HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Building Community While Supporting Diversity

by Susan L. Shevitz Issue: Strengthening Community

Schools that are strong, educational communities are associated with excellence. Their teachers, students, administrators, staff, and families are united by a shared set of values and aspirations; participants share a common history and sense of destiny. Pluralistic schools face a special challenge in terms of being communities. They must simultaneously support forces that help the different subgroups thrive while also ensuring that the subgroups unite around this sense of history and destiny. This means being part on a macro level of the Jewish people, while on a micro level, of the school community. To return to the ornithological metaphor: what does it mean to share a culture and be in community when people sing different songs? Can participants be faithful to their own melodies while respecting others’, and will they work together for their common benefit?

What does it mean to share a culture and be in community when people sing different songs? Can participants be faithful to their own melodies while respecting others’, and will they work together for their common benefit?

While they go about it in different ways, intentionally pluralist Jewish day schools try to use their diversity to help people understand and define their own beliefs and practices while also entering into constructive interactions with people of other perspectives. I have elsewhere called this generative pluralism (see my article in the Winter 2009 HaYidion) The educational experiences are designed to further participants’ understandings of their own and others’ perspectives and to generate new approaches to the inevitable problems that need to be faced, such as how Shabbat can be observed at a grade-wide Shabbaton to whether male and female students need to have their heads covered when they study traditional texts. This conception of pluralism is captured by an image presented by a prominent scholar of pluralism, Diana Eck, as “being at the table with one’s commitments.” Rather than subduing or ignoring differences, people at the table learn from each other and together find ways to deal with dilemmas resulting from diversity. The scholar Susan Stone explains pluralism as

“coexistence with difference that is born out of an appreciation for diversity, multiplicity and particularity; and a recognition that distinct traditions and opinions are nonetheless, interdependent—that they share certain goals and common projects and therefore that social collaboration and legal interaction are both possible and necessary even between groups or individuals otherwise holding mutually exclusive, conflicting viewpoints, each deemed by the other to be in error.”

An in-depth study of a pluralist high school that I call Tikhon provides a view on how this is accomplished. It is a school that has tried to put generative pluralism into action in many ways. Once a student or teacher becomes part of the school, the school is committed to making that person’s Jewish practice both possible and meaningful. For example, when a student whose mother was not Jewish wanted to be counted in a minyan and read from the Torah in a service with much of the traditional liturgy (something unacceptable to the traditional minyan) a new minyan was formed by people who were also committed to egalitarian practice and acceptance of patrilineal descent. This respected the student’s religious needs while also supporting the principles of students in the more traditional minyanim. Each was taken seriously and each was challenged to think about and articulate their understandings of the issues. Tikhon did not try to find a one size fits all “solution.” Instead, it used the diverse perspectives about Jewish practice as the energy to stoke the school’s educational engine so that differences could be examined and acted upon.

Over the years Tikhon has realized that to succeed in its kind of pluralism, it needs to carefully balance safety and risk in the everyday life of the school. Students need to feel safe enough to explore and articulate their own ideas and commitments while remaining open to trying to understand others’. In order to take this risk, especially when much of the adolescent experience is about fitting in and conforming to peers, students must feel safe. Tikhon does several things to enhance this psychological sense of safety. It tries to:

Foster close relationships between students and their teachers and other adults

These provide safe spaces to explore issues, consider alternatives, process their reactions and deal with dilemmas. Teachers are expected to watch out for and support vulnerable students. For example, because students who come with limited Judaic knowledge and experience are at a disadvantage, especially in terms Tikhon’s informal activities, a teacher made it her responsibility at the first shabbaton of the year to guide students who had never experienced a traditional Shabbat meal or knew the zemirot that followed. The experience of the students was not left to chance.

Employ teachers and other personnel who represent the full spectrum of Jewish life

This enables students to have access to some teachers who are committed to points-of-view like their own. This is important when difficult issues arise. When, for example, the question of establishing a gay-straight alliance came up, several traditional/halakhic teachers were there to guide traditional students who, having the minority (conservative) opinion, needed to find ways to express their viewpoints without being marginalized. Drawing from a wide array of Jewish sources and approaches, these teachers represented the issue with compassion and reason so that traditional approaches were not stereotyped but were instead thoughtful and grounded. It is also important that students interact with teachers, whether in or out of the classrooms, whose ideas and commitments differ from their own. The relationships that result often open doors to new insights because students are encouraged to think more deeply and question both their own views and their teachers’. The integrity of each teacher’s beliefs means a lot to these adolescents who sometimes decide to try on (and even keep) new ways of expressing their Jewish identities. Without this meaningful interaction with teachers who embody the variations in Jewish belief and practice, this would be far less likely to happen. Relationships are often the keys to exploration and growth.

When a student whose mother was not Jewish wanted to be counted in a minyan and read from the Torah, people formed a new minyan committed to egalitarian practice and acceptance of patrilineal descent.

Avoid pigeonholing people

To avoid rigid stereotypes and maintain an environment where religious, as well as intellectual, growth can occur, Tikhon tries not to pigeonhole people or groups. This is intended to keep people’s minds open to new ideas, whatever their sources, as well as to create conditions where change is possible because people are not rigidly identified with a particular viewpoint. This fosters the students’ and adults’ continued growth. Sometimes this approach is overcome by the norms of North American Jewry, such as the school’s unsuccessful attempt to avoid using the denominational labels. At other times, however, students notice that at various deliberations teachers and administrators change their minds about important dilemmas.

Provide role models who display engaged, respectful, solution-based deliberation

Students see some of the teachers and other adults at the school interacting in the ways that support generative pluralism. There is, for example, a pluralism lab that is required of all students and is co-taught by a liberal and a traditional teacher so that students see how people engage in discussion about areas of difference as well as about things they share. The behavioral consequences of different approaches to Jewish life are evident and ways of working together are developed. This is not lost on the students.

Help students find their niches

Being with others with whom they share values, talents or other characteristics sometimes provide students with a place where they can explore the issues of identity raised by being in a pluralistic setting. Students who get involved with the school’s excellent drama program provide a clear example, since many students describe it as a place where they both literally and figuratively found their voices and learned to question themselves and others and to explore a full range of possibilities.

See the inevitable challenges as solvable problems

School leaders try to avoid dogmatic reactions or answers that they would legitimate by their attribution to one or another of the Jewish movements. They prefer to use Jewish texts to help students explore relevant ideas and then to consider possible actions. In this way, Tikhon is trying to model a way of looking at and conducting Jewish life.

With all these efforts to explore and maintain differences, is there a sense of community at Tikhon? A visitor has only to walk into the lobby to begin to see the answer. Students sprawl on furniture as they catch up on what’s new, homework, and other concerns. Teachers walk down corridors animatedly talking with students. Students’ art decorates the building and the cafeteria is full of people chatting. Sometimes a schoolwide learning experience, Limmud Klali, gathers everyone in the Beit Midrash meeting room where special activities happen. People use similar vocabulary, the Tikhon lingo, and have the same cultural reference points. They seem united by the commitment to respecting and supporting diversity.

Tikhon’s emblematic activity, at least in terms of pluralism, is the de-bate midrash that occurs in the Beit Midrash. It is a real enactment of Tikhon’s pluralism and decision-making. The format is straightforward: A problem, sometimes but not always related to pluralism, is presented. Students, teachers, administrators sit in one of three parts of the U shaped area: On one side are all the people who agree with the position; across from them are the people who disagree; and at the base of the U are those who do not have clear positions. The rules are simple. Anyone who is sitting in either the pro or con side (i.e., has an opinion) can talk (but only one person at a time). People change their seats as what they hear changes their minds or they want to talk from a particular perspective.

In the de-bate midrash about making wearing head coverings during Torah study mandatory for boys, there was a lot of moving back and forth and from the base of the U to pro or con sides as different people spoke. One very traditional teacher spoke early on in favor of making kippot mandatory for boys. By the end of the event the teacher not only moved to the other side of the U—that it should not be required of anyone—but also attributed the reason he moved to what one of the students had said. He has been listening and the student’s interpretation persuaded him. It is this kind of ongoing clarification of one’s own positions and listening to others’ that generates new individual and group understandings. It is generative pluralism in action.

One view of Tikhon is that it consists of individuals who learn to explore and articulate their views on religious and other issues. On a macro level what unifies them is their sense of being a living thread in the tapestry of the Jewish people. But in terms of the school culture and community, the bond is more pronounced.

Dealing with diversity in a community is not unique to Tikhon. Most other units of Western society, whether government or families, also confront this challenge. Living with diversity requires, in the words of researcher Gail Furman, both “acceptance of otherness and cooperation within difference.” Rather than imposing, however gently, the views of the dominant group and downplaying the needs of the others, people in the community are expected to find responsible ways to deal with difference. As an intentionally pluralist school, Tikhon is organized in a way that supports—even favors—this kind of engagement. It aspires to be a community in which people are united by being different, by learning to respect others’ positions and by working with all sorts of Jews. As long as students feel themselves to be in some way part of the Jewish people they belong at Tikhon and Tikhon can expect them to explore what this means to themselves and others. The paradox is that diversity, often a centrifugal force, becomes the centripetal force. Working with this diversity in Tikhon’s pluralistic environment unifies Tikhon’s students, teachers and administrators in a shared quest for self-definition, acceptance, challenge, debate and generativity. ♦

Susan Shevitz, EdD, professor (emerita) in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, currently consults to schools and congregations on issues of leadership and change and teaches in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and the JTS Executive doctoral program. She can be reached at shevitz@brandeis.edu.

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Strengthening Community

What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.