Threefold Pluralism: Response by Ilisa Cappell

Ilisa Cappell

Kay introduces the concept of atmospheric pluralism, which he considers “the most passive” and “often the most noticeable” form of pluralism. I agree with Kay and consequently, in our school, we rotate the location of our monthly board meetings through the local synagogues and invite the rabbis in the community to give divrei Torah at one of our meetings. We also alternate the location of our graduation ceremony annually through the different synagogues and all the rabbis participate in this ceremony each year leading the invocation, blessing and prayer.

The next layer of Kay’s three-part structure, informational pluralism, is not only a good “guiding principle” it is also good pedagogy. If we are engaging in “actively promoting understanding of diverse religious ideologies,” providing opportunities for our students to engage with our local clergy can help support our goals. Pluralism in our school is a dialectical process: not only do the clergy members meet with students on our campus, but also all of our students visit each of the synagogues throughout the year for programs and prayer services. Furthermore, the clergy are involved in developing a curriculum focused on celebrating diversity in Jewish life.

According to Kay, interactional pluralism “creates opportunities for school stakeholders to engage directly with colleagues whose opinions may differ markedly from their own.” Born out of support for this form of pluralism, our school developed an ad-hoc committee made up of a diverse group of individuals representative of the larger community. This group meets to discuss issues of policy and ritual practice that reflect, embrace and respect the goals of a pluralistic community.

While Kay is receptive to the need for schools to be aware of the surrounding community, I believe he misses an opportunity to strengthen our schools’ commitment to pluralism. He argues that “a pluralistic school leader must be sensitive to the school’s demographics, history, and surrounding community as he/she seeks to enact the three forms of pluralism.” This is a good starting point, but we must move beyond a basic understanding of the community to an active involvement of the “surrounding community.” Our students need to see models of leadership in their communities working together.

While smaller Jewish communities may embrace a pluralistic model out of necessity, the planning and actualization of pluralism in the school must be deliberate. In Orot Ha-Teshuvah, The Lights of Penitence, Rav Kook writes: “There are those who mistakenly think that world peace can only come when there is a unity of opinions and character traits.... true shalom is impossible without appreciating the value of pluralism intrinsic in shalom…. Indeed, in all the apparent disparate approaches lies the light of truth and justice, knowledge, fear and love, and the true light of Torah.” Kay gives us a strong foundation for beginning this process. We can strengthen Kay’s three-pronged approach by further partnering with our communities, collaborating with our local clergy and enacting for our students a strong pluralistic kehillah. ♦

Ilisa Cappell is Head of School at the El Paso Jewish Academy in El Paso, Texas. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009