HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Four Years Later: The Influence of Pluralism on High School Students

by Susan Shevitz Issue: Pluralism
TOPICS : Pluralism

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.

In the Beginning

It is a warm day towards the end of summer as eighty-five freshmen gather to meet each other and the educators who will be integral to their lives over their four years at Tikhon. Amid the ice-breakers, getting-to-know-you and community building activities the faculty has skillfully planned sessions to begin to introduce students to Tikhon’s expectations, ethos and to the educational approaches that characterize the school.

Pluralism is hardly on the students’ radar. As with any group of adolescents, they are concerned with the pressing questions: Will I fit in? Who will my friends be? What is the school going to expect of me? What do I need to know to get started? Will I succeed? As we are to learn later, students don’t know what pluralism is and it was not a factor in their enrollment at Tikhon (although some of the parents were more knowledgeable and committed to it). They think that it “encompasses all denominations of Judaism so that we live together under one roofand believe that they have to “get along with each other,” “accept everyone,” and “interact with others regardless of difference.” In reality, the school’s understanding of pluralism is far more ambitious.

The teachers, assisted in the orientation by some upperclassmen, quickly begin to lay the groundwork for Tikhon’s particular orientation to pluralism. First is hevruta learning, something that the students will experience throughout their years at the school. Hevruta is a traditional Jewish approach to text study in which pairs carefully investigate the material together before it is explicated through some kind of whole group discussion. The Bible teacher leading the text study lays out rules:

  • “You have to be open to learning, to really looking at the text and listening to your hevruta partner carefully.”
  • “Everyone has responsibility for exploring the text.”
  • “You have to be supportive of your hevruta; it might be a challenging time for him or her.”
  • “There are always multiple interpretations that are supported by the text.”
  • The teacher is signaling some values that are key to Tikhon’s approach to pluralism. As orientation proceeds, several themes recur.
  • Tension between the needs of the community-as-a-whole and of the individuals and groups within it is part of Tikhon’s ongoing reality;
  • There are multiple views of texts and phenomena and these viewpoints influence action;
  • Recognition of others’ differences is essential;
  • Compromises that support different groups’ sensibilities are to be found;
  • The school “pushes students” by asking them to explain their positions;
  • Students are to be responsible for their own experiences and the school will be responsive to their voices;
  • Sensitivity to others’ religious, intellectual and emotional lives is required.

Where Pluralism Is Experienced

During the next four years, students will experience several settings in which pluralism is explicitly modeled and probed. Among them are the “pluralism labs” in which different approaches to Jewish life are explored, multiple (but mandatory) prayer service options, experiential programs such as shabbatonim and trips in which the students have to figure out how to be a pluralist community, classes that look at alternative approaches to Jewish texts, and the school’s hallmark “De-Bate Midrash” format for probing different approaches to real problems in a way that promotes argumentation, listening, openness to new ideas and opportunities to change positions as this information is presented.

Other expressions of Tikhon’s pluralism are more subtle. They are embedded in its policies and programs. The mix of teachers, range of speakers who address the student body, types of trips available, ways that prayer, kashrut and other observances are handled, and much else reinforce the school’s commitment to its view of pluralism. If effectively enacted, pluralism will permeate the school’s culture and become a powerful lens through which to see the world.

Exposure to divergent ideas came through students’ social networks. Almost all (98%) of the class of 2009 maintained friendships with people with different religious outlooks; almost half of these students say that they “always” had friends with different views. About two thirds of the students discussed the religious differences with their friends at least some of the time. But, as high school students, “just chillin’ with friends” and engaging in activities together is what many of them valued.

The teaching staff, consisting of people with a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds, has an important role in stimulating and supporting religious as well as intellectual growth. They are role models who are available to talk about their own religious values and experiences. Over 70% of the seniors report that they had close personal relationships with teachers who had religious approaches that are different than their own. About a quarter of the students always had such relationships and about 30% often had them. This allows students to see role models who represent, with integrity, very different views of Jewish life and who could help students sort through their concerns.

I am in no way about to put on a black hat and grow a black beard, but my class with Rabbi Zalman was one of the few times where I really thought I was experiencing a Jewish viewpoint different from my own. It greatly helped me “pick and choose” from Judaism.

Some Changes in Beliefs and Practices

Students did more than see and discuss religious diversity. Their beliefs about Judaism—more than their practices—have changed over the four years at Tikhon. About 58% report that their beliefs have changed somewhat or a lot while 35% say the same thing about their practices. When asked more specifically about their experimentation with religious practices, however, we learn that about 70% experimented with more traditional forms of being Jewish (8% always, 23% often and 42% sometimes experimented) and a similar number experimented with less traditional forms: 10% always, 16% often and 43% sometimes experimented. One person characterized this as “my roller coaster ride!” The experimentation sometimes led to a new religious self-definition and eclecticism, such as a student from a non-traditional background wearing tzitzit or a going to—and liking, much to his surprise—the mechitzah minyan in which men and women sit separately and women do not take liturgical roles. Among observances students report are dressing more modestly, observing Shabbat, “taking more personal responsibility,” saying the Shma every day, and “being more of a Jewish activist.”

I am aware more in day-to-day life about my Judaism, desire to be more observant, more thoughtful about different ways of being an observant Jew.

Other students wrote about questioning the halakhic system while still being attracted by ritual practices.

I have a deeper understanding about the importance of communal ritual and how it helps one find their niche in a society.

Students who moved towards less traditional practice say they have become “less strict,” “developed my own scale of kashrut (not my parents’),” “do what I want (but still do), not bound by Halakhah.” Some students claim they moved from being agnostic to believing in God, others from belief to agnosticism. Being in an environment where they see alternative beliefs and actions stimulates reflection.

My exposure to many different Jewish beliefs has caused me to really reflect on what I believe about Judaism.

Tikhon pushes students to raise questions and define their own positions while realizing that their positions might very well change over time, as well as seeing alternative positions and actions. This strengthens many students’ beliefs.

My beliefs have not changed, but the reasons which drive these beliefs have in my mind become more mature and valid.

The pieces of Judaism that attract me are those I find meaningful to ME, not those that someone else tells me are supposed to be meaningful or important.

This theme of personal autonomy is developmentally appropriate at this stage of life. For many Tikhon students questions of autonomy—“What do I believe and do as opposed to what my family does?”—focus on religious life.

The biggest way my Jewish beliefs have changed is that now I am not afraid to question and critique Judaism, G-d, our traditions. I understand that part of being Jewish isn’t just blind faith . . . but asking why we do certain things. My view of Torah changed in my 12th grade documentary hypothesis class. While at first I was uncomfortable with the idea, I later came to terms with it, even if I do not agree with it. I also have a greater sense of what I think G-d is.

I question more and am still unclear about my own religious beliefs.

Changes in Movement Affiliation

When they entered Tikhon, students mostly identified with the movement their family belonged to. By the time they graduated, there was a shift away from identification with a specific movement.

With Tikhon’s emphasis on exploring ideas and articulating one’s own point-of-view in an environment that tries to be respectful, challenging and supportive, it is not surprising that some students move from identifying with any particular denominational movement. Where 8% of the freshman did not identify with a movement, 31% of the seniors refused denominational identities. This is consistent with general trends in American Judaism and is also the result of an education that eschews denominational boundaries and intended, at least in its early years, to prepare students who would be pioneers in efforts to transform the Jewish community. Students who answered “other” range from “traditional/egalitarian” to “agnostic” and from “secular” to “confused.” The consistent message of Tikhon, that students should grapple with ideas while at the same time exploring religious options, leads many students to forge religious identities that do not neatly fit denominational definitions.

What Pluralism Means

Not surprisingly, students’ understanding of pluralism matured over the four years at Tikhon. From a vague notion that it had something to do with being together with people who have different views on religious matters, their views clustered around several points.

There is a cognitive component to Tikhon’s pluralism. Pluralism requires, in a student’s words, “knowledge of what I think and the ability to justify it while at the same time recognizing what others’ think—and their justifications.” They come to see multi-vocalism as part of classical Jewish texts as well as contemporary experiences.

The seniors also express an interpersonal component that is, for some of them, the most important aspect of being in a school that values and works with diversity: “I have learned to be sensitive and try to understand others’ viewpoints, especially around sensitive issues,” and “I am learning how to question myself and others and work together towards a common goal.”

The most pervasive aspect of pluralism that seniors talk about is the communal aspect of living productively and with integrity in a diverse community. Seniors describe times they or their friends did something to allow or enhance others’ practice, such as making the minyan in the mechitzah minyan so someone could say Kaddish or becoming more sensitive to how they talk about religion to people with different views. They acknowledge that the process of doing this is sometimes tiresome and not always successful, but it sometimes stimulates personal learning: “It took me out of my comfort zone” and “allowed me to take risks and experience different ways of being religious.” It is also challenging:

It forced me to grapple with the balance between allowing room for everyone’s preferences and doing what is best for the community as a whole when, as is often the case, the two goals cannot be accomplished within one system.

When it is accomplished, the sense of community transcends sub-groups and energizes the group: “We really are a community.”

Movement

(Self-Identified by Students)

On Entry

At Graduation

Conservative

59%

48%

Reform

29

19

Non-Denominational/
Trans-Denominational

3

15

Just Jewish

5

0

Reconstructionist

2

0

Renewal

2

2

Orthodox

0

0

Other

0

16

There are, of course, skeptics. Not all seniors appreciate or support Tikhon’s pluralism. There is a minority group of students that think that pluralism is “an impossible dream,” and that it saps the group of time and energy by requiring so much attention. Some seniors report that they avoided trying new approaches or engaging in the ongoing—and to them, irrelevant—deliberations. Some are confused by all the talk of pluralism and do not see it as a value or goal and say that being in a pluralist setting has not affected them.

I have elsewhere written about how heavily Tikhon values “cognitive pluralism,” which requires students to articulate, evaluate and rearticulate positions in the ongoing effort to define and build a community that honors and supports its diverse members. Some students will inevitably be uncomfortable and even bewildered. But most of its students, to some degree or another, have experienced and understood Tikhon’s goal of creating a community in which pluralism is a pervasive value. As one graduate wrote:

Tikhon has spent four years teaching us the concept of pluralism, giving us a powerful understanding of how to live in, learn from and reconcile different worlds and points-of-view. As we begin the next phase of our lives we are sure to confront a struggle between many competing worlds, ideas and values. This is what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. But we have learned…that this is not something to shy away from, nor is it something we need to resolve. Pluralism is in part about our capacity to hold competing aspects of who we are, what we believe, even where our hearts are; to embrace our different selves and to live with this complexity. …We have learned to think deeply about challenging issues; engage in spirited discussion and debate and communicate respectfully and act morally, guided by a connection to our common roots and a commitment to making the world a better place.

A pre-eminent scholar of religious pluralism in the contemporary world, Diana Eck, talks of “coming to the table with one’s commitments” as a goal of pluralism. Tikhon and other schools like it hope that its graduates will be able to do that: come to the table knowing who they are while also being prepared to work with people who differ to reach shared goals and common aspirations—both in the Jewish community and beyond. ♦

Susan Shevitz, EdD, professor (emerita) in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, currently consults to schools and congregations on issues of leadership and change and is also studying how pluralism is understood and enacted at Jewish settings. She can be reached at shevitz@brandeis.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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