For the past four years I have been in what you might call a polemic, or perhaps even a disputation, with a friend and colleague of mine, a religious leader, from Atlanta. This religious leader is fond of speaking from the pulpit about the perils of pluralism – indeed, he perceives pluralism as both a threat to the Orthodox community (or at least to those Orthodox people who might be seduced to identify with a pluralistic institution) and as immoral in and of itself.
As many of you know, I have spent my last four years working for Atlanta’s pluralistic Jewish high school (actually, it calls itself Transdenominational – but as much as its founder insists that there is more than a semantic difference between the two, I am still not convinced!); and you can imagine the adventure of sitting in synagogue while the rabbi preached from the pulpit about the sinfulness of an approach to education and to community building that I have devoted my life to!
To a large degree, I blame my friend for what I see as his perhaps unwillingness or perhaps inability to understand the true meaning of pluralism. As a matter of fact, his public rantings against a stereotypical understanding of a pluralistic community are a glowing example of the kind of thinking and behavior that pluralism seeks to combat.
But over the past decade, since I first encountered and I think internalized Danny Lehmann and the New Jewish High School’s sophisticated approach to pluralism and Jewish education, I’ve come to realize that it is not only my friend in Atlanta who misunderstands us. In fact, it is not only Orthodox people, and it is not only people committed to one movement or denomination who do not always fully understand what we do here. To be honest, it is not only people outside of our school or our community who are unclear about the meaning of pluralism for a Jewish High School. I am guessing that if I went around this room and asked for definitions of pluralism or the mission of pluralistic high school education, we would here some interesting and very different answers.
The truth is – pluralism is hard. It is hard to wrap your head around. As with many isms, it plays out in many different ways and means different things to different people. It is a philosophy that celebrates complexity and shuns easy answers, that pushes people to live or at least spend time in the gray, rather than the black or the white, and that requires significant a sophisticated approach to people, texts, ideas and the world. A tall order for any person, let alone a community, and let alone high school students. My previous Head of School used to explain why people didn’t really get what the school was all about by saying: “It’s very hard to understand us from the outside in – its something that you understand once you are a part of our community,” and The Weber School actually took stopped using the word Transdenominational because its leadership felt it was just too difficult to convey the meaning to the prospective students and parents or the broader Atlanta Jewish community.
On the contrary, pluralism runs through the blood of this community. All you have to do is hear Rabbi Lehmann speak, go on the school’s website, or read the school’s mission statement to see that Pluralism is very much alive as a defining feature of Gann and what Gann aspires to be. As the school approaches the transition into its second decade and its first Head of School change, I think it is important to acknowledge that it has been led through its first decade by perhaps the world’s leading thinker about pluralistic Jewish high school education. There are a lot of people in this school, myself included, whose passion for and conception of pluralistic high school education have been inspired by Danny Lehmann. But as we acknowledge and celebrate this our outgoing Headmaster and his vision of pluralism, I have a sense that for many people – students and teachers, parents, prospective families, others in the Boston Jewish community, and perhaps even some Board Members as well – the meaning of pluralism, the ways pluralism is infused into various aspects of Gann’s mission, and what pluralism in practice looks like – are not always perfectly clear. As I near the end of my first decade in Jewish High School education, I have moved in between the halls of academia the trenches of a high school, between the educational leadership and administration, and the front lines of the classroom, the ballfield, and experiential education. It is remarkable how difficult it can be to translate theory into practice, how often there is a gap between the talk we talk and the walk we walk, and yet the long term success of our institutions will be our ability to ground our mission, vision and philosophy in reality, and simultaneously to make sure that our mission, vision and philosophy play out, both explicitly and implicitly, in every aspect of our school life and culture.
The Search Committee asked me to speak tonight about “The Meaning of Pluralism for a Jewish School”. So here’s what I’d like to do. In order to make sure we are on the same page and in order to give you some insight into my passion for and commitment to pluralistic Jewish education, I want to start with an attempt to define, or at least describe what is pluralism and why are we committed to it. I want to share with you two of my answers to that question – a philosophical/intellectual foundation of pluralism and a mystical/spiritual foundation of pluralism. Then, for the second half of the talk, I will speak about Pluralism in Practice: What Pluralism means for a Jewish High School and for our Jewish High School, as we enter our second decade. I want to bring us down from theory and talk about what it looks like when we walk the walk, in the day to day life of school – from the classroom to the athletic field to college admissions to recruitment.
Pluralism is an approach to diversity – different people, different experiences of the world, different ideas, beliefs, practices – that sees the existence of and the encounter between people with these differences (within boundaries defined by a particular community or society) as positive and necessary, both for the intellectual and spiritual advancement of the individuals involved and for the unfolding creation and repair of a community, society and the world. While pluralism itself is not particular to religion or to one community, Jewish pluralism and pluralistic Jewish education applies this approach to diversity to different expressions of Jewish living, practice and belief.
Why would someone consider himself a pluralist or seek to build or be a part of a pluralistic community?
I want to share with you the two reasons why I find pluralism to be so compelling. I want to offer two different perspectives on the underlying justification or foundation for pluralism: A Philosophical/Intellectual and a Mystical/Spiritual. Ultimately, both of these generate an ethical mandate for how to relate to the other that is, for me, the most relevant and profoundly significant implication for Jewish high school education.
Philosophical/Intellectual Foundations of Pluralism
The Philosophical or Intellectual Perspective is best illustrated by the oft-cited, and I realize for many of us overtaught Talmudic story known as “Elu v’Elu Divrei Elokim Hayim”
[“For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, the one asserting that “The Law is according to our opinion” and the other asserting that “The Law is according to our opinion.” Then a Bat Kol – the symbolic representation of the voice of God – went forth and said, “The words of one and the words of the other are both the words of the Living God.” But the Law is according to the school of Hillel.
This story has become a prooftext for proponents of Jewish pluralism. There many ways to explain it and I am not here to claim that the Rabbis were pluralists or that Judaism is an inherently pluralistic religion. We can discuss that another time. That being said, this text does speak to the limits of our human understanding and our relationship with others with whom we disagree.
This text contains a profound message about the human capacity to know what God wants of us, or if you prefer a philosophical language, to know Truth. According to this text, human beings are engaged in an ongoing process of interpreting the word of God. This process itself is divine, for through interpretation and the making of law, human beings have the freedom and the capacity to bring God into the world. Indeed, these are the words of the living God, the God whose presence we feel through our very process of our debates. There is something inherently Creative about the interaction with the other.
But there is a catch. See the moment the Divine is filtered through the lens of human interpretation, Truth – the word of God – is fragmented by our limited human perspectives. These and these are both the words of the living God.
Message number 1: No human being has a monopoly on Truth or the word of God.
But if we go back to our story, we must then ask why, and how, it is decided that the Law goes according to Hillel? And the Talmud itself asks and answers this question:
“Since both are the word of the Living God, what entitled the school of Hillel to have the Law fixed according to their rulings?” And here the Talmud’s answer is beautiful – “Because they were kindly and humble, they taught their own rulings as well as those of the school of Shammai and, even more, they taught the rulings of the house of Shammai before their own. This should teach you that he who humbles himself is exalted by God and he who exalts himself is humbled by God.
It’s not that we follow the school of Hillel just because he’s nice. It’s more profound than that. In our human world of fragmented truth, the closest we can come to knowing and living according to the word of God is through the process of interpretation. These are in fact the words of the living God, or at least as close as human beings can come to them. What God wants of us is to relentlessly seek to understand him yet at the same time to realize our own limitations.
From a philosophical perspective, this is the nature of Truth. We spend our lives seeking and pursuing knowledge-and- understanding with the very awareness that as Socrates taught us, “The only thing I really know is that I know nothing.”
The very nature of humanity limits our capacity to ever fully know or experience the infinite and all-present God. Even Moses, Judaism’s prophet of all prophets, who longs desperately for the ultimate, intimate experience of the divine, receives the only possible response that a human being can receive, when God tells him, in Exodus 31:20, “You cannot see my face, for man cannot see Me and live.” We can only come so close.
According to this Talmudic text the very nature of Divine revelation necessitates human interpretation, and therefore the laws by which we live and the societies we build are the products of human interpretation. For Judaism, this does not diminish the holiness or the authority of our legal system – on the contrary we observe it and celebrate it as the ongoing revelation of a partnership between human beings and the Divine. And, according to this text, the very realization of our limitation – this humility – also creates an ethical and a spiritual mandate for how we relate to the Other. We need humility and we need community, for only when we humbly engage other perspectives on truth will we come as close as humanly possible to knowing God.]
As a Jew and as a human being, I have a limited capacity for understanding Truth, for knowing what God wants of me, and therefore I must seek other people, other voices, other perspectives, other experiences in order to push me, to challenge me to refine my ideas and my understanding. This requires a community of discourse. It requires humility. It also requires the capacity to hold an intellectual space where competing ideas coexist, challenge and refine each other.
Mystical/Spiritual Foundations of Pluralism
So that was what I call a philosophical or intellectual underpinning of pluralism, which speaks to the philosopher in me – the debater, the truth-seeker. But as an educator and a parent, I have also come to realize that if you believe in child-centered education or humanistic education, the only educational model is pluralism. Let me explain.
In his work of Hasidic educational philosophy Chovat HaTalmidim (A Student’s Obligation), Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira interprets the words of Mishlei (Proverbs) – “Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darco, Gam Ki Yazkin, Lo Yasur Mimenu”
“Educate a child according to his path, and even when he grows old, the child will not stray from it.” The difficulty in this line is the ambiguous pronoun “his” path – whose path? Is it God’s path or is it the child’s path/way? Is this a prooftext for religious indoctrination or for child-centered education? The beauty of a Chassidic interpretation is that it turns that very question on it’s head. There is not indoctrination into God’s way that does not go through the child’s way!
The Piascezno Rebbe brings Rashi’s interpretations of the word Chinuch (which is the world for education) and is used in other places – such as Chanukat HaBayit – the dedication of the tabernacle or the Temple. This is where we get the word Chanukah – Dedication. Or Chanukat Habayit – when we put up mezuzot and have a housewarming party. Rashi gives an interpretation of this word, “to dedicate” – and he says the following: The root Chet Nun Chaf – Chanoch – implies the initial entry of a person or object into a trade or path that is his destiny.” Note: Dedication does not mean the use of the object or the person – it is the initial entry, the preparation for what he is meant to do.
The Piascezno explains: “The word chinuch is a special word that implies the realization of the already inherent capacity of a person or object; the actualization of a potential. This potential will remain hidden unless we bring it out. Our task is to cause the potential to emerge, to accomplish the chinuch that will transform the person into a skilled artisan; will casue the hhouse or vessels to fulfill their functions, each room according to what it is best suited for, every vessel or instrument according to the task for which it was designed and prepared.
When referring to the education of children, therefore, chinuch means stimulating the growth and development of what each child is suited for by his nature. This quality or potential may be found in him only in very small measure, in total hidenness; the task of the eductor is to uncover it . . . “Chanoch L’Naar” Educate the Child – penetrate to his inner being and reveal the holiness that is in there. Only then will the child not stray from the path when he grows older.”
He won’t stray from it because it will be truly, deeply his. Because he will own it.
Here’s what it comes down to: Every child, every student, every human being, has a soul, has Tzelem Elokim (the Image of God), has divine potential and unique creative capacity within them. I, by the way, would extend this beyond students to teachers, staff, parents, Board Members – I’m looking around this room and I see a room of diverse and unique divine potentials waiting or already in the process of being activated. This also creates an ethical mandate that is at the heart of pluralism’s approach to diversity. I must approach you with reverence for your potential and respect for your full humanity and the divine presence within you. You have the capacity to create and to contribute to our community in ways that I do not and that perhaps neither of us fully understand, and it is the school’s job to tap into that potential.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – first Chief Rabbi of Palestine (Israel before it was a State) – a 20th C. Philosopher and Mystic) describes this potential with the metaphor of song, something that speaks particularly powerfully to me. He writes: “Surely the soul always sings . . . it is not at one time rather than another, on one occasion rather than another, that the soul engenders in us new thrusts of wisdom and through, song and holy meditation. At all times, in every hour, it releases streams of its precious gifts . . .”
Pluralism demands that I open my ear toward the other and listen for his song. Walking through the halls of a pluralistic high school, you should hear a symphony of souls singing, or potentials being actualized.
For me, pluralism is the logical extention of this mystical foundation of child-centered education – (and it actually extends to teacher-centered education and parent-centered education as well) A pluralistic community celebrates diversity because every human being has his or her song to sing, and the exquisite harmonies of a choir are more profound and uplifting that one, monotone, musical note.
[Pluralism is both a model for creating community and an ethos for relating to people and to often unheard voices. True diversity extends beyond Jewish beliefs and practices to differences such as gender and sexuality, learning styles and intelligences, and socioeconomic status. A pluralistic school creates a caring and safe environment by guarding and valuing the integrity of every person, whether student, teacher or maintenance person. The community equally values and celebrates the student who matriculates to Harvard, Rhode Island School of Design, or a post-high school program in Israel. This environment encourages students with different talents, interests, and intelligences to take risks and develop self-confidence by pursuing excellence and tasting success in their own ways. ]
For the rest of this talk, I want to focus on Pluralism in Practice – How does this theory play out on the ground and what challenges do we face as we enter or second decade?
I hope to blow open our thinking about pluralism – this is a philosophy that extends way beyond bringing Jews of different denominations together under one roof. I want to highlight seven aspects of the Jewish High School for which pluralism has relevance:
- Jewish Identity Building and Jewish Life
- Recruitment of Students and Teachers
- Learning in the Classroom – Pedagogy and Curriculum
- Professional Development for Teachers
- The Learning Center – Setting Diverse Learners up for Success
- Learning Outside the Classroom – Extracurricular Life, Arts, Athletics
- Leadership and Governance
In many of these areas, when you translate the theory into practice, Pluralism means Paradox!!! Let me begin with a Jewish High School’s goals for the Jewish identities of its students and for the Jewish Communal Life it strives to create.
David Starr Story?
A Pluralistic Jewish High School is infused with love of and commitment to Klal Yisrael, to the unity of the Jewish people, to its history, traditions and core values. At the same time, the school serves, celebrates and seeks to cultivate a broad spectrum of Jewish beliefs and practices. Through formal classroom learning, but even more importantly, through Jewish experiences – Shabbatonim, Holiday celebrations, tefillah – students learn about the different movements, are exposed to diverse models of passionate, committed Jewish life. Rather than push our students to conform to one model of Jewish identity, we encourage them to explore where they come from and the choices that their family makes – to learn and to challenge not only each other but also themselves.
But here is the paradox: at the same time as we push students to be reflective and open to a learning about and even experiencing a range of Jewish beliefs and practices, a Jewish high school must also help students to make choices and commitments – to construct a Jewish identity for themselves and to be prepared for Jewish life after high school. This is a profound challenge, and one we are working on this year. In essence, we are training students to deconstruct Jewish identities that they have often not yet constructed – and so we have a double mission: To inspire students with models of particular Jewish expression that will support and perhaps encourage them to make particular choices and commitments of practice and belief. And at the same time to cultivate a humility about students’ choices and commitments and an openness to learning about and from different expressions of Jewish life.
2) Recruitment of Students and Teachers –
As critical as it is for our mission that we create diverse and compelling Jewish experiences for our students, the most crucial models of diversity from which our students will learn are the people who make up our community.
In this sense, achieving our mission of pluralistic education really begins with the recruitment of students and our admissions process, and with the hiring and retention of an outstanding and diverse faculty. And here, true diversity extends beyond Jewish beliefs and practices to differences such as gender and sexuality, learning styles and intelligences, and socioeconomic status. Often prospective families ask about the lack of diversity in a Jewish high school. There is a perception that a Jewish high school is homogeneous, but how untrue this is! Of course, in some ways – such as racial or religious backgrounds – we do not have the same kind of diversity as some non-Jewish public or private schools. But we have created a community that is genuinely diverse, and more importantly we train our students to recognize and confront this diversity. One alumni put it beautifully when asked this question at our open house last week. He explained that although Gann is not quite as diverse as Columbia, where he went to school, it was because Gann created a laboratory where he could deal proactively and explicitly with the differences that do exist here that he gained tools and experiences that helped him to thrive at Columbia and in the unparalleled diversity of New York City.
We should be proud of the laboratory we have created, but let us make no mistake, the challenges to maintaining our diversity are significant. There is a huge market of less or unaffiliated Jews attending private or public schools that we have not yet penetrated, and it is no secret that we, like most community or pluralistic schools around the country are struggling to attract Orthodox families. Recruiting both of these populations will be critical to maintaining the kind of religious diversity that is essential if we are to create a truly pluralistic community. And as with many Jewish and private schools, the affordability of our uncompromisingly excellent education (which is not, by the way, in my opinion overpriced!), will continue to challenge our commitment to serving a socioeconomically diverse population and to being a true community school. In a few minutes I will also mention the challenge of recruiting and serving diverse learners.
In each of these areas, the ideals of our pluralistic mission demands that we continue to grown an aggressive and innovative admissions, recruitment and marketing plan, and that and that once we do attract a waiting list of prospective students from all walks of the Jewish community (which we will!), our fundraising and development make it possible for us to serve the entire Jewish community without wavering on our commitment to the providing a Jewish and general education that is second to none.
Let’s talk about teaching and learning in the classroom, the heart of the education we provide our students. Talk to Susie Tanchel – the prototype of a Gann teacher (and perhaps the most passionate person about Gann’s mission that I know!) and you will not go more than a couple of minutes without hearing about “Intellectual Pluralism”. In the classroom teachers train students minds and open their hearts, teaching students how to be self aware of their own biases, how to listen deeply, respect and value other ideas and opinions; and at the same time teaching them how to articulate and defend their ideas, beliefs and commitments. Examining multiple interpretations of a Biblical passage or the unending give and take of Talmudic discourse, students enter into the interpretive community – and learn that their voices can and must be part of this ongoing discourse. By engaging students in debates about essential questions and big ideas, and by placing texts and subject matter at the center of critical inquiry, our teachers – both Jewish and General studies – teach our students to be rigorous and critical, yet humble and open to learning from the wisdom of texts, tradition, their teachers and their peers. Our faculty’s passion for learning, for critical conversation and debate models for student that the path to knowledge and understanding involves the capacity to hold multiple possible interpretations at once; that there might really be more than one right way of doing something.
And yet here arises another paradox of pluralistic education. At the same time as we stimulate a marketplace of ideas and we encourage students to be open and to embrace complexity, we also want our students to learn to commit, to take sides and to defend even unpopular opinions. Committed to particular opinions and ideas yet comfortable with complexity; a deep listener and yet a capable arguer; critical and yet open – this approach to education is full of paradox and difficult balances – but it this is our mandate as a pluralistic high school.
So once we recruit diverse and outstanding teachers and give them this daunting mandate of pedagogic and curricular pluralism, how do we ensure the excellence of teaching and learning in the classroom, and that our teachers continue to grow and learn? Here our commitment to pluralism plays out in our approach to professional development and to instructional leadership. I was blessed to learn from my mentor, the master teacher at The Weber School in Atlanta, that the sure fire way to crush a teacher’s spirit and set him up for failure is to try to fit him into a rigid box of expectations of what good teaching looks like, and then to evaluate and judge him based on his ability to live up to these expectations. What has been so powerful about the mentoring I have received is that the driving principle behind my mentor’s philosophy has been that first and foremost, I have to be me in the classroom. And what works for me – in terms of classroom culture and pedagogy, for example – will not necessarily be what works for other teachers, even those whom I deeply admire. Professional development must demand that teachers continue to learn and grow into the best teachers they can be, but must do so by meeting them where they are and by valuing diverse models of what good teaching looks like.
I am thrilled to say that in my short time at Gann, I have discovered the beginnings of a comprehensive approach to teacher support and evaluation that, at least as I understand it, is based on these very principles. The Department Heads are being trained in an approach to instructional leadership that is deeply pluralistic – that approaches the art of teaching and the complexity of student learning with respect for the dignity and diversity of teachers. I am excited that we are on our way to building a common language about teaching and learning that will challenge yet empower teachers to be the best teachers they can be, and that will celebrate a wide range of possibilities for what great teaching will look like in our school.
We can’t talk about teaching and student learning without mentioning the plurality of learners that our mission demands we serve. If we are to be truly pluralistic and if we are to offer a Jewish education to the broadest possible spectrum of families who want, and who deserve it, we must do everything in our power to serve students who learn differently. Our school’s commitment to setting students up to succeed academically is inspiring, with four full time learning specialists in our learning center who work with a large percentage of our student body. Our learning specialists have taken away the stigma of learning differently by helping our teachers to recognize the range of learners in their classrooms and by giving us the tools to be better teachers, not only for those students who struggle academically, but for all our students.
Again, it is no secret that how broad a population of learners we will attempt to serve is one of the fundamental questions facing our community right now. It may seem clear from the perspective of our mission that we should strive for even more diversity. And in once sense, this is true. It is in fact a mitzvah – a chovah – an obligation to give any child or family who wants it a Jewish education. Yet as we struggle with this complex educational, political and financial decision, let us also remember one of the foundations of our pluralism – to help every person in our community to actualize their unique potential. It would be ironic and potentially harmful to enhance the diversity of our community without doing everything necessary to help new members of our community to realize their potential. Let us serve the widest population of learners we can, but let us be committed to doing it right. And may our leadership approach this decision with the character and the disposition that our pluralism demands of our students – by listening carefully, openly and critically to the many voices and by humbly but confidently committing to a decision in spite of what might very well be a lack of perfect clarity about the right direction to go.
I want to briefly address life outside of the classroom – the reason I was brought to Gann this year – and for me perhaps the most powerful way we live out the Piascezno Rebbe’s mandate to actualize our students’ potential. What motivates my commitment to experiential education – to the arts, athletics, extracurricular activities such as clubs and student organizations, is my belief in a pluralism of talents and passions. I was blessed to divide my time in high school between academics, theater and sports, and when I look back on the opportunities that my high school gave me – I feel deeply indebted to that institution for providing me with the opportunities to commit deeply in a community of other students whose passions and enthusiasm matched mine. It was on the court and on the stage where my soul was on fire, and it is our education, moral and spiritual obligation to provide our students with as many opportunities as possible to light their souls on fire.
Our commitment to excellence in the arts, athletics and extracurricular life is not merely for recruitment purposes – so we can rival top notch private schools. It is a mandate of our pluralism in the deepest sense. This is our commitment to recognizing, tapping into, and releasing the creative potential of every one of our students. Some students will be fully activated in the classroom. Many will not. There is nothing more powerful than being there when the student who struggles most in your class scores the winning goal or sings a solo in the school play. For me there is no song more beautiful than the song of a high school student’s soul singing.
Finally, I want to conclude with Leadership. What does it take to lead a pluralistic community and what would it mean for leadership to be infused with the spirit and the ethics of pluralism? Like the Board, the Head’s role is to guard and promote the school’s mission, but the Head must clarify the mission and articulate a vision of how the community will achieve this mission; and in order to actualize that vision, the Head must surround himself with a team outstanding people who will communicate and collaborate, and who will themselves lead the school toward the realization of this vision; leadership infused with pluralism is, in my mind, what leadership is all about. It is the Head’s job is to make sure that the leaders surrounding him actualize their potential and creativity, that their voices are heard and that they are empowered and held accountable for their talk and their walk. And it is the Head’s job to make sure that this model of leadership – of real empowerment with real accountability, of actualizing people’s individual potential while cultivating open and honest communication and meaningful collaboration, trickles down to faculty and staff, and to other constituencies as well. It is the Head’s job to build a pluralistic, conversational community that begins with the Board, of leaders who listen bring passion and commitment, who are willing to make and support difficult decisions, but who listen deeply and openly, who want diverse and challenging voices at the table, who are able to adapt to new challenges and situations by holding these complexity of these many voices long enough and sensitively enough to hear, amidst the loudness of makhloket, the soft voice of what is best for Gann break through.
Quote from Ron’s book
The meaning of pluralism for a Jewish high school is profound and it is demanding. Pluralism is complex approach to the world that for me has profound philosophical and spiritual underpinnings. It informs every one of my relationships and it runs through the fabric of my educational philosophy. But perhaps most importantly, it plays out every day in all aspects of our school’s culture. As we enter our second decade, our challenge is to refine the talk, but more importantly to walk the walk. We are known throughout the world as the leading model of pluralistic Jewish high school education. We have built a new kind of school and new kind of Jewish community and we have great aspirations. May we be blessed to have the vision, the courage, and the patience to make these aspirations a reality.
Thank you for this tremendous opportunity.