Jewish Identities in Process: Religious Purposefulness in a Pluralistic Day School

Rabbi Marc Baker

What does it mean to strengthen Jewish identities in a world where it might no longer be possible to define (or to prescribe) what a Jewish identity should look like?

The cultivation of communal and individual religious purposefulness in a pluralistic school does not rely on the building of rigid intellectual, theological, and social boundaries that so often explicitly or implicitly characterize a particularistic Jewish school or community’s education of its youth. Instead, the awareness of and interactions with the Jewish “Other” contribute in essential ways to students’ religious identity development.

If pluralism as an organizing principle of Jewish community offers a new model for Klal Yisrael, pluralism as an educational philosophy responds in unique ways to what sociologists have identified as shifting notions of American Jewish identity. This context helps to illuminate the unique approach to religious purposefulness in a pluralistic school.[2]

In 2000, against the backdrop of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) and Wade Clark Roof’s Spiritual Marketplace (1999), Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s The Jew Within paints a new picture of American Jewish identity that raises serious questions for Jewish education. In an attempt to capture the changing ways in which “moderately affiliated” Jewish Americans conceive of their own Judaism, Cohen and Eisen suggest that the “profound individualism” of American Jews is a serious concern for Jewish institutions and for Jewish educators striving to emphasize community and commitment to Jewish tradition and values. What does it mean to strengthen Jewish identities in a world where it might no longer be possible to define (or to prescribe) what a Jewish identity should look like? Whereas a traditional Jewish education can maintain clearly defined conceptions of “classical Jewish knowledge” and will continue to educate with a view toward traditional behavioral norms, most American Jews, Cohen and Eisen suggest, will not respond positively to an education that imposes such expectations from without.

Jewish education today must compete in the marketplace of ideas and identities for our students’ minds, hearts and souls.

The Jew Within, however, also raises the optimistic possibility that, if exposed to a range of options, American Jews on a quest to fashion their own identities will embrace that which Jewish institutions have to offer. Cohen and Eisen write, “[Jewish institutions] must have a range of options available to every individual at every moment, so that when he or she is ready to seize hold of Jewishness or Judaism, the right option is there to be had.”[3] It is possible, they seem to suggest, that if Jewish educational institutions can reinvent themselves, placing Jewish traditions, practices, and values into the context of their own “spiritual marketplaces,” then they will speak directly and meaningfully to the “sovereign selves” of their student populations.

Jewish education today must compete in the marketplace of ideas and identities for our students’ minds, hearts and souls (let alone their attention!). A pluralistic Jewish school is in a unique position to promote religious purposefulness by engaging students (and often families too) in the creative process of personal identity construction while empowering students to develop into mature and confident self-defined Jews who will be able to find their way, even in a world of normative Jewish commitments.

A school should be explicit about its core pillars of Jewish identity—the non-negotiables, so to speak, with which it expects students to engage.

While a pluralistic educational mission plays out in various ways in educational practice, I want to suggest two ways—corresponding broadly to curriculum and instruction—that a pluralistic Jewish high school can promote and educate toward the value of religious purposefulness.[4]

A Pluralistic Curriculum—Core Pillars of Jewish Identity

Contrary to popular misconception, pluralism does not mean that “anything goes.” A school should be explicit about its core pillars of Jewish identity—the non-negotiables, so to speak, with which it expects students to engage. These core pillars are broadly defined norms of practice and belief, within which there is room for a widely differentiated range of expressed commitment. A school needs to name these pillars and, for each pillar, to provide students with compelling and substantive learning experiences.

Two examples of these pillars might include sacred time (zman kodesh) and sacred text (Talmud Torah). A pluralist school can expect students’ lives to beat to a Jewish rhythm and to be punctuated by, for example, an awareness and celebration of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Similarly, a pluralistic school can expect that students’ Jewish identities involve a commitment to ongoing learning (albeit defined by a broad range of historical, cultural, and religious texts and ideas). Both of these pillars—sacred time and sacred text—create potential pathways toward meaningful Jewish living, invite students to take part in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition, and are critical entryways to skills and knowledge that empower our students to be literate, self-confident participants in the Jewish community. Other core pillars of Jewish identity might include Kehillah and Klal Yisrael (community and peoplehood), Eretz Yisrael uMedinat Yisrael (Zionism and the Land of Israel), Mussar uMitzvot (Jewish Values, Ethics and Commandments), Ruchaniut (Jewish spirituality).

The idea of core pillars of Jewish identity implies that while educational success in a pluralistic school will include a wide range of student choices regarding how certain communal norms will play out in their lives, whether these norms should play a role in their lives is not up for debate. Non-engagement with this “subject matter” is not an option that is consistent with the religious or Jewish educational mission of the school.

One may not write off a rabbinic argument because “those guys” wrote it “back then”

Student Learning as Process —E2C2

Student learning in a pluralistic context can be explained as a process of Jewish identity development that cultivates four essential habits of mind and heart: Exposure, Engagement, Commitment, and Construction (E2C2).

A pluralist high school aims to expose students to a broad range of models of Jewish identity —different approaches to the core pillars, interpretations of Jewish texts and tradition, and perspectives on what it means to live a serious, committed Jewish life. A student studying a Biblical text, for example, might read the commentaries Rashi and Ramban, as well as modern, feminist readings. Guest speakers might include both the local Chabad rabbi as well as a leader of The Workman’s Circle (committed to secular-cultural Judaism). Exposure makes students aware of the diversity of expressions of Jewish living, practice, and belief that have always existed and continue to exist within the Jewish People. This serves the dual purpose of broadening students’ horizons by opening their minds and hearts to Others of which they might not be aware, as well as creating options (a “spiritual marketplace”) by expanding the possibilities for student engagement and possible entryways into Jewish learning and meaningful Jewish identity.

Once a student gains exposure, the student must take seriously the responsibility to engage, and the school must teach students how to do so. Engagement defines a process of interaction—a hermeneutic, if you will—with which a student approaches texts, people, opinions, ideas. Pluralism demands an interpersonal ethic of engaging the Other with critical openness. To engage implies a willingness to take seriously the claim that this Other might make on me; it means taking the Other seriously and taking responsibility for the encounter by critically and respectfully analyzing this claim, while being humble enough to challenge and question my own assumptions and beliefs. A student may not, for example, write off a rabbinic argument because “those guys” wrote it “back then”; the student must be open to the possibility that the text will teach him something, even if in the end he might disagree with it. Engagement demands respect for the dignity of the Other (whether text, person, idea), and requires practice, patience and humility—all traits that a pluralistic school considers religiously purposeful in and of themselves.

But religious purposefulness in pluralistic Jewish education cannot stop at exposure and engagement. While the school does not mandate one set of behavioral outcomes, it does expect students to commit—to make choices and to take stands about what they believe and how they want to live their Jewish lives. Before a Shabbaton, for example, students might be expected to discuss and decide how they will celebrate and observe Shabbat together in light of the diversity of experiences, backgrounds and practices regarding Shabbat. This gives students the opportunity to ask themselves how they feel, what they think and believe about Shabbat, as well as to voice their beliefs and their feelings to their peers. Creating opportunities for students not only to discuss and explore, but also to commit, makes clear the school’s expectation that learning is not merely an intellectual exercise; exploring and engaging translate into belief and practice, which shape personal Jewish identity.

The totality of a student’s exposure, engagement, and commitment results in a process of construction that captures the holistic nature of religious purposefulness and Jewish identity development in a pluralistic high school. Teachers should expect students to go beyond taking a stand on particular issues, practices, or beliefs; students also must reflect on how one choice or commitment fits into their overall Jewish identities. Response papers in Jewish Studies classes, for example, might ask students to reflect on how the ideas they are learning play might play out in their own lives. In an informal conversation on a Shabbaton, a teacher might ask a student who chooses not to observe Shabbat in a traditional way to reflect on what his choice indicates about the role that Halakhah or Jewish community plays in his life. The move from commitment to construction begins to shape the totality of a student’s Jewish identity, which in turn shapes the lens through which he continues to explore, engage, and commit, in high school and beyond.


In a school that presents one set of acceptable norms and beliefs, students have two options for their Jewish lives: acceptance or rejection. In a pluralistic high school, encounters with diverse experiences, ideas, and people, and the acceptance and rejection of norms and values from across the spectrum of Jewish life become regular parts of a student’s high school experience. Rather than a “take-it or leave-it” approach, this process of critical examination and conscious choice constitutes, for each individual student, the continual construction of his or her own personal Jewish identity.

Students in a pluralistic school are in a process of self-definition and redefinition in dialogue with Jewish texts, tradition, history, family, values, and thought. The nature of this dialogue may change, depending on many factors, including the age and maturity of the student, as well as the Jewish commitments of the student’s family and community. For some students, the voices of Jewish law and tradition may challenge the voices of self and sometimes family as well. For others, the voice of self might challenge the voices of tradition and community. What is most important is that students maintain a vibrant dialogue that seeks to respect, hear, and understand all of these voices as they learn and grow.

Yes, the process of identity construction and the inability to predict particular outcomes for any particular student can be scary, especially for those of us who hope deeply that our students will emerge with Jewish identities that we deem religiously purposeful. But those of us who believe in pluralistic Jewish education must have faith that the beauty of religious purposefulness is found, in fact, in the process itself. ♦

Rabbi Marc Baker is the Head of School of Gann Academy—New Jewish High School of Greater Boston.

[1]I use the term “intentional” in contrast with what one might call a “pragmatic” pluralism, which might tolerate serving a diverse population due to circumstance, such as limited communal resources or a limited number of families committed to Jewish education.

[2]Many of the ideas in this article are based on a paper that I wrote together with my colleague M. Evan Wolkenstein: “A New Jewish Education: The Philosophy and the Methodology of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston through the lens of Interviews with 13 Graduating Seniors.”

[3]Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000) 205.

[4]While I write broadly about pluralistic Jewish education (and am now a day school parent at a pluralistic elementary school), I am writing from the perspective of a Jewish high school educator. Given the developmental differences between elementary, middle, high school and post-high school students, it is important to distinguish which audience we are speaking about, especially when we focus on the development of Jewish identity. This article is based primarily on my experiences with high school-aged adolescents, formerly at The Weber School (Atlanta, GA) and now at Gann Academy (Waltham, MA).

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