orthodox people that are too Orthodox. In general it’s a degree less engaged with the world than the Modern Orthodox one. Fewer people go to college. Many are deeply engaged with the secular world. They dress differently and the men often wear black hats and white shirts.

      -Hassidic Jews: A catch-all for various Hassidic groups. They tend to be more cloistered and they form even more closed communities than the other Orthodox groups.

      -Lubavitch Chabad Jews: These are a particular Hassidic group, but their ideology is very different from the other Hassidic groups. They are ideologically committed to outreach (/service/proselytizing) to other Jews. If you ever see someone standing around asking you if you’re Jewish and if you want to do a mitzvah, it’s these folks.

      I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community. My personal life still conforms to my childhood practices, but I belong to a non-Orthodox synagogue (shul) and I bend the boundaries a little bit. I am ONE BAJILLION MILES away ideologically from the more cloistered groups.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I read this, I remembered the idea that a group with a more varied background tends to make better decisions than a group with a narrower or closer background. So diversity, in group settings, is potentially critical for groups to tend to make different decisions.

    It seems to me that this means that increasing representation in decision making processes is potentially productive for all groups, since this (in theory) means that those leadership groups should make better decisions.

    I wonder about your statement about whether Orthodox Jews need more representation in education leadership and conferences. You no doubt are following the story about the Yeshivas (especially the Hasidic Yeshivas) in NYC (here’s a commentary). Do you know more about this issue than I do? Because so far, based on what I have read, it sure looks like the students described in that story need more representation somewhere.

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    1. I don’t think I believe that a group with more varied experiences always make better decisions. This is, I think, a tremendous over-simplification of group dynamics. Groups can certainly be so varied that they are dysfunctional and have nothing in common, or they break into factions, etc.

      And what does it mean to have more varied experiences, anyway? Which demographics matter? Should we be seeking to get more second-career teachers on committees and panels? More people who have experienced personal tragedy while relatively young? The possibilities are endless, so we need to talk about which varied experiences we’re committed to.

      Regarding Hassidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish education in NY: I’m going to pass on digging in on this. These communities aren’t what I had in mind when I wrote this, and their situation is really different. What makes their situation tricky is that the interests of the community really does seem to me in conflict with the educational goals of the state. Increased access to power for Ultra-Orthodox and Hassidic Jews would largely protect their educational model, not lead to it conforming to the state and city requirements.

      But even the Orthodox Jewish school I went to outside Chicago is a million years from this situation. We studied Talmud for most of the day, sure, but I also took three AP classes. It’s a different universe, and I’m talking about the universe I grew up in and know.

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      1. I agree with your point about the group dynamics being far more complicated than what I suggested.

        As for the NYC issue, I think a generalization is that with groups as large even as Orthodox Jew, perhaps thinking of the needs of the sub-groups is even more important (eg. your point about the Chicago group being different than the NYC group) than lumping these somewhat different groups of people together?

        This idea of differentiated need with sub-groups, taken to its logical conclusion (that the smallest subgroup that is entirely representative of student need is at the individual student level), suggests to me that identifying needs for students and then supporting champions for those needs on behalf of students might sometimes be a way to combine needs and representation across different groups, at least some of the time?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh I had another idea.

    We may need sometimes to separate the needs of the children from the desires of the communities that claim to support them. There are obvious examples (such as a small number of homeschooling parents failing to educate their children in any way) where the parents or community members lead a community which has values that appear to an outsider to utterly fail to prepare those children for life outside of that community (and sometimes, that community itself has problems unacknowledged by that community).

    In this case, representation might mean, someone who actually aims to represent the needs of the children and someone who represents the ideology of the community, or one person who can thread both positions together well and that this is especially tricky where there is disagreement about whether the needs of those children are being adequately met.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, any representative of the community would argue that they are representing the needs of the children.

      But we absolutely are talking about power here, not diversity, and that’s the point of my post. Diversity, on its own, doesn’t really take you anywhere. We need to make a more specific case that there is an imperative to be more inclusive to specific groups.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I hear you saying that Orthodox Jews aren’t proportionately represented, at conferences and other places. Sounds like you’re saying the world is largely tolerable of that as compared to black people who are also not proportionately represented but the lack of representation is more worrisome.

    I don’t claim to know the actual statistics. But I would say that isn’t the question. I think the question around whose omission causes concern would be around who it seems that our country is doing the most harm to on an institutional level. The amount of Black people and people of color getting suspended by schools, or getting placed in the low tracks in school, or living in neighborhoods in schools that are pathologically underfunded is very disproportionate to rest of the population and the knowledge of these disproportionalities have become common knowledge. It’s become such common knowledge that it is hard to do anything in education without wondering whether that thing is somehow part of this system leading to inequal outcomes, or part of a solution to this system of inequal outcomes. It’s become important to know whether one is part of the problem, or part of the solution.

    It might be that conferences or events that are actually part of solution may be more likely to draw more black people or people of color to attend. Also, there may be a push for representation of Black people at the event in order to signaling to everyone that this event is trying to be part of the solution. In either situation the larger system of inequalties, and the insistence towards changing that system, leads people to wanting to have the attendance at conferences be diverse in ways that aren’t completely inline with what the base proportions of our population would suggest.

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Carl, because it gives me the chance to clarify.

      I should have been much clearer: in my view there is NO reason why we should be worried about the representation of Orthodox Jews in education, but there IS a reason why we should be worried about the representation of Black people in education.

      This is the paragraph I wrote that I very much want to highlight:

      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.

      In contrast, none of these concerns exist for Orthodox Jews (or very many other groups).

      The whole point of my post is that “diversity” is a misnomer. “Diversity” doesn’t matter, in the sense that diversity is about valuing ALL kinds of diversity from ALL sorts of people.

      In my view that’s not quite right. We should be concerned about the representation of groups ONLY when there is an important reason to be worried about their exclusion. That’s why I talk about Orthodox Jews — to me, this group (of which I’m a member) are excluded BUT THIS IS FINE AND OK.

      In contrast, it is my view that it is definitely an issue that there aren’t more Black educators in the profession and in positions of influence.

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      1. We’re totally on the same page. I keep thinking that the idea that there could be more representation is a short term measure, and the larger measure is the reduction of how many people are harmed by the systems that are causing representation.

        In regards to Jewish people, I think it depends on the scale. In New York city, I think it is fine and ok. In some places where Jewish people are in such small number that their needs can be disregarded in order to benefit the majority, it would not be OK. In America as a whole, this amount might be negligble, but in some communities the problems facing the Jewish population might be pretty palpable.

        With that, I imagine you could generalize the idea around diversity to sort of say, look at the community, see where the power structures are benefitting one group and harming another, make sure that the group that is orthagonal(?) to the power structures are represented in the short run AND that the power structures are challenged to be more equitable in the long run.

        Is that basically what you were saying?

        Liked by 1 person

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