Pluralist Education

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March 1, 2006
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Susan Shevitz

Pluralism is one response to the growing diversity of contemporary Jewry. As an approach to Jewish education, pluralism is intertwined with the basic question that has challenged the Jewish community since the Enlightenment: how is Jewish identity maintained in a free and open society? The question is even sharper today as Jews and others are faced with endless choices about every aspect of life. Religion, vocation, avocation, family, and gender are not fixed and stable identities; choices can be made and unmade in sometimes startling ways. Pluralist settings are becoming places to prepare people to affirm and develop their own Jewish identities while respecting different approaches and engaging productively with people unlike themselves. This is a formidable challenge in schools, camps, and other Jewish educational venues where identity development is central to the agenda. In such settings, two fundamental questions must be addressed: what exactly is meant by pluralism, and how will this understanding be enacted?

Conceptions of Pluralism
The term pluralism – especially in Jewish education – is used widely and imprecisely.   There are many ways that it is conceptualized, and schools cluster around three positions. Demographic pluralism recognizes that the participants in the school, camp, or other setting are diverse, and this diversity necessitates a sensitivity to the range of needs. Practices and policies are developed to enable the learners to feel comfortable and well served. This is the approach of many community schools that are not affiliated with denominational movements.

A second type of pluralism, based on a philosophy of appreciative tolerance that emerges from both Jewish and western notions of tolerance and respect, can be called coexistence pluralism . As a response to its diverse population, the educational institution develops ways to recognize differences in a respectful manner. This approach is rooted in appreciation for both diversity and particularity and posits that people and groups holding different positions can still work toward shared goals.

A third approach can be best described as generative pluralism . This also derives its authority from Jewish value concepts that recognize the uniqueness of each individual who, created in God’s image, reflects aspects of the multiple dimensions of God’s truths. It sees the Jewish interpretive tradition, as well as how Jewish life has been organized and lived in different eras, as evidence of pluralism of thought and, at times, action. This pluralism asserts that Jews need to encounter people and ideas that are different from their own in settings that support the exploration of “otherness” and generate new approaches that draw from a multiplicity of perspectives. This pluralist encounter – where participants risk reassessing and revising their own ideas by hearing and learning from others – is necessary for Jews and Judaism to thrive in a postdenominational world.

The Scope of Pluralism
Pluralism in educational settings most often focuses on the spectrum of Jewish religious practice and belief. There are, however, other relevant dimensions of pluralism in practice:

  • What is the stance vis-à-vis other religious and ethnic communities? Is pluralism primarily internally focused on Jews, or is it an ideology that informs the ways Jews relate to other individuals and communities? A pluralism that is internally focused on the Jewish people may inadvertently create barriers; alternatively, it may prepare participants with the self-knowledge and the practical tools to engage with people from other backgrounds. This is the approach a twelfth-grader expressed upon his graduation from a pluralist day school: “The lessons that we have learned about compromise, negotiation, and acceptance through dealing with… students’ conflicting religious beliefs are lessons that we will apply to other instances.” Others think this focus on internal pluralism is limiting and might impede full participation in a multicultural society. While there are many opinions about the implications of internal and external pluralism, there are no data about how each affects the student in the long run.
  • Is the concept of pluralism extended to diverse learning styles and multiple intelligences? This is particularly relevant since much of the justification for Jewish pluralism derives from our interpretive tradition, which is based on multiple perspectives, even of the most sacred texts. It is cognitive and analytical if pluralism pertains to the content of the education, but should it pertain to the style as well? For example, how might artistically inclined, visual learners become actively engaged as equal partners in a pluralist setting?
  • To what extent are pluralist institutions reaching out to less conventional Jewish families and groups? How are these “others” portrayed and encountered? What are the boundaries of a pluralistic setting?
  • Is pluralism contained within the Judaic department, or does it pervade the entire curriculum? Does the setting develop a pedagogy of pluralism?

Challenges in Pluralist Educational Environments
Pluralism, like any guiding philosophy, becomes real through decision making and action. The pluralist organization determines a set of policies and procedures that promotes pluralism, such as policies about admissions, plans for ritual life, and approaches to curriculum and instruction. These decisions become institutionalized and serve as important definitional markers that reveal what pluralism means within that environment. Sometimes new challenges stimulate new approaches. For example, one school, recognizing that its initial policies were failing to engage newer families in the school’s pluralist agenda, developed programs to deliberately raise issues and possibly (re)shape policy. At another school, a teenager who was grappling with her lesbian identity and wanted to start a gay-straight alliance in her Jewish school, showed the limits of predetermined policy. As portrayed in the documentary film Hineini , the school took the student’s challenge seriously and structured ways for   students, faculty, and administrators to study relevant material and openly discuss the issues in order to determine how the school community would respond. The film documents how the positions changed as the school crafted a new approach – an example of generative pluralism in action .

Pluralist settings need to revisit and grapple with assumptions and approaches; they need to formulate mechanisms for addressing tough challenges that arise out of their openness to others: what happens, for instance, when an adolescent student wants to bring a non-Jewish date to the prom? Or, how does the school respond to parents who insist that the siddurim used in school-sponsored prayer services have nonsexist language and non-gendered images of God while other families are committed to a traditional siddur? Because the setting is open to a broad range of participants, it needs ways of remaining flexible on important issues without being chaotic.

While learning generally needs a safe space in which to flourish, emotional safety is even more critical when participants are deliberately engaged around their differences as well as their commonalities. All groups and individuals need to feel comfortable surfacing their viewpoints and questioning the views of others. This is especially challenging with children and adolescents who are concerned with status within a group.

Pluralism as Process
Practitioners of pluralism are more likely to talk about the pluralist process than provide overarching philosophical constructs. Much like the dancer who cannot easily describe what he or she does to produce evocative movements, the people engaged in “doing” pluralism in Jewish education often describe pluralism as an ongoing process of inquiry and investigation: pluralism as process. This suggests that it is important to explore the implicit and explicit understandings that guide action and to closely observe and learn from them as they unfold in the variety of Jewish educational settings that identify as pluralist.

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Susan L. Shevitz is Associate Professor at the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University.She consults nationally on communal and institutional change strategies and currently heads a research project investigating how pluralism is conceptualized and enacted in Jewish educational settings.

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