HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Nourishing Diversity: The Leader as Catalyst
Jews are very proud of their support of diversity. Chests swell when remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who marched with Martin Luther King. We publish books about our rescue of Jews from the former USSR, Yemen, Iran or Ethiopia. We love Jewish basketball players, Jews from China or from the “lost” Lemba tribes of Zimbabwe.
While we may be proud of the diversity in our global community, smiles fade when it comes to differences among synagogues and movements, observance and non-observance. Frowns begin to appear at day schools when discussing which students wear kippot, what level of kashrut is observed and how tefillah is organized.
While all Jewish day schools and yeshivot share concerns of diversity, community day schools in particular serve families across a large spectrum of the Jewish community; one would therefore think that expecting diversity of thought and practice would be sine qua non.
Centers of Jewish population such as Los Angeles or Teaneck often have several specialized Jewish day schools, frequently cut along ethnic or religious lines, such as a predominantly Sephardic or Modern Orthodox school. In smaller Jewish communities, there is usually only one school. Unfortunately, many prospective parents never make it to the school’s entrance because of a perceived lack of welcome or open-mindedness towards the unaffiliated or non-observant. A recent community survey at my current school found this to be the case with some families.
Some administrators try to recruit non-observant families by watering down the Jewish side of the curriculum, removing Hebrew as a required language or substituting yoga for tefillah, for example. This apologetic attitude ultimately does not gain students. Yet pride in our identity is no excuse for not reaching out with welcome and warmth to the diversity that exists in our communities.
An intermarried relative of mine had enrolled her young children in her city’s community day school. When her elder son was in first grade, he came home to tell his parents that he wanted to keep kosher. The parents, fearful that the child would one day judge his parents’ marriage and their lack of home observance, immediately pulled their children from the school and put them in public school. No one from the school called to discuss their feelings or to make them feel that the door was always open to return.
This same perception that non-observance would be judged was echoed recently at a meeting where a Reform parent told me he wouldn’t ever enroll his child in our school, as he wouldn’t want him taught anything that he and his wife might disagree with. He was worried that his lack of kashrut, Shabbat observance, and synagogue attendance would be judged at school. He worried his children would be taught observance and be distanced from him. Therefore, the child was placed in public school. Jewish connections were considered a greater risk than being taught to celebrate Christmas or learning Western history without the richness of the Jewish experience. Our school has begun to schedule outreach meetings where such fears can be respectfully listened to, trust established and, with a bit of work, connections built.
Fear exists in the more observant as well. An Orthodox parent at a community day school did not want his child to meet the community’s Conservative female rabbi, as he didn’t want him to know that female rabbis existed. This parent was against participation of rabbis from a variety of congregations, as he did not want his son to learn anything he disagreed with. These examples demonstrate a fear of interaction with Jews from diverse backgrounds. Perhaps this reveals a lack of confidence in the strength of one’s own family or the fear of being judged lacking by others in the community, school or even in one’s family. In our small population, we maintain divisions that hurt us and our children’s future.
How we enforce observance in our schools can bring intense disagreements. One of my schools required boys and girls to wear kippot during tefillah, Jewish studies and meals, even though the few observant families protested it was against their understanding of Halakhah for their daughters. I have heard some religious Judaic studies teachers describe parents’ lack of observance in disparaging language to students and, on the other side, have heard some staff describe Israel and Jewish practice with disdain. While we may have parent education about differentiation or standardized tests, we often do not know how to explain why we do what we do Jewishly in our schools.
There are positive choices that we as leaders may institute to shape a more profound and open environment in which to learn and teach. The learning environment can be a model of diversity by building a Judaic studies curriculum that teaches how to read texts on many layers. Teachers from diverse backgrounds can engage their students in Jewish texts and tradition without being condescending towards any group. These skills are strengthened in dialogue-based classes, learning the meaning of the words and the structure of the texts in Chumash or Navi, and the gift of the ability to understand the wisdom of our Torah on many levels and from many sources. Framing the learning of Jewish texts in the paradigm of a Talmud page is instructive for all of us: the opinions shared around the page are respected even as they are not always in agreement with each other. This framework from our heritage shapes trust in the school and in one’s own values.
Tefillah is a challenge both in engagement and diversity. In some schools, there is a separate minyan for girls and boys as they become adolescents. How can our young men and women be empowered to understand that prayer is important for women? It is important for school leaders to create a spiritual environment filled with respect for all the families. Boys and girls can lead Shacharit in their own minyanim. There can be time, even if brief, for questions, new melodies, and presentation of divrei Torah, in their own words, with guidance from any source and tradition: internet, parents, teachers, friends, rabbis. Some post-bnei mitzvah boys and girls lead services and read Torah in their own synagogues to allow this experience for families that wish this for their sons and daughters.
Boards, as well as students, need to experience the positive nature of diversity. Many boards begin their meetings with a dvar Torah, trustees sharing their insights from their own traditions or insights. From time to time, instead of giving a traditional dvar Torah, each trustee may share what his or her brit with the school is. Some may talk of connections, a covenant with their children; others may feel the covenant with the traditions of their families; others may connect with Israel or with Jewish customs. Moments such as these allow each person to be heard and validated. Action plans from our boards must understand the need to develop frameworks respecting our families’ diversities. The affirmation of our vision of Klal Yisrael advances when we cultivate trust and an understanding that the strength of our schools lies in building common ground for our families, especially true in times of economic downturns and shrinking Jewish populations.
Studies show that comfort with diversity helps our children in the marketplace of the future. In addition to career success, our core belief is that our schools should be spiritual communities that develop character. Building community is part of tikkun olam, based on our understanding that each human is created in the image of G-d, betzelem Elokim.
How we support and accept diversity in our community takes constant nurturing. If we stop our efforts, within a short amount of time much reverts back to exclusion, mistrust and fear. Each person in a leadership position has the opportunity and responsibility to include all our families in daily speech and interactions. Mentoring leaders among staff, students, parents and community develops the constant attention and optimistic vision needed to support safe and secure Jewish identities in our schools.
A good leader actively asks questions and continues learning. Our ability to guide is directly enhanced by knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish texts, and by the support of a continual learning environment for all. With values that already exist in Jewish tradition, we can and should build a community with families that may look, think or live differently. Celebrating diversity opens the door to these Jewish families, creating common ground for all of us. This diversity polishes our values and aspirations, tests our assumptions and stretches our notions of identity. Leaders who encourage partnerships establish meaningful and successful ways to guide. Inspiring others occurs best when we allow others to teach and inspire us. We who are teachers and leaders know that others need to believe in us, but the fact is that our diverse students and their families give our professional lives meaning and purpose. ♦
Susan Weintrob is Head of School at the Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, SC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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