My 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.