Charlotte Isaacs: Ibrahim Alumni 2015, CUNY Queens College
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
In her own words:
I participated in the Ibrahim fellowship in the summer of 2015. The two years since that summer have seen my graduation, a cross-country move, and a variety of both challenging and positive personal and professional experiences. Until now, these two years also left me with little time and space to reflect on the incredibly impactful experience I had in the Middle East. In college I studied anthropology and Arabic. I planned to work abroad in anything and everything related to international relations and Middle Eastern studies. Instead, I ended up doing Teach for America and teaching seventh grade science in Dallas, Texas. What surprises me, however, is that there is perhaps no other path I could have taken that is better suited to the skills and ideas I developed during my Ibrahim experience.
Moving to Dallas has taught me that growing up in a city like New York gives you access to the rest of the world, but also isolates you from the rest of the United States. In New York I shared in the warmth, vibrancy, tension, and challenges of living in a large and diverse Jewish community. I also took it for granted that my non-Jewish fellow New Yorkers were so “used” to Jews, that they were able to define me by my whole person, not just that one component of my identity. In Dallas, however, when someone finds out I’m Jewish, I often perceive a shift in our relationship. I stop being Charlotte, the seventh grade science teacher who likes to read and take walks, and become Charlotte, the Jewish girl who can’t quite be understood. In other words, I become encompassed my Jewishness. In Texas people automatically assume that you go to church on Sundays and that you want to thank Jesus when you get a good coupon at Target, avoid traffic, or pretty much whenever. Moving here made me realize that America is very much set at a “Christian default”, and that I run directly counter to that.
This feeling of being a member of a “counter-culture” has dramatically transformed my relationship to America, to Israel, and to my own Jewish identity. This transformation is also shaped and guided by my Ibrahim experiences. What’s complicated this process is that Israel has been in dramatic flux over the past two years as well. In my 2015 reflection on my Ibrahim experiences, I wrote, “The idea of having a state to which I can move at any time, one whose very basis revolves around an essential component of my identity, is almost irresistible.” Living in Dallas has made this idea of Jewish state more and more appealing to me, yet simultaneously Israeli government and society have shifted to become more exclusionary, more ideologically extreme, and further and further away from my own values of pluralism and diversity. Living as Jew in the “Bible Belt” of America makes me want to move to a country where I can be accepted, but how could I support such a country guilt-free if they make others feel just as excluded as I feel here?
The Ibrahim program helped me develop this more conflicted, difficult, and yet ultimately realistic perception of the state of Israeli affairs and American “Jewishness”. It also gave me the tools to have necessary, difficult conversations, whether about Israel, or anything else. While I have used these skills to dialogue with friends, family, and community members about Israel and Middle Eastern politics, they have interestingly become most useful when dealing with issues of race in America. In all the Middle Eastern countries we traveled to, there was always some form of a “tiered” system based on race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or markers of social class. Those we met formally and informally through the trip were always open to brave and honest conversations about the nature, impact, and injustices of these systems. Through these countless dialogues, I began to overcome a common American deficit: my inability to talk about race and inequality. There is no other experience that has contributed more to my skillset as an educator in a Title 1, majority minority school than my Ibrahim experience.
What no one tells you in pedagogy classes is that no matter what subject you teach, issues of race will inevitably come up in your class. Moreover, being able to deal with these issues and conversations effectively makes or breaks a teacher. For one year now, I have been the white teacher of a class of 97% Latino and 3% African American students. More specifically, I was a white teacher during a particularly fraught and partisan election year when my students heard things about members of their own national or ethnic groups that no child should have to hear, when many of my students were made to question their place in American society, and when many of my students began to see a correlation between race and the political views that made them feel this way.
On the Ibrahim trips there were particular days where you could feel the weight of the day’s experiences building and boiling up. When this happened, when it was perhaps the hardest, we had a dialogue. My Ibrahim experiences trained me to sense when a dialogue needed to happen and how it needed to be done. Because of these experiences I was able to talk with my kids about race, about inequality, about why our school had less resources than some of the schools they drove by on their way home. We were able to talk about how my whiteness sometimes skewed my ideas and my actions and how that should be changed for the benefit of our class. Often, these conversations opened me up to more internal conflict and nuanced viewpoints. While I didn’t end up working in politics or Middle Eastern studies, my experiences over the past year have confirmed for me that America and the Middle East need more programs for our students like the Ibrahim program. It’s easy to get stuck in an echo chamber where everything confirms and reconfirms beliefs tenuously based in reality. More American students need to break free of the echo chamber and develop the ability to dialogue about difficult but worthwhile topics.