Can Pluralistic Schools Accommodate Everyone?

Michal Muszkat-Barkan

Self-reflective and dynamic Jewish identity cannot be a result of only intellectual exposure to the variety within Jewish culture. It requires a vivid personal encounter with plurality.

One important question faced by a pluralistic school is: how can a school hold a pluralistic agenda and at the same time have a strong educational and cultural identity?

At a recent conference on pluralistic Jewish education in the summer of 2009 (sponsored jointly by Hebrew Union College Jerusalem and the Melton Center for Jewish Education at Hebrew University), Dr. Michael Marmur and I discussed three principles of pluralistic Jewish education. Together, these principles offer a way to grapple with this central question.

In our paper we suggested that three key principles of pluralistic Jewish education are:

  • A positive approach to plurality in Jewish culture;
  • A quest for a Jewish identity which is both self-reflective and dynamic; and
  • A conscious sense of connection to communal frameworks.

A positive approach to plurality is based on an acceptance of the pluralistic nature of reality. It insists that there are multiple aspects of the human experience, and different ways by which we learn and express our identities as individuals within cultures. This is not only a philosophical or theoretical understanding of human reality. This approach can affect the way Jewish content is prioritized, interpreted and taught. Pluralism does not mean passively tolerating differences but appreciating of nuances and diversity as legitimate (although sometimes competing) truth claims. The second principle is the quest for identity. Pluralistic Jewish education should aim not only to introduce the variety of Jewish options but to encourage deep understanding and commitment to Jewish life. In terms of the individual, we strive for a Jewish identity which is both self-reflective and dynamic.

Self-reflective and dynamic Jewish identity cannot be a result of only intellectual exposure to the variety within Jewish culture. It requires a vivid personal encounter with plurality. Having a culturally diverse student body is not always easy in terms of class discussions and decisions. At the same time, this situation can be perceived as promoting a deep understanding not only of the other, but also of the self. Encountering Jewish culture together can lead to constant reflection and re-examination of one’s own beliefs and actions, and those of the other. Such understanding might be enhanced if this group comprising different individuals explores what they have in common and what distinguishes each one of them.

The third principle may seem less obvious than the first two, and it invites the school to offer students a conscious sense of belonging to communal frameworks. This is a basic human and Jewish principle that has guided Jewish life during past generations and continues to guide it. It can be perceived as threat to individual freedom. How can the school maintain a variety of competing Jewish practices? Should one lifestyle or one approach to practice be enforced on the entire school community? If a day school gives up the desire to educate for a Jewish lifestyle, Jewish studies will become a component that students learn about but not practice as a community. What are the legitimate decisions that can be taken in order to create a strong educational ‘platform’ for the development of students as people and as Jews?

Containing a plurality of Jewish voices within the school can lead to curiosity to the different ways in which Jewish life is lived in the Jewish world as well as in the school’s community. Yet accommodating any Jewish voice into the school might potentially create two serious difficulties for Jewish education. It might create a culture of shallowness and lead towards “a bit of everything” without enough seriousness about anything.

The other difficulty is relativism, or giving up the quest for truth, and weakening of the cultural identity. I believe that it is possible for a school to maintain a pluralistic spirit while stating clearly the philosophy of Judaism which it espouses. Indeed, it might be to a school’s advantage to state that its pluralism leads to a collaborative search for Jewish identity. At the same time, parents (and their children) should also know that if they think differently than a schools’ decision, their view will be respected and discussed, even though the school maintains its position.

Jewish practices in pluralistic schools need to enable every student and teacher in the school the opportunity to strengthen their own Jewish identity and at the same time to appreciate others’ identity as well. In order to achieve this balance a school needs to set its boundaries.

Mediating conflicting interests and views may require drawing a line and deciding what is and is not acceptable within the school. This discussion, in which the school professionals and stakeholders as well as parents and students should participate, may yield a fruitful dialogue. Pluralism in Jewish education is about Jewish plurality, identity and community—good foundations for an educational approach, in general.

In summary, the challenge of pluralistic Jewish education is to balance inclusiveness and the distinctive culture of a school community. Community day schools may try to accommodate the entire Jewish community. However, promoting one principle of pluralistic Jewish education, the principle of accepting plurality, requires attention to the other two principles I propose—the quest for identity and the conscious sense of belonging to communal frameworks. Using these principles, the great opportunity and challenge of Jewish education can be met in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, accepting diversity and at the same time strengthening individual and communal Jewish identity. ♦

Michal Muszkat-Barkan, PhD, is the head of the Department of Education and Professional Development at Hebrew Union College (HUC)-Jerusalem, and the head of the program in Pluralistic Jewish Education at HUC, that includes an MA from the Melton Centre of the Hebrew University. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009