By Noah Zvi Farkas, Special to CalMatters

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas serves at Valley Beth Shalom in the San Fernando Valley, nfarkas@vbs.org.

As a longtime rabbi and activist for the poor, I have seen how testimony of the human experience changes minds and makes for a better society. 

I’ve seen women experiencing homelessness call for city leaders to effect change; veterans tell of harrowing times in war, pleading for mental health treatment; and children convey how they have given up food so that their siblings could eat.

What I’ve seen has taught me that a strong democracy is made of diverse stories. 

California is perhaps the most diverse state in the union, with nearly a hundred different languages spoken, and home to many diaspora communities, including my own. The stories of all families have much in common, especially in overcoming challenges and striving for betterment. Sharing our stories, including the more shameful moments of our interrelated histories, offers us a chance to heal, create empathy and empower students to engage in civic life. 

One of the primary ways that we as a society share our stories is through education. Horace Mann, the father of public education, believed that creating citizens is one of the highest aspirations for a school. It is therefore crucial for people to see themselves represented and included in educational environments. 

However, many people, particularly people of color, have not seen their narratives reflected in these important spaces of sharing. Ethnic studies, the study of the histories, experiences, cultures and issues of racial-ethnic groups is, among other things, an attempt to right that wrong. As such, ethnic studies can be a fundamental building block to forging a strong society. 

Just last year, the Brookings Institution called for a reinvigoration of civic education as an essential 21st-century skill. Surely this was the core hope when California passed Assembly Bill 2016 five years ago, initiating the creation of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which was officially adopted last month. 

An initial draft of the model curriculum both excluded Jews and included anti-Jewish, anti-Israel components. My community advocated for and continues to advocate for positive changes. And as a result of advocacy efforts, the curriculum now imparts that Jews hold nuanced and multifaceted identities, that we are a distinct ethnic group connected by traditions, history, language and religion, and that it is important to support the intersectional identity of Jews of color as well as of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. 

Nor were we alone in seeking such inclusion. Other groups advocated for a presence in the model curriculum, including the state’s Sikh, Hindu, Korean, Armenian and Hellenic communities, among others.

Each of us has a unique story to convey. My own family’s American chapter began when my great-grandfather traveled from eastern Hungary, fleeing violent antisemitism alongside his sister, to arrive in the United States on Dec. 9, 1908. 

We must learn the histories of the diverse population of California, while recognizing our commonalities. The stories of our families have much in common, especially in overcoming challenges and striving for betterment.

My work with underserved communities has helped me appreciate the positive impact such stories can have on people who do not feel seen. As such, the “story-sharing space” provided by ethnic studies gives energy to interconnected coalitions that work to build democracy. 

An ethnic studies curriculum that meaningfully represents the intricate and multifaceted tapestry of the California experience should be widely celebrated. Ethnic studies makes democracy – and, by extension, the state of California – stronger.

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Other commentary on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

Latest ethnic studies plan sets the right tone for the future

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Students need ethnic studies that is true to the legacy of the discipline

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Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is what our students need in this moment  

California students will fight for the ethnic studies education we deserve

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

Meaningful representation of Sikh Americans in ethnic studies would show progress for inclusion

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

Ethnic studies will help students become better informed citizens in our diverse democracy

High school ethnic studies – the third version

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