HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


How to Produce Pluralistic Jewish Educators: One University’s Program

by RAVSAK Staff Issue: Pluralism

Interview with Rami Wernik, Dean, Fingerhut School of Education

We encourage a diversity of Jewish practice, philosophies—religious and secular, and distinctive commitments to Israel, tradition, history, G-d. Robust pluralism requires distinctive identities mutually encouraged rather than a flattening of differences into a least common denominator.

Is training educators to work in a pluralistic environment an explicit goal of the Fingerhut School of Education?

The Fingerhut School of Education is itself a pluralistic institution. By modeling not just tolerance but understanding and celebration of a wide range of Jewish expression, philosophy, and observance on our campus, we train our students to adapt their thinking and behavior for work in a wide variety of Jewish settings.

How important is it in the school’s repertoire of educational objectives?

The Fingerhut School is committed to Jewish Peoplehood in its concrete diversity, and we see pluralism as a core value for sustaining Peoplehood in the contemporary sociological landscape. We strive every day to create broad canopies for substantive engagement, respectful compromise, and even constructive disagreement among Jews of many different backgrounds, beliefs, and customs. Our graduates, therefore, are uniquely qualified to serve in pluralistic Jewish environments.

How do you understand pluralism?

For us, pluralism means the embracing of the notion of unity in diversity, and a commitment to learning about one another with an open mind and heart. This means that we encourage a diversity of Jewish practice, philosophies—religious and secular, and distinctive commitments to Israel, tradition, history, G-d. Robust pluralism requires distinctive identities mutually encouraged rather than a flattening of differences into a least common denominator.

How does Fingerhut educate towards pluralism?

We accept only respectful dialogue in the classroom. Students and faculty share stories of their Jewish journeys; representatives from different denominations and the trans-denominational movement are brought to campus and are reflected in our faculty; courses are never “movement-specific” and draw examples from multiple Jewish contexts; different ideologies are explored and celebrated; community-building activities encourage friendships and mutual understanding.

Our Judaic courses allow for multiple interpretations of texts, and even our prayer-leading requirements are often adjusted for students’ denominational preference or background.

Off-campus, our students participate in mandatory teaching and administrative internships while in the program. These can take place at almost any Jewish institution, so students have a chance to try different environments, and they do, sometimes two at the same time! Students can truly get a full range of experience while at AJU. Then, they reflect on these experiences with their classmates.

What does your ideal graduate who is a “pluralistic educator” look like?

This graduate would be knowledgeable about the colorful landscape of the Jewish community, including the affiliated, non-affiliated, denominational and trans-denominational communities as well as a range of approaches to Zionism and the Land of Israel. She is able to interact with and mentor Jews of different backgrounds in an open and non-judgmental way. He possesses “pedagogical content knowledge,” which means knowing the content sufficiently well in order to teach it. To have pedagogical content knowledge in the subject of Jewish pluralism, one needs to know about Jews, Judaism and Jewish life, but one also needs to be engaged in Jewish life from a personal vantage point while being able to anticipate and answer students’ questions about Judaism, with the awareness and sensitivity that sustaining a pluralistic community demands.

How does the Fingerhut School measure success in this area?

While in the program, courses such as Teaching & Learning, Sociology of Education and Philosophy of Education expose students to a variety of thinkers from across denominational lines, and ask them to engage with these thinkers as they create their own statement of what an “educated Jew” ought to know, value, and be able to do.

In the capstone seminar before graduation, students devise strategies for implementing change in educational settings, which often requires them to confront the demands of pluralistic institutions, or those affiliated with movements that may be different from the one with which the student most closely identifies.

Upon graduation, we rejoice in the fact that our alumni serve effectively as lead educators in pluralistic educational institutions, programs and agencies, and in institutions that are the result of interdenominational mergers. Our alumni also regularly mentor each other and current students across denominational lines.

How are students kept engaged in the subject of pluralism?

I think our students are really energized by the opportunity to get to know each other and learn to appreciate the diversity among them. We endeavor to create a safe space in which this can take place, knowing that pluralism is a sensitive topic for many, which has sometimes led to emotional class discussions and has even tested relationships between students. Where possible, we give opportunities to our students to explore the issue further if they choose, such as by designing curricula or lesson plans on the topic.

Can you recount an experience that bears on this topic?

A recent session in the Jewish Experience through Prayer course helps to illustrate the rich variety of students and backgrounds that we have at AJU. In the class are secular Israelis who are still learning prayer fundamentals, yeshiva and day-school trained students who daven with great fluency but are still mastering spoken Hebrew, students whose strongest ties are to philanthropic Judaism and who see social action as the greatest expression of Judaism, master music educators, and students for whom prayer is largely a discipline to be studied from afar. They had an electrifying discussion one recent morning on the way prayer education is conducted in Jewish settings—at its heart, the question they were asking was, What does a Jew need to know and do? They answered in many different ways, with emotion and passion. But the conversation was taking place today, mirroring and shaping the Judaism of tomorrow. ♦

Rami Wernik is Dean of the Fingerhut School of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He can be reached at RWernik@ajula.edu.

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Pluralism

Pluralism is central to the mission and self-understanding of many community day schools. The questions of what that term means, and how it is implemented in the policies and educational practices of the school, are difficult to answer and require reflection and discussion among all stakeholders. Explore larger perspectives on, and disagreements over, pluralism and ways to approach Jewish study with pluralistic methodology.

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