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What defines a pluralistic Jewish school?

When a high school senior eloquently declares her views nationally, she represents the essence of her education

I was proud last week to read the opinion letter of a high school senior at my school in The Forward, reacting to the recent Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) resolution regarding the ordination of women to the rabbinate. A few days later, I was disappointed to see a blog post blame the education my school provides for the student’s viewpoint and asserting that we place a higher value on feminism than on Judaism. And then I realized that this writer was correct to attribute the student’s expression to her education — he just did not know what a pluralistic Jewish day school is about.

My school’s vision is to foster the growth of confident, compassionate thinkers who engage with the world through Jewish values to ensure a vibrant Jewish future. How could I not be pleased that a student beautifully articulated her position on the RCA ruling and her intention to devote her life to the Jewish community by seeking to become a Maharat (Orthodox female clergy)?

My school, like other community Jewish day schools, is committed to ideological pluralism. While some communities are based on sameness and aspirations of homogeneity, pluralistic schools and communities center around the awareness of others, multiple viewpoints, practices and beliefs, and the interdependence of all community members. Of course, there is a large degree of shared values, culture, and heritage that unites a pluralistic Jewish community. It just comes together with a deep respect for and celebration of the various ways Jews approach our common tradition and history.

Pluralistic Jewish day schools cultivate environments that are open-minded, welcoming, tolerant, and diverse. At the same time, pluralistic schools teach students to understand and develop familiarity with practices and beliefs that differ from their own. Understanding what other people believe and value is a primary characteristic of pluralism. Beyond this, a pluralistic Jewish school affords students the opportunity to enrich and enhance their own identity significantly, as they respectfully confront, debate, and grapple with difference. Students gain a greater appreciation for the totality of what it means to be Jewish and the varieties of expression serious Jewish engagement takes.

The historian of American Judaism, Jonathan Sarna, suggests that Jewish schools serve as the “primary setting where American Jews confront the most fundamental question of Jewish life: how to live in two worlds at once, how to be both American and Jewish, part of the larger society and apart from it.” Jewish and general studies in pluralistic schools are at times dissonant, but more often complementary. The ability to teach a rigorous curriculum in both areas is a hallmark of many schools. Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College in Boston, argued to Jewish day school educators a few years ago that the very hybrid nature of the endeavor “represents the best opportunity for a creative approach to Jewish life in North America.” General studies and Jewish studies enhance each other in ways that only happen in a dual program.

This is what it means to be a pluralistic Jewish school — it is its value and power. If this type of education is responsible for sparking the passion of a seventeen-year-old student to dedicate her life to serving the Jewish people through the study of Jewish texts and the practice of Jewish rituals — then go ahead and blame us.

About the Author
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus serves as Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington, D.C., a JK-12 pluralistic school. You can follow him on Twitter @mitchmalkus
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