What’s in a name? For many people, their name is a direct link to their tradition, their history, their family, their culture, and their roots. For Kimberly Dueñas, names are a window into the complex world of identity and belonging, and an empowering tool for education.
“I used to feel so separate from being Latina, and it’s like I didn’t have the space to mix my Jewish identity and my Latina identity,” said Dueñas. “Whenever I was in a Jewish space growing up, I would always lead with my identity from my Polish-Ukrainian Ashkenazi mother’s side, which was more similar to everyone else in the room. I felt very disconnected from being Salvadoran and Jewish from my father’s side.”
Dueñas is currently the Director of Learning for Jewtina y Co, which creates programming and community for Latin Jews. She focused on the idea of names during M²’s Jewish Pedagogies of Wellbeing Research Fellowship, a 10-month fellowship for Jewish professionals to research and develop educational practices related to mental health and wellbeing.
“I created an authentic way for people to introduce themselves that honors all parts of their identity,” she said. “The exercise helps people examine their names and the way they face the world, and it can be used at the beginning and end of a program to illustrate how your identity can shift and change as you learn more about yourself.”
Permission to be a creative educator
Dueñas credits her M² experience with helping her find the confidence to be a better, more creative educator, and someone who is more confident in all facets of her identity. Dueñas first started her journey with M² in 2017 as part of the Senior Educators Cohort, when she was working as a classroom Jewish educator with elementary school children.
In her SEC cohort, she was thrilled to find a like-minded community of Jewish educators passionate about connecting kids to their Judaism and adapting ancient Jewish wisdom to modern life.
“The work that I was doing before M² was good,” said Dueñas. “I had the outline, I included a piece of text, there was an activity — I checked all the boxes.” Yet, she was, she admits, playing it safe, concentrating on making sure that her students got the information and facts.
“M² gave me permission to be a bit free with my creative educational self,” said Dueñas. The seminars and teachers opened her eyes to many different tools for deeper connection through learning, especially M²’s immersive approach to education. Students are asked to engage all of the senses while doing deep visioning exercises, helping them become more self-aware and connect to the subject and texts on a deeper, personal level.
“With this values-based learning, we were challenging people to bring their whole selves into learning, which made the learning stick on a much deeper level, rather than just staying on the surface,” she said.
Asking the big questions and putting them into action
This type of education was so transformative for Dueñas, she ended up leaving the classroom entirely, in search of a different approach to Jewish life that resonated more deeply with her identity.
“I happened to find M² in a very formative time of my personal development,” Dueñas said. “I began to ask myself, if I could expand in this way as an educator, where else does that expansion exist in me? I’ve been expanding ever since.”
“M² gave me the space and reflective experience to redefine my personal mission as an educator, and realign with the work I want to be doing in the world,” she added. “The M² mindset of discovery gave me the language for asking myself the big questions of what matters to me, and then putting that into action in my life.”
Now, Dueñas lives part-time in Los Angeles and part-time in El Salvador. In addition to her work at Jewtina, Dueñas also teaches yoga and helps introduce people to an El Salvador that is far from the negative headlines, a country that is now healing from civil war and strife.
One of her main projects at Jewtina is overseeing the Jewtina Leadership Fellowship, called Puentes (Bridges). Originally, the fellowship was meant to help Latinx/o/e Jews learn more about leadership from a Jewish perspective. But the first cohort of participants inspired the team to redesign the whole project.
“We understood very quickly that we had so much work to do in helping people feel embodied in their identity, before we could even think about leadership,” said Dueñas. Part of that is because it’s often the first time that participants are around a large group of other Latin Jews, Dueñas explained. “This is the first time for many of them that they can show up in a space as who they are — in all that they are,” she said. “I feel really grateful that I’ve received so much support, so that now I can hold this space for others and help them transform and walk through the world as proud Latin Jews.”
As a classroom teacher, whenever her students asked her about her identity, Dueñas tried to use it as a teachable moment. “Many had only been introduced to one kind of Jew, and just by meeting me, their awareness widened,” she said. “So I’d say to them, ‘Let me teach you about Latin Jews.’” But it was exhausting having to constantly explain her identity, and the implied question of whether or not she was “really” Jewish.
Increasing representation is one way to change this idea of a “dominant” Jewish culture, Dueñas explained. When students see Jews of all races, cultures and backgrounds as community or spiritual leaders, artists, and educators, these often marginalized groups will become an accepted part of the rich tapestry of Jewish life. “I want to live in a Jewish world where the multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial reality that is the Jewish community is so well known and accepted that nobody has question marks around meeting somebody like me,” Dueñas said.
“M² helped me go deeper with myself, and that made me a better educator,” Dueñas added. “It made me more confident in my identity and more authentic. That means when I meet other Jews who are struggling with their identity, I can say to them: Let me help you explore your own Judaism and everything else that makes you you. I see you. I’ve been there.”
*This story reflects Kimberly’s unique experience and does not represent all Latin Jews.