The notion of creating a Jewish institution characterized by a commitment to ideological pluralism is not new. As long ago as 1934, Mordecai Kaplan envisioned a “community center” that would aim “to be affirmatively Jewish without committing itself to any specific type of Jewish religion.” He believed that an organization that would strive “to unite on an equal plane all types of Jews, Orthodox, Reformist, and Conservative, believers and non-believers, Zionists and non-Zionists, the recent immigrant as well as the Americanized Jew” would be able to offer “the best that can be obtained in education, music, art, and literature.”1 Kaplan expected that this trans-denominational approach to Jewish life and learning was to become the cornerstone of Jewish communal renewal in the years after the Great Depression.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
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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Buzzwords make me nervous. They make me nervous, first of all, because often it’s not clear what people mean when they use them. A buzzword often stands in for a vague cluster of values to which we are all committed, but its fuzziness can stand in the way of people being challenged to think carefully about what they mean when they use the word and about what it would look like to put that commitment into practice in a thoughtful way.
Pluralism might be the word of the day—but what version of pluralism do we aspire to? And does it matter? Isn’t simply being “a good pluralist” enough? In this article I argue that it is important to be clear about what form of pluralism we endorse because different kinds of pluralism will lead us to justify our curricula choices and structure the educational experience of our students in different ways.
Much of the conversation on Jewish education in general, and pluralist Jewish education in particular, focuses on either the science or technology of the work. In my experience however, neither a scientific approach, by which I mean that which the educators must know, nor the technological approach, by which I mean that which they must do, are the most helpful ways in which to approach and achieve a genuinely pluralist Jewish education.
As a Jewish community high school named after the very concept of community (kehillah means community in Hebrew), Kehillah Jewish High School defines and identifies itself as a pluralistic school. Since the school’s opening in 2002, we understood pluralism in terms of the breadth and depth of our community. We wanted to open our community to as wide a spectrum of Jewish students as possible, educating them in Jewish traditions, texts, and practices. We debated and eventually decided on a Jewish studies curriculum, put policies relating to observance and ritual in place, and actively sought out diversity, in personnel, in ideas, and in programming.
As with other philosophies, competing claims are made about the effects and suitability of pluralism as an approach to Jewish education. Some people enumerate its potential to shape students who will be at home in Jewish tradition and prepared to determine their beliefs and practices as well as to understand and respect divergent ideas and beliefs; others, just as passionately, assert that pluralism leads to relativism and confusion. In order to understand just what effects pluralism has on adolescents, I studied a group of students enrolled in an intentionally pluralist day high school when they were freshmen and, again, when they were seniors. During the freshman year the school, which I am calling Tikhon, socializes its students into its view of pluralism. By the end of the senior year these same students reflected on their understanding of what pluralism is and how it has influenced them. This article discusses some of what we learned.
Roee is fast; indeed, he is very fast. Most importantly for our discussion of pluralism, Roee is a fast Jew.
When a Jewish day school defines itself as a “pluralistic school,” it means that its ideology entails legitimacy to various Jewish lifestyles and attitudes. This appreciation of the plurality of the Jewish culture might be expressed in admissions and staffing, as well as in curricular and cocurricular choices.
One of the most revolutionary paradigmatic changes Judaism has experienced in modern days is the introduction of pluralism as a core constitutive value. Some may see this as one of the greatest achievements of modern day Judaism expressing the true nature of the old faith. Others may believe it is sacrilegious and poses the greatest danger to the Jewish future. Still others will claim that the clash between modernity and Judaism simply left no choice but to adopt a pluralistic approach. All of them would agree that it would not be possible to explain current day Judaism without employing the pluralistic category.
The pluralistic spectrum of Jewish practices and behavior is often baffling to Israel educators who have spent their lives in systems differentiating between being “religious” or “secular.” The teachers can be loosely divided into two groups. Orthodox teachers come to the U.S. with excellent Jewish knowledge, but, especially in Jewish community schools, have a difficult time understanding the pluralistic Jewish community. The other group I will call kibbutz teachers who have a better understand of a heterogeneous world, but little understanding of the Jewish precepts and practices which are at the heart of the community school.
Pluralism as a goal or even an acceptable societal manifestation is an essentially liberal concept. It suggests the recognition of variety and diversity in the world. In contrast, those disposed to an authoritarian personality and fundamentalist views prefer uniformity and do not welcome intellectual and theological pluralism since they believe they have discovered “truth.” Nor do they desire much social pluralism if it involves the endorsement of relationships and behaviors that are not sanctioned by their ideology.
My daughters go to an intentionally pluralistic Jewish day school. This means that there are children from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish families who attend the school, as well as children from families who have very little religious (as opposed to cultural or historical) identification as Jews. Even though the school has won an award for pluralism from the Jewish community, no one is quite sure just what that means. Consequently, every couple of months we have discussions long into the night concerning the meaning of pluralism. During one of these discussions, I presented some of the ideas developed below and was immediately subjected to a barrage of criticism. One parent was quick to point out that tolerance of difference was not at all what was needed. Instead, difference needed to be embraced and engaged so that we could grow and develop together with those who are different.
Michael Kay outlines the challenges facing the growing pluralistic school community in its desire to provide an effective educational program that addresses the complex, multiple needs of a parent and student body deliberately composed of diverse elements.
Jewish community day schools embrace pluralism as a philosophy and core value. Rather than having a specific religious philosophy (hashkafah), pluralistic schools embrace the concept of Jewish Peoplehood (Klal Israel). Kay defines three levels of pluralism: atmospheric, informational and interactional. His definition provides a framework for school leaders to identify and assess the ways in which they honor diversity and commonality. In order to promote atmospheric pluralism, a school leader may be asked to create an environment that is perceived as welcoming, an environment where children from different religious backgrounds can outwardly live their religious life in a comfortable and safe setting. For instance, will the students have tefillah opportunities which meet their needs? Is the kashrut standard comfortable for all children to partake in shared experiences? Does the concept of communal activities respect the boundaries of Shabbat observance?