Is There Room For Multiple Jewish Voices at Hillel?

assembly smallerMy blog post from two weeks ago on Halloween and Shabbat elicited several comments that were spirited and passionate, but, sadly, sometimes intolerant and defensive in nature. These comments brought to the surface the tension that can and does exist at a community Jewish day school. I remember that when we first became a community day school, a fellow head commented to me that when every constituent was equally unhappy about the state of Judaism at our school, “you’ll know that you are doing a good job balancing the competing viewpoints.”

When we first became a community day school we called ourselves a pluralistic day school. It was our vision that a community of Jews with different voices and practices could come together at one school and learn to respect significant differences while celebrating all that we shared. Over the years I have stated repeatedly that whether we belong to Temple Israel, Young Israel, or B’nai Israel, we all have Israel in common. Our story is a shared story, as is our language, values and customs. Our God is the same One God.  In fact, we all belong to the Jewish people even while our religious practices may vary greatly.  However, it is incredibly challenging to become a truly pluralistic day school. It is a vision, a goal that we strive toward but have yet to attain.

Perhaps a better way to describe Hillel is that as a non-denominational day school, we take an egalitarian approach. The school does not identify with one particular movement, and we provide space for each denomination, and space for those who are not affiliated.  We work to maximize inclusion in our school while not intruding in home and personal practices.  That does not mean that I or other professionals at school will not raise questions or pose challenges to encourage each of us to reflect and think about our patterns of Jewish living. A non-denominational day school makes room for a range of voices and practices that can and should be tolerated but, as we read in the comment section two weeks ago, can also easily deteriorate into divisiveness.

Hillel strives to be a school that is open to Jewish diversity. Our mission statement is intentionally broad when it states, “to inspire…a devotion to Jewish living.”  This statement was intended to make room for a broad range of Jewish families.

There is still much work to be done at Hillel if it is our goal to truly be a pluralistic day school. A pluralistic day school requires us to actively engage with each other and to recognize and ultimately embrace our diversity as a people, not a religion.  Using the Torah as my proof text, God’s promise to Abraham was explicitly to make him a great nation, not a great religion. The peoplehood component is the foundation of who we all are – the common link to which we all connect.  The religious component, however, cannot be isolated and is essential to who we are and to our survival. Our religious expression is how we relate to God who made us a people in the first place. And it is in that religious expression where we find the greatest diversity.

If we are to become a pluralistic Jewish day school then we need to learn that we are all one people, we share the connection to the land of Israel, we share the Hebrew language, we share a story, a past and memory, and our destiny is bound together, as history has taught us. Now we need to learn to understand each other, respect each other, and perhaps, someday even love each other as one Jewish family even as we practice the religious aspects of Judaism quite differently.

3 Responses to Is There Room For Multiple Jewish Voices at Hillel?

  1. akiva goldman says:

    Well spoken!! I would comment though that the schools mission as is to ” inspire… a devotion to Jewish LIVING” ” Living” doesn’t mean relegating Jewish practice to an antiquated subject as if it were Chinese history, and it doesn’t mean paying simple lip service to its precepts. It means mastering the principles of Judaism and incorporating it into to one’s household, one’s lifestyle, and in fact one’s very existence.

    Attempting to do this while” not intruding in home or personal practices” sets the school’s mission statement up for utter failure. You can’t have it both ways; Either you try to impact the actual lives of the students and their families or you don’t. The lively Halloween discussion that was had was not born out of true diversity of opinion so much as it was born out of indecisiveness and a lack of clear communication by administration to our community of parents as to what the purpose and “mission” of our school is.

    Steve appropriately states that the Torah is used as a proof text that G-d promised Abraham to make him into a great notion, not a re legion. .That was only the starting point though. The goal was also set out in that same text which specifies that we are to be a ” momlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh”, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

    THAT is what we have to achieve and it requires devotion to to Jewish living to accomplish it. This is consistent with Hillel’s mission statement that bespeaks that same devotion. Let’s us all pray that we are given the strength an inspiration to achieve the highest best religious destiny for ourselves, our kids, and our whole extended families.

    • Ben Fleishman says:

      Forgive me for being so late on this conversation – I’m a little behind on my emails. I like the way your response disagrees with the point of Steve’s blog by agreeing with it – or does it agree with it by disagreeing with it… I’m not sure.

      Overall, I think Steve is trying to redirect the focus of the conversation towards Hillel’s value of diversity in the way Jews practice Judaism and towards an acceptance of a variety of ways of “Jewish Living” whether you are drawn to the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox beliefs and philosophies. Steve even states that the school’s “mission statement is intentionally broad” which allows for the school’s acceptance of a broad range of philosophies on how to live a Jewish life. Now, maybe this was left broad to allow a loophole in HDS’s mission statement so that Steve and Rabbi Berger don’t have the obligation of kicking down the doors of HDS families in order to “intrude in home or personal practices” to make sure we are all “Living” Judaism according to one philosophy.

      I saw this blog as an attempt by Steve to open the conversation back up to saying we are a diverse community – open to many ways of practicing or “Living” Judaism – to which you essentially reply “I agree – as long as your way of practicing Judaism is my way”.

      So, as far as an answer to the topic question: “Is there Room For Multiple Jewish Voices at Hillel?” I can imagine your response being: “Yes, of course there is room for multiple Jewish voices at Hillel. There can be high voices, low voices, young voices, old voices, male voices, female voices, etc. As long as they all say the same thing.”

  2. Jenn Goldman says:

    I did not chime in to the Halloween post because, frankly, by the time I had read it, things were getting a little dicey. I am, however, compelled to respond to this one.

    We spent over a year visiting and revisiting the idea of Hillel for our daughter when it became clear that she was not a good fit for the local Jewish day school in which she was enrolled at the time. I was “warned” by some current and previous parents that she was going to encounter “issues” with things like shabbat observance and kashrut. After a shadow day and a couple other visits to the school over the next year, it was clear to me that these are only “issues” if you look at them through negatively tinted lenses.

    The reality is that the Jewish nation is a diverse people. Her experiences in Hillel mirror those that she will encounter in larger Jewish society as she grows up and goes off into the world. At Hillel, her peers and their families, for the most part, have been kind, welcoming, and understanding of her level of observance. When negative comments are made (say, about why she doesn’t celebrate Halloween), they are surely not intended to hurt and are honest inquiries. Not only have these experiences stimulated intellectual and spiritual curiosity from her, and helped her articulate where she stands in the Jewish world, they have also helped her understand how others experience the religion in their everyday life. She is not just a part of the branch of Judaism to which she subscribes at school, she is learning to be part of the Jewish community as a whole.

    If we observe our children in their interactions at Hillel, we can surely learn a good deal from them about honest and respectful religious debate. So, the answer to your question about whether there is room for multiple Jewish voices at Hillel is, in my opinion, Yes! Just follow the leads of the students.

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