Jewish community day schools embrace pluralism as a philosophy and core value. Rather than having a specific religious philosophy (hashkafah), pluralistic schools embrace the concept of Jewish Peoplehood (Klal Israel). Kay defines three levels of pluralism: atmospheric, informational and interactional. His definition provides a framework for school leaders to identify and assess the ways in which they honor diversity and commonality. In order to promote atmospheric pluralism, a school leader may be asked to create an environment that is perceived as welcoming, an environment where children from different religious backgrounds can outwardly live their religious life in a comfortable and safe setting. For instance, will the students have tefillah opportunities which meet their needs? Is the kashrut standard comfortable for all children to partake in shared experiences? Does the concept of communal activities respect the boundaries of Shabbat observance?
Regarding informational pluralism, school leaders should look at the Judaic studies curriculum and clarify the “when and how” different branches of Judaism will be discussed. Do students have opportunities to learn from each other’s practices and tenets? Will the differences be studied under the umbrella of commonalities? Will this new perspective shatter the prejudices and truly honor Klal Israel?
These two levels of pluralism are achievable at a K-8 level. Students from early childhood through early adolescence can be brought into the discussion of information, respect and celebration. The challenge a K-8 school has is at the third level. According to Kay, the main goal of interactional pluralism is to construct a “hybrid” community where not only is there an environment of knowledge and respect, but stakeholders are open to being influenced by the viewpoints of others.
In order to achieve this level of pluralism, stakeholders should engage in discussions where decisions are made through information, openness and compromise. However, it is important to note that this type of interaction can provide a confusing layer of questioning for which early adolescents may not be prepared. Ten- to fourteen-year-olds are vulnerable, as they are in the process of questioning their beliefs while concurrently opening their minds to viewpoints other than those of their parents. This is a time where the struggle of the parent-child relationship can enter tumultuous times. Therefore, developmentally, are we asking too much of young children if we expect them to make decisions about their own religious practices?
I believe that it behooves K-8 pluralistic schools to provide a safe environment where different religious practices are honored and celebrated. We must be part of a movement that crumbles the walls of prejudice between Jewish denominations. At the same time, we need to be sensitive to the developmental needs of children and not place them in situations where their inner conflicts are exacerbated. We are obligated to provide students with the foundation to question and to learn. Yet we must do it with the understanding of their developmental, emotional and intellectual needs. ♦
Nora Anderson is Head of School at Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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