Pluralism Redefined: Transitioning from One Model of Pluralism to Another

Lillian Howard

Two years ago, we set out to take our approach to pluralism to the next level with the underlying goal of increasing the school’s enrollment. We found that despite our initial planning, a lack of clarity about pluralism was the topic of ongoing conversations around our school’s identity and programming. We found ourselves revisiting the same issues in an attempt to satisfy competing viewpoints; we spent a lot of time spinning. We also recognized that this perceived lack of clarity surrounding our identity as a pluralistic Jewish school was working counter to our recruitment efforts.

We formed a task force of faculty and administrators from across departments and years of service to look at our identity as a pluralistic school. How did our application of the notion of pluralism enhance or limit our community? How did our approach to pluralism play out in our Jewish studies curriculum and our experiential and Jewish life programming?

Our task force met every few weeks off-site for half-day retreats. We reflected on who we are and who we wanted to be. We surveyed students, parents, and community members, and worked with our board of directors to review our mission. We researched the practice of pluralism at other Jewish high schools nationwide, met with educational leaders, and spent significant time looking at how best to support the process of identity formation for teens, perhaps the primary task of high school students. We reviewed our curriculum across Jewish and general studies and looked at how our classes, activities, and programs enlivened pluralism.

We soon discovered that the concept of shalom bayit best described the way we understood pluralism within our school community up to that time. We quite literally worked to make and keep peace in our house, the Kehillah community, striving to make peace from our differences. We wanted each community member to feel comfortable here as they expressed their identity as Jews within the well-defined perspectives of the major Jewish affiliations and movements. Our Jewish studies curriculum strove to engage these varying perspectives through traditional text study and teaching the knowledge and skills that define being Jewishly knowledgeable.

We discovered that our community, while striving to find comfort from our differing perspectives, focused proudly on the process of debating. This is not surprising as this is intrinsic to the shalom bayit model where striving to make peace assumes an inherent disagreement. Indeed, in the rabbinic tradition of Hillel and Shammai, we as Jews elevate the process of disagreement to something positive and holy. Machloket (holy argument) defined the process by which we made communal decisions while it taught our students the skills of analytic and critical thinking. Although we never overtly identified the process of communal participation as machloket, debating and the empassioned presentation of one’s views colored communal participation and decision-making.

We also discovered that we did a lot of counting, always aware of the number of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews in our study body, our faculty, and on our board. Our task force questioned the reasoning behind having these numbers in the forefront. We recognized that they served as a proof point of our school achieving its mission as a pluralistic school. Yet we also found that this identification could work counter to our mission as our community members often understood their roles to be ones of individual advocacy for their own way of being Jewish.

This emphasis on individual advocacy in conjunction with our valuing of the process of disagreement often failed to serve our community well. It necessitated an inherent evaluation of positions, a judgment that belied the message central to the rabbinic debates of Hillel and Shammai, that there is more than one way to be holy or right. Some of our community members felt that they needed strongly to present and defend their views concerning all manner of school activities, from the definition of kashrut to what it means to be Jewishly knowledgeable. Although there certainly was a plurality of views, we wondered if this was the most effective way to live our mission and guide our Jewish teens to developing and affirming their identity as Jews.

After nearly a year of work together, our task force and board committed to ensuring that pluralism at Kehillah was based on the recognition of the validity of multiple Jewish perspectives. We agreed that we needed to re-envision the model upon which we built our pluralistic school community, moving from shalom bayit (making peace in the house) to b’niyat bayit (building the house together). The emphasis shifted from the individual to the community in many ways.

We now focus on communal advocacy and drashah (exploration of views) as a means to establish and support our community and communal standards. We are together building and sustaining our kehillah while accepting the views (and identities) of one another as inherently valid. The evaluation intrinsic to a pluralism that comes from making peace from difference has been replaced by a validation of the perspectives of all, a sense of belonging that is requisite for success. For only within a community that accepts a student’s identity can that student take the risks necessary for true learning.

Our goal of valuing the identity and perspective of each community member has reached into all aspects of our school community. Our former mandatory sequence of Jewish text courses (Bible I, Bible II, Rabbinics I, Rabbinics II, Jewish History, etc.) has evolved into a wide range of options (Sefer Bereishit, The Origins of Human Violence, The Books of Ruth and Jonah, A Jewish Approach to Interpersonal Ethics, Judaism in the Environment, History of Zionism and Israel, The Experience of the Classical Prophet, The Ethics of Life and Death, etc.). Students can choose which Jewish studies course to take each semester from courses that are designed to connect students to their Jewish identities in different ways; while some emphasize classical textual analysis, others use ethics, culture, Israel, history or science as the connection point. Pluralism no longer means students with differing Jewish identities learning classical Jewish text together, but students exploring through open dialogue aspects of Judaism that engage them.

Likewise, we have increased choice within our language department. While we had required three years of Hebrew for all students, we now require one year of Hebrew and 2-3 years of a language (Hebrew, Spanish, French, or Latin). While Hebrew language is an important aspect of Jewish identity for many of our students, it is not the connection point for others. Our redefining of pluralism affirms that there are many ways to be an actively engaged Jewish teen (and adult), and we are working to create a community that affirms and supports these myriad paths.

The shift in our interpretation of pluralism has brought our community together in palpable ways. Our board and staff in a joint committee worked side by side to create a new school image and accompanying materials emphasizing our focus on a student’s individual journey through our community. Our faculty work closely with our students in a newly revised advisory system to assist students in discovering those important areas of engagement within the larger school community. We further work to recognize the many ways of being successful in our school, athletically, socially, academically, spiritually, artistically, through contributing to our community as a participant or leader. We don’t define one way as more meaningful or more important than another. We value them all and in doing so we value all of our students and their own individual voices. ♦

Lillian Howard is Head of School at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, California. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009