Sign on the front gate of Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Sign on the front gate of Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Over 200 alumni of S.F. Jewish high school call for anti-racist reforms in open letter

In a June 8 letter signed by more than 200 alumni of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, the school’s administration was called on to implement an anti-racist curriculum and structural changes in response to the widespread protests against police brutality and racism.

“[W]e’re interested in how JCHS will use its privilege as a wealthy and overwhelmingly white institution — located in a predominantly Black neighborhood — to ensure that its student body, faculty and staff is working every day to be anti-racist,” reads a portion of the letter. The school is located in the Western Addition.

“We all care about the future of this school and we’re eager to start, and continue, this conversation with you,” reads another part of the letter.

Written by eight alumni who graduated from JCHS between 2012 and 2015, and signed by 208 graduates from the years 2005 to 2019, the letter lists eight suggestions.

Among them is a call to diversify the school’s curriculum to expose students to more black voices and experiences, make books about racism and white supremacy required reading, and create a required course for seniors about class, race and gender.

Risa Dunbar
Risa Dunbar

“We saw an opportunity for a community we really care about to do some reflection and some teshuvah [repentance],” Risa Dunbar, one of the letter’s writers, told J. “Some impactful change.”

Alumni are also calling for the 19-year-old high school to use its social-media platforms to feature more black voices, prohibit any student clubs that promote anti-black racism and Islamophobia, as well as match donations (up to $10,000) made by students, alumni faculty and staff to organizations working to end racism.

The letter was addressed to Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of JCHS since 2008, and the JCHS leadership team.

On June 10, Ruben responded to the letter, thanking those who submitted it for “urging JCHS to double down on its commitment to racial justice and equity,” and adding, “Even with our effective work through the years, it is not enough.”

Ruben said JCHS would promise to review its recruitment and enrollment practices to bring in more students and faculty of color, “scrutinize” its curriculum to integrate more literature about the histories of people of color, and host a two-day training for faculty, staff and the institution’s board about the impact of race on student learning.

Howard Ruben
Howard Ruben

As it stands right now, JCHS will have 192 students enrolled in the coming academic year. About 20 percent are people of color, Ruben stated in his response letter.

In an interview with J., Ruben said that he felt “gratitude” when he received the suggestions from alumni.

“[I’m] thankful that they still felt a connection to the school,” Ruben said.

He added that he felt the high school had already been making inroads with anti-racist efforts, specifically over the last five years, and emphasized that many of the alumni who signed the letter had graduated prior to those efforts.

“I think they were pushing us to be doing things, some of which I think they didn’t know we were already doing,” Ruben said.

Also in his response, Ruben wrote that the school has relationships with community organizations in the Western Addition, including the Village Project and the New Community Leadership Foundation. He added that the school is a member of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which aims to “make justice a core expression of Jewish life” with the goal of helping to “create an equitable world.”

Ruben admitted that JCHS could have done a better job at communicating these efforts to his alumni. In his response letter, he promised to form an alumni advisory board to the school’s steering committee, a group launched in 2015 that addresses issues of equity and inclusion at the high school.

In emailed responses to J., alumni who wrote the original letter said, by and large, that they were thankful for the response, but that they had hoped for all eight of their suggestions to be addressed.

“While I appreciate the steps that the administration has reported, they have not yet responded to many of the points outlined in our letter,” said Ilana Goldberg, who graduated in 2015. “I am mostly interested in their response to the more outward-facing points, such as matching donations and shifting their social-media practices. These practices are important because they are more visible from an outside lens, and speak to the school’s role in the broader Bay Area and Jewish communities.”

Co-author Renee Torchio MacDonald, a 2013 graduate, made similar remarks.

“I think it’s great that they responded to our open letter with an open letter to keep everything transparent,” she wrote to J. “However, I know we spent a lot of time calling in specific issues and solutions that didn’t seem to be addressed in their initial letter.”

MacDonald added that she was looking forward to attending steering committee meetings to address particular concerns.

Other letter-writers expressed what they hope JCHS ultimately becomes as an institution.

“The ideal JCHS is, to me, constantly working to improve itself, especially in regard to issues that seem most challenging to tackle in an educational setting,” said Pavla Berghen-Wolf, a 2013 graduate. “An ideal JCHS enacts policies that specifically support students of color, articulates consistently that racism is a Jewish issue, and thoughtfully and critically engages with the neighborhood in which it is situated.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.