30 April 2010
15 Iyar 5770
On Wednesday night we launched our first Parent Learning Session about pluralism in an effort to generate community-wide conversation about Gann’s pluralism and our Jewish educational mission and vision. To my great excitement, 35 parents engaged with me and each other about this core aspect of our school’s mission, discussing both their children’s and their experiences at Gann. While Dr. Tanchel and I had prepared to facilitate a tightly-run workshop with various exercises, the session went in a different direction than we expected.
We invited all of the participants to introduce themselves, share their children’s names, and briefly describe “what brought you here tonight,” to get a sense of who was in the room. More than an hour later, every parent had shared personal stories about Gann, pluralism, and their families’ Jewish journeys and expressed their concerns and confusions about Gann’s pluralistic mission. The conversation ranged from humorous tales of parenting adolescents to relating emotional experiences of feeling marginalized in the Gann community. The diversity, complexity, and depth of the people in the room and of each person’s story humbled and inspired me. Watching this powerful display of what I call “Pluralism in Practice” highlighted core features of our pluralism and illustrated how pluralism is integrally connected to underlying beliefs about learning and education.
While pluralism as an intellectual or philosophical exercise involves debate and the exchange of ideas, pluralism as an interpersonal ethic also demands that we honor the dignity of other human beings by understanding their perspectives and experiences. Paradoxically, pluralism can only thrive in a community where there is enough trust and security for people to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and experiences openly and honestly. Remarkably, our diverse parent body was willing and able to achieve this almost instantaneously in our first session.
Our learning session has also given me new insight into the relationship between pluralism and two core educational values found in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which we read during the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Even more powerful than the honesty with which people shared their stories was that, for over one hour, all 35 people listened actively and intently to every person in the room. So often the “opening circle” of a meeting is painful—people ramble on, and no one is really interested in listening to anyone else. Often, we come to hear ourselves speak or to learn only from a teacher or leader. But pluralism demands that we practice a fundamental but challenging interpersonal skill: deep listening. It is through listening that we truly honor one another by creating space for people to tell their stories and share their ideas. In Pirkei Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches us the well-known dictum, “Eizehu Chacham? Halomed mikol adam – Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” This pearl of educational wisdom turns the concepts of knowledge on its head and defines wisdom not by how much one knows but rather by one’s stance toward other people—a stance of learning. As I suggested to our students this week, to be a chacham, to be wise, is to be a voracious learner, open to learning from everyone and everything.
What our parents reminded me on Wednesday night is that Ben Azzai’s statement in Pirkei Avot 4:3 actually offers a prescription of how we can live this out. “Al tehi baz l’chol adam . . . Do not scorn or brush aside any person . . . for there is no person who does not have his or her time . . .” When we do not take the time to listen and cannot be present for each other, we inadvertently brush each other aside and lose the opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives. “Learning from every person” begins with honoring the dignity of every person, and often starts with having the patience and presence to listen. This is exactly what our very wise community of parents accomplished on Wednesday night.
It was both an honor and joy for me to be part of that experience and to learn so much from all of you.
Rabbi Marc Baker