HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Documenting Core Values: A Pluralism Audit in a Day School
Many day schools recruit families and students from Jewishly diverse backgrounds and market that diversity as a competitive advantage. Diversity signals a happy family in which everyone belongs. In truth, that diversity is often arrived at pragmatically, as a necessary choice to fill the seats. I don’t mean that it’s chosen grudgingly or masks conflict; the principle that the Jewish people are one is deeply and broadly felt. But how diversity plays out in the life of the school is different when it’s arrived at pragmatically than when it’s chosen ideologically. In the former case, the fact of diversity requires accommodations to make space for everyone in the school. Typically, tefillah, kashrut, dress code, and the content and approach in Judaic studies classes are the primary contexts in which diversity is negotiated. One common version of a pragmatically diverse school is one sponsored by the Orthodox community in which Orthodox observance and outlook are the baseline in one or more respects of school life and program, while non-Orthodox practice and outlook are purposefully accommodated in a range of ways.
In intentionally diverse, or pluralistic schools, diversity is the point: it is the organizing idea for the school. Pluralism in this context reflects and affirms the legitimacy of multiple expressions of Jewishness and Judaism. In a pluralistic school, the founding ideas may be something like this: No one expression of Judaism has a monopoly on truth or legitimacy. Taken together, the many strands of Jewish expression weave the tapestry of Judaism. This is to be celebrated. It’s important that our children learn be exposed to this diversity of Jewish expression, learn about different approaches and how to respect the people following them, and through that exposure refine and strengthen their own expression. Such schools form in the spirit of, Let’s see how broad a swath of the Jewish people we can bring together in a school to learn and form community together. Our pluralistic understanding of Judaism echoes our celebration of diversity in society in general.
It makes sense for an intentionally pluralistic school to make the celebration of diversity a central value and to establish and maintain thoughtful structures and practices for negotiating difference. Easier said than done. Jewish day schools, after all, teach toward commitment. Commitment is (typically) narrowing; pluralism is (typically) broadening. And there the challenge begins.
In 2010, when I served as rav beit hasefer and assistant head of school at the pluralistic JCDS: Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, I was tasked with implementing a board mandate to conduct what we called a pluralism audit. This was to be a thorough assessment of the state of pluralism in the school, which had pluralism as a pillar of its culture since its founding. This mandate was among the prescriptions in a strategic plan prepared the prior year, indicating the school’s recognition that if pluralism is essential to the school’s identity, it requires planning and assessment no less than the school’s formal curriculum, enrollment goals, or brick and mortar infrastructure.
Pluralism ought to permeate the operation and experience of the school. An audit, then, should seek to comprehensively examine the school’s culture of pluralism wherever possible: in formal curriculum documents, pictures and materials on the walls, printed materials like the application packet, development materials like seasonal letters to prospective donors, and the school website, of course. An audit should include live observation of classes, both secular and Judaic, to better understand the culture of inquiry in the school. And stakeholders with lived experience of the school should be surveyed, including, for example, students, faculty, alumni and parents, and parents of alumni.
Significantly, a pluralism audit (unlike the annual audits in a CFO’s office) will not grade the school for compliance. Compliance is relevant when there is a single, clear standard against which practice is measured. Pluralism, though, is a culture, an approach to living and learning together. Its parameters are variable and contextual. Thus, the first thing to measure through an audit is whether there is even a shared understanding of what pluralism means in the school community.
At its most basic, a culture of pluralism clusters around a welcoming and caring spirit of live and let live. A comfort with and celebration of diversity. A recognition that everyone in the community has a respected place and the right to be him- or herself. This welcoming spirit, when applied in the context of a Jewish school, embraces the range of Jewish identity, expression and observance among school families and their children.
A second understanding is pluralism as a way of living and learning together in Jewish community. In this aspect, pluralism consciously mediates among constituents’ differences. The goal of pluralism, according to this understanding, is to sustain an intentionally diverse community that will learn and grow together. Such a community thrives best through students’ (and their families’) encounters with those different from themselves. Encountering difference increases one’s self-understanding at least as much as it does one’s understanding of the other. Pluralism cultivates self-confidence, a non-defensive commitment to one’s own position even as one is brought into regular contact with people who may not share one’s own commitments but are passionate about their own, alternative commitments.
Critically, given the presumption of respect granted through the first understanding of pluralism (i.e., the ethos that I’m ok and so are you), the second understanding calls on community members to navigate the tensions between preserving the integrity of their own values and preserving the integrity of the other’s. This is the sensitive point where “mere” tolerance crosses over into pluralistic accommodation: one might be called on to compromise one’s own priorities to make room for the other and to actively seek out those compromises out of a commitment to making room. At a minimum, in a pluralistic community one must grant full legitimacy to the person holding a position with which one fundamentally disagrees and actively find ways to assure that he is free to express his position, within the bounds that allow the community to hold together.
The compromises required to establish and sustain pluralistic community in a school highlight the inherent tensions between community and individual autonomy, value-based positions and “mere” preferences, competing cultural priorities, and sources of authority. They also highlight the shared values around which the school has coalesced and which make all the other compromises worthwhile. The discussions and negotiations around pluralism may be heady and they may be tense, but they are rarely boring. They can contribute powerfully to a culture of meaning in a school.
Like any core value a school may hold, pluralism is hard to practice. It will be set against other competing values (like unity) and constrained by pragmatic realities (like available teaching hours and faculty competencies). Pluralism in particular is hard to realize both because it is not a single quantifiable thing (it is a culture) and because it can always be cultivated in new, more sophisticated and subtle ways throughout the life of the school. Nonetheless, or perhaps even because pluralism is an imprecise target, a mechanism like a pluralism audit offers a school the opportunity to examine a core value—a pillar of its mission—deeply.
Pursuing an exercise like the audit can feel indulgent because it is time-intensive for staff and expends volunteer capital of parents and other lay leaders. The effort is worth it because by investigating a school through a single lens, an audit can turn up valuable data that would otherwise pass unnoticed. By examining a core value in a sophisticated way, and with the involvement of the entire school community, a school can educate its stakeholders about its values. If conducted successfully, an audit will facilitate stakeholders’ reengagement with the school’s mission and motivation to achieve as-yet unrealized potential. Lay and professional leadership may emerge with a clear mandate from parents and others about how to prioritize new and renewed efforts in cultivating and sustaining a pluralistic culture. My experience with the pluralism audit clarified for me and my school, for example, the importance of assuring that the voices of all members of the community be heard and that the pluralistic face of our tefillah program required consistent tending.
Most importantly, the pluralism audit highlighted the importance of educating around a particular core value in our school. The fact that this value was part of the school’s vocabulary – in essence, was what the school believed and asserted about itself – did not assure that the value was understood by all community members. This is not surprising. But the exercise of conducting the audit and the documentation it generated provided great material for prioritizing, for teaching, and for programming. And this is the generalizable point of the audit I conducted of a particular value at a particular school: the implementation of a school’s core values merit periodic close examination. An audit of any value’s lived expression in a school is an exciting and motivating exercise in living the mission. And living their mission is what good schools do.
Rabbi Joel Alter is the director of admissions for the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary. email@example.com
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