Honoring Heritage, Celebrating Difference: Teaching Pluralistically in a Reform Jewish Day School

Micah Lapidus

The mission statement of the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy celebrates difference by referring to the school as “Atlanta’s K-8 Reform Jewish Day School.” However, it also accounts for honoring heritage:

The Davis Academy strives to create a community in which children develop a life-long love for learning and a commitment to Jewish life founded on morals, values, and ethics, grounded in Torah.

The Davis Academy’s mission statement reflects the balancing act between honoring heritage and celebrating difference. On the one hand, it summons us to teach Judaism in a way that honors heritage so that our students’ education is “grounded in Torah.” On the other hand, it obligates us to be a Reform Jewish Day School with particular ideological commitments, practices, and approaches to Jewish tradition. Only by balancing heritage and difference can we achieve the integrity of difference that is at the core of our school’s identity. There are times when the scales are clearly tipped in favor of honoring heritage and times when the scales are tipped the other way. Our challenge as Jewish educators is to be conscious of the balance and to ensure that the dialectic between heritage and difference generates creative and reflective conversation among faculty and administration.

In grades K-5 our Judaic and Hebrew Studies programs focus on honoring heritage. The Judaics curriculum covers all five books of the Torah while also teaching the basics of kashrut, tefillah, and chaggim. Through the various Hebrew language curricula we use, including Tal Am and Chaverim B’Ivrit, we give our students a foundation in Hebrew, our heritage language, and teach them all about Israel. We recognize that it is critical for children to have a sense of Klal Yisrael and to learn about Judaism without focusing on the particular tenets of Reform Judaism.

At the same time, examples of celebrating difference abound. During tefillah and at our Friday morning Kabbalat Shabbat service our students use Mishkan T’filah, the siddur of the Reform Movement, chant with Reform nusach and incorporate melodies from URJ Summer Camps. At our Middle School we even have a Kabbalat Shabbat band as we try to capture the spirit of Reform Jewish camping. One of the main areas in which we celebrate difference is in our approach to Jewish ritual observance. I’ll give one example: kippot.

Every year we purchase beautiful kippot for all our students emblazoned with The Davis Academy logo. Every year they magically disappear into the dark recesses of middle school lockers. As of last year every child at The Davis Academy was required to wear a kippah until their bar or bat mitzvah unless they wrote an essay explaining why they objected to the wearing of kippot. When this was the policy our faculty struggled with the issue of enforcement. Do we send children to their lockers to find their kippot even if it means disrupting tefillah? Do we really want to write students up for dress code violations if they don’t wear a kippah? If wearing a kippah is truly not meaningful to a middle school student is it disrespectful to the notion of the kippah to ask them to wear one?

This year we conducted an experiment: The Great Kippah Debate of 2009. Students met with me and together we studied a variety of arguments pertaining to kippot. We also studied the history of kippot and their place in Reform Judaism past and present. These students wrote arguments in favor and against the wearing of kippot and conducted a debate in front of their classmates. The goal of the debate was to create meaningful dialogue among the student body and to empower our students to make informed choice based on knowledge (a core concept in Reform Judaism). The end result is that some students elected to take kippot and others elected not to. While we explored the notion that men and women may have different orientations regarding kippot we also emphasized that Reform Judaism is egalitarian and that, in a Reform context, men and women are equally welcome to wear kippot. Students know that kippot are always available and that they are expected to wear kippot when they come to the lower school (separate campuses) for tefillah and other sacred celebrations at least in part because lower school students are still required to wear kippot during tefillah and Judaic studies. The Great Kippah Debate is one example of how we attempt to honor our common heritage and celebrate difference at The Davis Academy.

Another area where we balance heritage and difference is in our holiday celebrations. For Sukkot and Passover the balance is tipped in favor of honoring heritage. Among other things our students decorate the Sukkah, eat meals there, shake the lulav and etrog and learn about the tradition of ushpizin. For Passover our lower school students study the basic elements of the traditional seder and then lead a small seder to which all the parents are invited. Shavuot on the other hand leans more toward celebrating difference.

Last year we decided to transform Shavuot into Torahpalooza by taking the half day before Erev Shavuot and turning it into a time of learning for our 5th through 8th graders. We took as our theme Micah 6:8, “G-d has told you what G-d requires of you: doing justice, loving goodness, and walking humbly with your G-d.” We asked the faculty to develop sessions on the topics of justice, kindness, and G-d, and then allowed the students to select which sessions they attended. In order to get to the pizza party lunch they had to submit a punch card that showed that they had attended one session in each category. The content of the sessions reflected the diversity of our faculty. Popular sessions included the reenactment of a famous court case involving the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “kindness basketball,” and a session focused on developing empathy for people with learning disabilities. Though Torahpalooza is offered as an example of celebrating difference the impetus for the celebration was honoring the festival of Shavuot. Torahpalooza is what emerged out of the creative dialectic of balancing heritage and difference.

It’s a lot to ask of any one Judaic teacher that they be responsible for teaching common heritage and celebrating difference. Moreover it’s not the responsibility of one teacher to ensure that this happens. The balancing act must be linked to an ongoing conversation among faculty and administration. The Judaic content of our schools isn’t conveyed exclusively or even primarily in the classroom. It permeates everything that we do—it’s who we are. As we seek to ground students in the common heritage of the Jewish people we must also prepare them for the reality that there are different kinds of Jews. It is up to each institution to make each student and each family feel blessed and fortunate to be a part of our school and our community and to develop a balanced program that feels authentic. This necessarily involves celebrating difference so that when our students interact with a complex and pluralistic world, the lessons we’ve taught them and the education we’ve given them speak to them and guide them toward an authentic and complex life. ♦

Rabbi Micah Lapidus is Director of Judaic and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at mlapidus@davisacademy.org.

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009