Wee Jam for Justice: It's Never too Early to Start

May 31, 2022Carla Friend

In 2014, I founded Tkiya to create participatory music experiences that meet families where they are - physically, psychologically, and spiritually – and find their unique connection to Jewish culture and community. One thing I’ve always been proud of is Tkiya’s reputation for making Judaism welcoming, accessible, and inclusive. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that we started to learn how to articulate and incorporate JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) in a more intentional way. This year, we received a grant from WRJ to deepen this work through our Wee Jam for Justice program. The learnings that we’ve had through this experience have had an incredible impact on Tkiya and the communities that we serve in such a short time.

Wee Jam for Justice was created in 2020 to bring families with young children together to learn about race, privilege, and equity through a Jewish lens. Since then, it has evolved to focus on a lot more than racial justice. We responded to the feedback from our communities that they needed support in other aspects of their JEDI journeys.

For example, we recently started working with Congregation Beth Emeth (CBE) in Albany, NY, where a religious school student identifies as non-binary. When learning about Bereshit (the creation story), the student asked, “If G-d created man and then woman, when did G-d create people like me?” This was the “Aha!” moment that prompted the congregation to start their journey and for Tkiya to provide resources on that journey.

While working on the content that we would be exploring with this community, we realized that our initial focus on racial justice needed to expand. In order to meet people where they were and to maximize impact, we’d have to reach a bit wider. In my workshop with the CBE religious school teachers, we focused on the “seder plate” model of education where differences are lifted up, rather than a “mixing bowl” where all are equal, and how that relates to equity vs. equality. Using the Bereshit example, we talked about a framing that could have made that non-binary kid feel extra special; if Adam was created first and then Eve was created from Adam’s rib, it’s almost as if the first person was not only male, but also female, and everything in between before they were separated into the binary genders.

During my time with the CBE religious school children, we created other JEDI conversations. We held a full school tefillah (prayer) session where we explored traditional prayers with alternative Hebrew that demonstrated more inclusivity around gender. When meeting with smaller groups by age, we created a musical reenactment of the Passover story and then paused to explore the question of why the Pharaoh treated the Jews the way he did. It was incredible to see how the children were able to quickly switch gears when the conversation transitioned to serious discussions. We used the Pharaoh conversation as a jumping-off point to ask, “Was there a time you were treated badly because of something that is different about you?” It was absolutely heart-wrenching but also inspiring to hear these young children speak vulnerably about times they had been bullied or treated poorly for being different. 

One powerful moment that stood out was when a first-grade child asked, “But why was Pharaoh bad? Was he born like that?” I opened the question up to the group. One child speculated that maybe his mother was mean and that got passed into her uterus. After explaining that nobody is born mean, but that things can happen to us that change how we view the world, the conversation got even deeper. We talked about how people have different life experiences that might affect how they navigate various situations. Then, we reminded ourselves that differences should be celebrated. We talked about what we could do to make someone feel good about what makes them different and special. We ended our time together by creating a song about tzedek (justice), incorporating all the things we can do when we see others being treated unfairly.

This programming with Congregation Beth Emeth was with school-age kids, but most of our work with Wee Jam for Justice is with children ages 3-8. For our initial Zoom pilot series, some families came with kids as young as one so they could start exposing their children to this content as early as possible, but even more so to give themselves the language and tools to be able to have these conversations at home.

We are also working with the Y of Washington Heights to offer ongoing Wee Jam for Justice programming for families with children ages 0-4. This might be shocking to some readers who are wondering: “At what age do you think children start noticing race?” A famous 2005 study by David Kelly et al showed that at three months old, babies will start looking more at faces that match their own race. I believe this is proof that there is never too young an age to begin having these conversations. And as Jewish educators, it is our responsibility to give children and families the language they need to talk (and sing) about difficult topics through a Jewish lens. We are proud when we hear families share, “This program was fun, engaging, and meaningful. A perfect age-appropriate introduction to social justice through songs and stories. My kiddo (age 3) and I are still singing the songs.”

Tkiya’s primary focus is not only on social justice but also on making Judaism more welcoming, accessible, and engaging through participatory songs and stories. To me, part of this means helping our families feel equipped with the tools they need to give others a sense of belonging in the Jewish community. I think we’d all agree that nobody should feel “othered” in a Jewish space. And yet, if you look and listen closely, you’ll see that we have a long way to go in this regard. The next time you’re looking at a list of Jewish values - chesed (loving-kindness), tzedek (justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world), etc. - feeling confident that you embody them in your lives and perhaps in your teaching, I encourage you to challenge yourself to do more. To reach outside your comfort zone, examine these values in a new light, and expand your perception of what it means to be Jewish. We are grateful that WRJ is having and supporting these conversations alongside organizations like Tkiya.

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