The following are spotlights on school-based efforts to promote inclusion of students of all religious, secular, and spiritual identities. More spotlights will be posted soon.
Spotlight: Grand Valley State University – The Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Interfaith cooperation; middle and high school students
The Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, “offers a broad range of programming to advance equity and belonging for persons of all religious, secular, and spiritual identities by fostering human connection, interfaith understanding, and collective transformation on campus and in the wider West Michigan community.” Its Next Generation program consists of summer day camps on interfaith cooperation for middle and high school students, along with their year-long, co-curricular Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Scholars program.
The Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s programming shines a spotlight on the possibilities for collaboration between institutions of higher education, secondary schools, and local communities in order to promote interreligious and cross-community inclusion.
In addition to supporting interfaith understanding on Grand Valley’s campus, the Institute’s Next Generation program connects local middle and high school students with the University through a summer day camp focused on interfaith dialogue and leadership for students through service learning. The experience is designed as an introduction to interfaith and cross-cultural engagement as well as local issues related to equity and justice. Following participation in the summer program, some students deepen their engagement in the Institute’s work by then engaging in its Interfaith Leadership Scholars program. These Scholars participate in weekend programming throughout the school year to build upon their leadership skills while advancing justice, fostering cultural humility, and countering xenophobia. The program culminates in student-organized projects aimed at advancing societal change alongside partners from the wider religious, secular, and spiritual communities of West Michigan.
The program has presented a unique opportunity to local public schools. While some schools might generally be reluctant to engage with programs aimed at fostering interfaith partnerships because of reasonable concerns about church-state separation, in this situation, GVSU’s role as a public university is helpful in navigating compliance. The Institute also benefits from working within public schools for summer day camps, speaking engagements, and other programs, allowing easier participation for an array of students. The Institute shared that some student participants also report, as a result of engaging in their programs, increased feelings of belonging at school, pride in their identities, and a greater ability to effectively navigate incidents of religion-based harassment at school. GVSU’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute is one example of how investment in service learning, education, and interfaith dialogue can have a positive impact on students and communities.
Spotlight: Colby College – Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Rural cross-community partnerships; institution of higher education
Colby College is located in Waterville, a rural part of central Maine. In 2015, the college founded its Center for Small Town Jewish Life, building upon longstanding local partnerships to better support Jewish life and learning on and off campus. The Center’s executive director, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, also serves as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation, Waterville’s only synagogue, with approximately 70 congregants, and her salary is shared by both institutions. Colby students benefit from their ability to engage in a multigenerational community, and the synagogue thrives thanks, in part, to the engagement of Colby students.
Rabbi Isaacs emphasized the critical nature of cross-community partnerships in a small town, and that the Jewish community’s service work is often interfaith by necessity. Colby’s staff and students, in and out of the Jewish community, are deeply integrated with both the synagogue and other faith-based and community-based organizations in the area. “Being a small-town rabbi necessitates thinking about the whole ecosystem rather than concentrating on one piece,” she said. For example, the Center has a student leadership fellowship program, open to students of all backgrounds, that “integrates service to the Colby, Waterville, and statewide community with rigorous Jewish learning and mentorship.” Several are Tzedakah/Zakat Fellows, Jewish and Muslim students who engage in service projects together that also foster Jewish-Muslim community partnerships in central Maine. “The Muslim students are also my students,” Rabbi Isaacs said, noting how integrated they were into both her pastoral care and the programs of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. She underscored how important it was to support Jewish and Muslim students in sharing their voices on difficult issues, even if they disagreed with her. Rabbi Dr. David Freidenreich, the Center’s associate director and chair of Colby’s Jewish Studies Department, spoke about the importance of an approach of “abundance” and that the Center’s work should be about ensuring that all can benefit.
In recognition that many small Jewish communities in rural and remote areas face similar challenges and opportunities, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life established a program called Makom, the Hebrew word for “place,” to educate professional and volunteer leaders who serve similar communities throughout the country. Makom, launched in 2022 in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America, supports rural Jewish community leaders through both operational training (e.g. security, funding) and adaptive leadership training (e.g. change management, understanding communities as ecosystems). Rabbi Freidenreich explained that about one in eight American Jews live outside of major population centers and are best supported by local leaders rooted in their community’s own context. Colby’s staff understand this need from their own work in Maine and, as part of the college’s educational mission, provide a 3-year fellowship program for professionals, a 1-year training program for lay leaders, and other workshops.
Spotlight: San Francisco’s Redding Elementary School Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Religious literacy and arts education; elementary school students
US Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten kicked off the US Department of Education’s site visits under its Antisemitism Awareness Campaign by traveling to San Francisco. There she visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum to engage with students, educators, school administrators, and community leaders around countering antisemitism through education. She joined fourth graders from nearby Redding Elementary School for a tour of the museum and an educational experience at the intersection of the arts and Jewish history and culture. Following the tour, the Deputy Secretary facilitated a roundtable discussion with school district leaders and Jewish community leaders from across the Bay Area on how antisemitism is impacting PK-12 students and what policies, initiatives, and practices help foster more inclusive learning environments for students of all religious, secular, and spiritual backgrounds.