HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Community: Family, Tribe, or Something In-between?

by Allen Selis Issue: Strengthening Community
TOPICS : Community

The notion of “community” is among the most important but least well grounded ideas that many Jewish day schools invoke. While we often suggest that the “community” character of a school implies inclusivity or pluralism, this notion is murky as well. Over the last few years, researchers and school leaders like Susan Shevitz and Michael Kay have helped us move towards a clearer understanding of what we mean by pluralism (see HaYidion Winter 2009). For Jewish day schools both within and beyond the RAVSAK network to be most successful, we will need a similar update to our understanding of “community.”

By clarifying what “community” means and what it could look like we will be better prepared to make thoughtful decisions about the specific direction in which we will lead our schools.

It is critical that we understand community as a technical concept, because technical language comes with an underlying history of supporting ideas, a research base and (ideally) a set of institutional practices that can translate from thought into action. Once we move our discussion beyond a “feeling” or a “sense” of community, we can start to describe meaningful institutional choices about issues such as school policy, styles of pedagogy or the climate of interaction between students and faculty. By clarifying what “community” means and what it could look like we will be better prepared to make thoughtful decisions about the specific direction in which we will lead our schools.

It Starts with Culture

Ed Harris points out that “organizations do not have cultures, they are cultures.” To generate a useful description of community within schools, we need to recognize the range and complexity of interactions that take place there. While we are often keenly attuned to the religious differences that families bring to our schools, we should be just as mindful of the fact that personal status, race, gender, economic privilege and placement within social matrixes all impact the way in which people define who they are and how they connect with others. These are the core building blocks of culture which shape the experience of community within our schools.

During my own study of one Jewish day school’s attempt to create a community that included an unusually broad range of participants, I had to move beyond obvious religious differences between faculty and students. It was evident that different sub-groups within the school dressed differently, ate differently, visited different websites when they surfed the Internet and had differential access to wealth. They even spoke different versions of the English language! While many important religious issues surfaced, a focus on culture gave me deeper insights into the school and its sense of community. I came to see the school as the kind of space that ethnographers call a “contact point,” a place where different cultures, values and social norms co-exist or compete within a defined space. We should look at our schools in same way.

Mary Douglas:
Grid and Group

Fortunately, there is a body of scholarship that can help us develop more precise language to describe the varied cultural interactions which comprise community. Within the field of anthropology, Mary Douglas’s theory of “grid” and “group” offers one such tool. Douglas claims that we can understand the character of a community best by watching how it attends to two significant priorities: defense of the group, as seen by an expectation that individuals will be loyal to the larger community, and enforcement of a societal grid, the behavioral norms which determine how individuals will conduct themselves in relation to one another. Douglas argues that communities have profoundly different characteristics, based upon how they attend to the boundaries of grid and group.

The categories of grid and group are two powerful lenses which can push the conversation about community in helpful directions. First, these concepts remind us that religious differences are not the only ones playing out within a community day school. For Douglas, the “grid” of religious standards is merely one half of the cultural equation. We cannot speak about community unless we pay attention to how schools create a sense of group belonging both within their own walls and among the larger Jewish people.

Second, an awareness of the balance between grid and group can help us make strategic choices about school culture. I spoke with one Orthodox faculty member at a community day school who greeted students returning from McDonald’s with a kind look on his face, and then thanked them for arriving to class on time. When I asked why he did not comment on their choice of food, he explained that his most important concern was seeing these students marry Jewish partners. It was not his role to question the religious choices they made in their personal lives off-campus. The teacher made a clear choice to sacrifice attention to the grid (standards of kashrut) for an opportunity to reinforce the group (a positive feeling of connection within the Jewish community). We have occasion to make choices like these on a daily basis, and we are likely to make much more effective decisions if we think in advance about the values and purposes of our school.

Finally, Douglas’s taxonomy should force us to ask important questions about our curriculum, both formal, informal and experiential. If social/developmental skills and ritual knowledge are important but fundamentally different elements of belonging to community, how do we balance them and how do we ensure that our schools address both effectively? Attentiveness to both group and grid-based content offers a valuable heuristic which can improve the quality of our programs.

Kenneth Strike:
Four Models

In contrast to Douglas, the educational philosopher Kenneth Strike posits that a school community may be seen as embodying one of four models: a tribe, an orchestra, a congregation or a family. According to Strike, members of a tribe share the deepest bond of all based upon a common worldview, common beliefs and a shared pattern of behaviors. The tribe offers a powerful connection between members who know each other intimately. At the same time, a tribe is the model most likely to stigmatize or exclude individuals who break from communal norms. At the other end of the spectrum is the family, a maximally inclusive space. Since there is no choice of family (people are born into it and are rarely kicked out), it is likely that a family will include members who don’t share similar values or practices. While the inclusivity of family can be a boon, Strike argues that family offers a thin model of community, one which lacks the deep mutual loyalties of a tribe.

Between these two categories are the orchestra and the congregation. An orchestra is a group devoted to a specific practice. They may come from disparate backgrounds and hold radically different beliefs, but as the conductor leads them, they are all deeply bound to one another by virtue of a shared musical repertoire. Once the music stops, the bond dissolves; orchestra members pack up their instruments and go their separate ways. The converse of the orchestra, according to Strike, is the congregation, a place where people come together based upon a shared faith or common values, even if they lack a common set of spiritual practices.

I spoke with one Orthodox faculty member at a community day school who greeted students returning from McDonald’s with a kind look on his face, and then thanked them for arriving to class on time.

The implications of Strike’s work are far reaching and should spark considerable debate within the RAVSAK community. I suggest that professionals and board leaders reflect upon their own schools using Strike’s template. How do you conduct yourself, like a tribe, a family…perhaps an orchestra? Let’s explore them one by one.

Family

I have spent an extended period of time in one school which stresses the unity of the Jewish people, offers a relatively balanced but one-size-fits-all minyan, teaches about ritual in a superficial manner without engaging questions of religious obligation and addresses issues of ideology and belief with the notion that “there are many ways to be a good Jew.” If this resembles your institution, then I would suggest that you have created a “family”-style community. The advantage of this is your high level of inclusiveness.

The disadvantage is that you have not engaged students, faculty and parents in grappling with core questions that are constitutive of a postmodern Jewish identity. Just why do we bring dairy lunches? What does my individual, personal connection to G-d look like? I urge schools that have enacted the family model to go further, to dig deeper and to take chances. Leaders in this kind of community might deliberately surface issues of faith and belief that have gone unexplored by asking families to create personal theology statements. Or they might open an inquiry-based unit to explore whether the current minyan best serves the objectives of teaching ritual skills and creating space for personal spirituality. If you have not explored these kinds of questions in the recent history of your school, then move judiciously, focus on one and only one issue, and see what you learn.

Orchestra

I am familiar with another school that is committed to a high level of ritual practice, including standards of kashrut and an expansive daily minyan. School leaders know that most of their families don’t observe these practices at home and are respectful of this choice. Hebrew is a core part of the school culture, and there is a significant focus on Israel as witnessed by impressive ceremonies on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Yerushalayim. Families come from a range of synagogue affiliations, ethnicities and theological points of view. The community enjoys this diversity, and warms to the notion of “diversity of thought but unity of action.” If this reflects your school, then you sound much like an “orchestra”-style community. Your school gains strength by balancing diversity with a core of practice that unifies Jews from different backgrounds.

However, there are several weaknesses and potential threats that you invite by choosing this model. You should explore whether you can go further to enhance the ritual life of your school. It’s your core, so you should do it effectively, including blessings before and after eating alongside a prayer curriculum that continues to teach new skills up to your terminal grade. Have you also invested in the secular rituals of Jewish day school life? Hatikvah in the morning? Greetings in Hebrew at the front door? You are a practice-based community, so make sure that even your non-Jewish staff can ask students “Mah shlomcha?” or “Mah shlomech?” each day. Finally, be alert to the potential for the tribal dynamics of Jewish life to impact your community. Train faculty to be attentive to and affirming of the choices about religious practice that kids make outside of school, and go out of your way to highlight and celebrate the differences of belief which your community invites. Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, which describes how shared patterns of conduct create a sense of shared identity within institutions, will offer thought-provoking ideas for your school as you continue to grow your culture.

Congregation

I have visited several schools that draw students from particularly diverse Jewish backgrounds or affiliations, taking pride in their efforts to include families that might not otherwise receive a Jewish day school education. One of these schools stresses freedom of choice with respect to Jewish ritual. Policies regarding head covering are very broad, and the school includes some girls who wear kippot while many boys don’t. Turkey and swiss sandwishes often show up in the lunch room, while kosher meals are also offered as an option. The administration affirms the legitimacy of each of these options. At the same time, the school is clear and proactive in communicating the values of inclusivity, informed choice, and social responsibility as the sacred values upon which the school rests.

If these attributes describe your school, then you are likely to be a “congregational” community. The advantage is that you have created a rich and unique Jewish experience within your school. The challenge is that you will always need to invest effort in strengthening a shared and coherent identity that unites the various segments of your school. Leaders within such a school should develop and constantly voice clear statements of belief about core values such as Jewish peoplehood, the State of Israel, the nature of Jewish continuity and the Jewish responsibility to do acts of tzedakah, gemilut chasadim and tikkun olam. All faculty, students and parents should hear this kind of belief statement and have opportunities to share it with others. Since your school does not try to make ritual practice central, it should develop other practices, customs and community rituals which are unique to the school. At the same time, you should maximize opportunities to explore questions of meaning, and should consider the role of discussion and a pedagogy that links individual learning experiences to your school’s core beliefs on an ongoing basis.

Tribe

In my home community there is at least one school which teaches that certain ritual practices and specific tenets of Jewish belief are essential to being a good Jew. This school sees its mission as perpetuating these ideals broadly, since they are the right way to think and act. While a small number of students have different beliefs or practices at home, they are encouraged to adapt to the school’s standards. In rare cases, students whose public conduct is at odds with the school’s ideals have been asked to leave. If your school’s objective is for all of its students to buy into one set vision of a “good community” that is unified in belief and practice, then you could well be a “tribal” school.

The advantage is that most of your students and families will share the same language, ideals and notions of Jewish identity and religious practice. They will likely form tight bonds, and will be loyal both to your school and their peers for many years to come. The disadvantage is that you will not have as much diversity as might be healthy for the development of your students’ intellectual and social horizons. Schools with “tribal” communities should work with their most established lay, professional and religious leaders to explore ways in which the boundaries of discourse and the range of acceptable beliefs and legitimate options for religious practice can be expanded. It is particularly important for “tribal” communities to develop a nuanced and sympathetic understanding of how multiple streams of Judaism define themselves.

Modeling Diversity

It is important for leaders in our field to think about community using the most effective frames of reference available. By creating a more robust framework for understanding community, we will do a better job of shaping the culture of our schools. That is particularly important if we are committed to diversity and inclusivity within the Jewish community. Our most current demographic data show that we are becoming more diverse with respect to ethnicity, family structures and religious orientation. The Jewish community that our children inherit will be complex, nuanced and pluralistic. Their schools should be no less diverse and inclusive. By using the templates which Douglas and Strike offer, we can reflect critically and, if needed, re-envision our schools to become models for the kinds of communities that we want to see in the future. ♦

Rabbi Allen Selis PhD, Headmaster of the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis, recently completed a Ph.D. in Curriculum Theory and Development through the University of Maryland’s School of Education Policy Studies. He can be reached at aselis@ssdsstl.org.

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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.