HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Few Thoughts on Jewish Diversity

by Dr. Marc N. Kramer Issue: Diversity

One of the questions I am asked most often is “What is a community day school after all?” This query is frequently followed by the questioner’s attempt to answer it himself: “Schools where anything goes… Judaism-light… private schools for Jewish kids…Orthodox schools disguised as liberal schools… schools that can’t make up their minds what they want to be or who they want to serve.” In an attempt to avoid a second round of Q&A (question-and-assume), I offer that a Jewish community day school is “created in the image of the local community in which it is found, and that the school understands Jewish diversity as a strength and not a threat.” Of course, this begs an explanation of what we mean by Jewish diversity, and given the theme of this issue of HaYidion, I attempt to offer one now.

”Pluralism” is an express ideology that suggests that divergent paths can and will be positively altered in the presence of others. “Peoplehood” suggests the potential for a powerful collective identity (both praiseworthy, if complicated school missions). Jewish diversity in the Jewish community day school setting is an unbiased, non-hierarchical acknowledgement of the vast potential that will arise by welcoming and honoring the myriad expressions of what it means to be a Jew into one school.

Most Jewish community day schools use the term “pluralistic” to describe their position in the day school marketplace, highlighting the fact that they are not movement affiliated or theologically dogmatic. Research on community day schools suggests that most are non-denominational, meaning that the school holds at bay all trappings of denominationalism, or trans-ideological, meaning that a range of denominational expressions is captured in the life of the school (often Reform-to-Conservative or Conservative-to-Modern Orthodox). Few, in fact, are authentically pluralistic, and within these limited ranks, the more sophisticated schools see their pluralism as a goal, not a given.

So if not pluralistic, then what? I posit that “Jewish diversity” may be a useful term and lens through which to view our schools. The 1990s conversation on diversity, despite much Jewish leadership, was largely about race, economics and to a lesser degree, gender. Jews were by and large assumed to be “white” and “middle class” and as such, were lumped into the majority. While most Jews did not see themselves in the “of color” camp, placement in the “not of color” column was equally fallacious. The upshot of this unfortunate matter is that within the Jewish community “diversity” as a term has room to grow.

Just as the United States and Canada, at their theoretical best, are an amalgamation of hyphenated-North Americans, so too is the Jewish community day school an ingathering of hyphenated-Jews: Torah-observant-Jews, black-Jews, Jewishly-unafilliated-Jews, Sephardic-Jews, intermarried-Jews, liberal-Jews, gay-Jews, working-class-Jews, cultural-Jews, single-parent-Jews, very-Yekkish-Jews, Jews-by-choice, synagogue-affiliated-Jews, Jews-who-need-more-than-one-hyphen-Jews, and certainly more.

Bringing together Jews of all stripes is in and of itself a lofty goal; of course, we are in the schooling business, so the focus cannot rest on gathering alone. Jewish community day schools that are committed to Jewish diversity must be prepared to meet diverse needs. Rather than suggest simple solutions to complex challenges, allow me to instead posit a theoretical framework for attending to a Jewishly diverse population:

  1. Clarify the school’s mission, vision and Core Jewish Values. To quote a long-time colleague, “you are nothing without these.”
  2. Use these key documents to frame your thinking about how the school can serve the widest range of Jewish children and their families. Be realistic, but think big. Envision including every Jewish child. Envision excluding any Jewish child.
  3. Name and explore your biases and blind spots: Put on the table a lack of experience or comfort with certain types of Jews and see what you can make of it. It’s okay to say that you know nothing about Persian Jews; this acknowledgement opens the school up to the possibility to learn and grow.
  4. Know your community: Assume that demographic studies are useful but flawed and fail to capture many of the families you – a school of Jewish diversity – want to serve.
  5. Review your curriculum: Is it reflective of and open to Jewish diversity? Does it overlook certain Jewish experiences? Are some Jewish perspectives given honor at the expense of others? Will all children see and hear images of Jewish kids like themselves, or do we in some way ask them to take non-speaking roles in the script of school life?
  6. Examine your teaching staff and your board: To what degree do these essential structures reflect or ignore your Jewish diversity? For many, enrolling their child in a Jewish day school is already a stretch; for some hyphenated Jews, taking the plunge may be contingent upon seeing Jews who look/sound/live like them with leadership and faculty ranks in order to take he plunge.
  7. Train your team: We would all benefit from training in how to listen, how to ask questions, and how to benefit from a range of perspectives. The recent “Conference for Change” identified countless lay and professional leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish life who are eager resources for your school.
  8. Retune your message: Actively outreach to the wide range of Jewish communities you seek to educate through your community day school.

Jewish diversity is too important an issue to limit to this column. We invite all readers to go to: www.ravsak.org/jewishdiversity to share how your school attends to Jewish diversity. You are welcome to post under your own name or anonymously.

It strikes me that one of our obligations as Jewish educators is to give our students a better, richer, more purposeful Jewish life than the ones we live. If Jewish diversity can be woven into the tapestries of our schools – side by side with threads of Torah, Hebrew, Zionism, Jewish values, and gemilut chasadim (acts of righteousness) – then we may be one step closer to fulfilling that dream. ♦

Dr. Marc N. Kramer is the Executive Director of RAVSAK. He can be reached at mkramer@ravsak.org.

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Diversity in day schools usually goes well beyond the denominational spectrum that falls under the rubric of pluralism. It includes socioeconomic disparities, gender and sexuality, color and ethnicity, and other differences of religious practice and customs. In this issue, authors recommend ways for day schools to become sensitive to a range of diversity, to welcome all students and teachers and find ways for them to validate these identities within the school community.

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