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The Paradox of Pluralism: Diversity as the Foundation of Community

Michael KayFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

Are Jewish institutions, and schools in particular, successfully preparing young people to navigate the increasingly complex world of the 21st century? Are the insular values of the Jewish community antithetical to the demands of our cosmopolitan world? As both individual Jewish identity and overall Jewish communal affiliation grow progressively weaker, leaders must aggressively make the case that Jewish education in fact offers the best available preparation for success in a diverse society. The key lies in the concept of pluralism, a term that is often touted in the Jewish institutional world but is imprecisely defined and poorly understood. In this talk, I offer a framework for understanding pluralism and implementing it in a wide variety of Jewish organizations—organizations of all ideologies and denominational affiliations. Citing both peer-reviewed research and anecdotal experience, I argue that carefully nurtured exposure to Jewish pluralism strengthens both individual identity and communal affiliation, and it equips young people to excel in what I call “the 21st-century skill of diversity.” There is thus no better preparation than the Jewish day school classroom for the realities of the modern college campus or workplace environment.

Michael Kay is head of school of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a K-12 Jewish day school with campuses in Hartsdale and White Plains, NY. Prior to arriving at Schechter Westchester in 2013, he spent seven years at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, MD, where he served as Upper School principal, Upper School director of Judaic studies, and a teacher of Bible and Jewish history.

Michael holds an undergraduate degree in religion and history from Harvard University and a PhD in educational leadership and Jewish studies from New York University, where he wrote his dissertation on leadership and community building in pluralistic Jewish high schools. Before joining CESJDS, Michael taught at the New Atlanta Jewish Community High School (now the Weber School) and served as Director of Camp Givah, a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York. In addition, he has extensive experience in adult Jewish education in Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. Michael is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Day School Leadership Training Institute, and he is a recipient of the Young Scholar Award from the Network for Research in Jewish Education. He and his wife Rachel have two children.

“I thought I was an atheist”
This is a line from an essay a student of mine wrote during my very first year teaching. I was working at a Jewish high school in Atlanta teaching an 11th grade Jewish history class, and we were studying a unit about different modern Jewish thinkers’ conceptions about God and this student that in her then twelve plus years as a student in a Jewish day school she had reached the conclusion that she did not believe in God, and the reason for this is over the course of her experiences her teachers had taught her what she understood to be ‘the Jewish conception of God’ and it didn’t resonate with her, so she concluded therefore, I must be an atheist, and it was only in our 11th grade class when we were studying the fact that thinkers could be religiously engaged in all sorts of different ways and could have different conceptions of what God means and what spirituality means and she was able to find one with which she could connect, and she declared herself to be a believer once again. This encounter with multiple perspectives strengthened her individual Jewish identity and her connection to the Jewish community. As she wrote “for the first time since I was in elementary school I felt like an insider rather than an outsider”.

One of the critiques that I hear most often spoken about Jewish day schools and Jewish organisations in general is that they’re lacking in diversity. So, the problem that I have with this critique is that it’s based on a very superficial and not particularly useful notion of what diversity means. Diversity is not aesthetic quality that you can assess by sort of looking around a room – “Yup! (looks around) This group is diverse!” – no. Diversity is actually a skill and I would argue, that there probably is no more important skill that we can teach our students in order to be successful in 21st century world than the skill of diversity. So what is it? The skill of diversity is the ability to develop a strong individual identity, articulate eloquently and confidently what you believe, why you believe it, how you act, why you act that way and be open to learning from people who might think and act very differently. This is a skill that can be taught and I would argue that in fact in the modern world there is no better institution, at least no institution that’s more well-equipped to nurture this skill or to inculcate it in young people than Jewish schools and other Jewish organisations. In Jewish organisations we don’t talk much about diversity, right, we use a different word, we call it pluralism. Okay. So the problem with pluralism is that everyone loves to talk about it but nobody can ever define it or know exactly what it means, and the reason for this is that when we use the word pluralism in the Jewish community we’re actually talking about three separate but inter-related concepts that might coexist but don’t necessarily need to. So, what are they?

The first type of pluralism is what I call ‘atmospheric pluralism’. Atmospheric pluralism refers to the cultivation of an environment in an organisation, where people who represent different beliefs and different practices can feel comfortable. People talk about the formation of an environment within the community that is opening, welcoming, tolerant, words like that. For example I visited a Jewish organisation a few weeks ago, where there were people walking around with kippot and tzitit right next to people who wore very different signifiers of Jewish cultural identification, or none at all. Or for another example I visited a Beit Midrash not long ago at a school actually, where there was a shelf and it was lined with prayer books from all different denominations sitting right next to each other because they held multiple prayer services in that place, and actually on another shelf right nearby was an Artscroll Orthodox Chumash was a book sitting right next to a volume about Biblical criticism. That kind of organisation is atmospherically pluralistic – the people who did those different things, may never have interacted with one another but they felt comfortable and it was open and tolerant.

The second type of pluralism is what I would call ‘Informational Pluralism’, this pertains to the transmission of knowledge about different forms of belief or practice. A lot of times in a high school for example a curriculum may be informationally pluralistic – ‘how do other people think? How do they practice?’. I may not choose to be like them, I may not find all their viewpoints to be valid, I may even choose not to interact with them at all, but I understand them, and I can speak about how they think and how they act, and all of that. I can communicate effectively and intelligently about perspectives other than my own. That’s informational pluralism.

So, the third and most important pluralism is ‘Interactional Pluralism’, and when I talk about the 21st century skill of diversity, this is the cornerstone of that. Interactional pluralism requires that community stake holders actively engage and interact with people who believe or practice differently than they do, unlike atmospheric pluralism which involves only tolerating and respecting people’s views or even informational pluralism which involves understanding it, I actually willing to speak with you, to learn from you, to open myself up to the notion that maybe there is something that I can learn or that my own identity can be influenced by interacting with somebody who feels differently. So someone who participates in an organisation that is interactionally pluralistic, to coin a phrase which may or may not be grammatical, is involved in defining your own views with precision, articulating them with respect, listening thoughtfully to people who might have different sorts of identities and ultimately making informed decisions about how to best build community with people who think or act very differently from you. “But isn’t this dangerous?” you might say, “The idea if a student is taught with in accordance with multiple different perspectives, isn’t he or she likely to end up confused or lacking in strong identity, or embracing some sort of watered down Jewish universalism or something?” That’s a very important question and it deserves a very thoughtful nuanced answer, so in the limited amount of time we have I am going to give it my best shot.

No. Ask any person who is taught in pluralistic environment, and that person will tell you that in fact this exposure of people really at any age to a diversity of perspectives does not result in confusion or anything like that but don’t take our anecdotal word for it. The sociologists David Johnson and Roger Johnson who are brothers, did a number of studies (not in Jewish institutions necessarily) but a number of studies for many years with people of all different ages and what they found is that when people study in environments that expose them to multiple perspectives, they demonstrate stronger content retention and better critical thinking skills, and in fact a colleague of theirs by the name of Dean T Oswald found that not only do they have better content retention and better skill development but in fact if an individual is forced to articulate a strong view point in the context of a well-managed debate or disagreement that person comes to understand not only the other person’s perspective but actually his or her own perspective even better. In fact these results have been replicated in studies in Jewish Day Schools specifically, including by colleagues of mine such as Dr Suzy Tanshel and Susan Shevits who have done studies on pluralism. I want to take this even a step further. Not only does involvement in interactional pluralism strengthen individual identity, it actually also strengthens community. So William G Tearney who’s a scholar of higher education wrote, and this is a quotation “we seek community through conflict, we learn about ourselves by trying to understand others”. The days when ‘community’ meant a whole bunch of people who are the same getting together to celebrate their sameness or similarities, those days are long past. Today community much more often tends to mean let’s get together, yeah let’s understand what we have in common, but let’s also celebrate the things we do differently. Let’s come to understand one another.

So, in short, ordinary exposure to multiple perspectives and viewpoints, and articulating diverse approaches, which, by the way, is something that has been a hallmark of Jewish education at least since the time of the Mishnah if not before, not only doesn’t it weaken individual identity and communal connection, but in fact it strengthens both, which was exactly the experience that my student had in Atlanta when she encountered multiple perspectives about God and divinity. “But wait a minute,” you might say now, “aren’t you the head of a Shechter school? Shouldn’t this 21st century skill of diversity or this interactional pluralism or whatever you want to call it, shouldn’t that be the domain of the so called post denominational world, rather than the stodgy realm of Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism and other old fashioned things like that?” So again I say au contraire, that the skill of diversity or the ability to interact with people who think and act differently is no less important in the modern 21st century world than for a person who happens to be affiliated with a denomination than with someone who is not and by the way let’s be frank, raise your hand if you’ve ever been a room of Conservative Jews that featured complete uniformity of belief and practice. Good, ok thank you – let the record show no one is raising her or his hand. Pluralism is a guiding principle, it’s not the predictor of an outcome. So in any given organisation the range of different issues being discussed may be different and the actual decisions being made may be different, but every Jewish organisation irrespective of its affiliation can benefit from thinking about how to thoughtfully institute atmospheric, informational and interactional pluralism, even if the specific issues that they might be dealing with might look very different from community to community.

One of the great ironies of our era is that while we are overwhelmed with information in a way that’s never been true before, it is easier than ever to filter out views that may tend not to agree with our own. If I so choose I can select who I follow on Twitter, which newsfeeds I subscribe to, which radio stations I listen to, which op-eds I read, to make sure that I am unlikely ever to encounter a view point that may disagree with my own, but actually in a world like that that makes it even more important to give students practice and preparation in encountering diversity, so that they can be prepared for one of those unexpected moments in life when a divergent view accidently sneaks into our experience. So, a beautiful illustration of that happened last month. A recent graduate of our school was getting ready for his freshman year in college, received the most sought after, the most important mailing that you get in the summer before your freshman year – he learned who his college roommate was going to be. So immediately he ripped open the envelope, or, well, not really, he clicked as hard as he could on the computer until it would come through which is how it’s done now, and found out the person’s name and what is the next thing that he did? The same thing that you did and that I did and that students have been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years – he looked up his future roommate’s page on Facebook. And what did he find there? Vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric. First thing that he did, called up the college and asked for a switch of roommate, no dice said the college, so the next thing he did, picked up the phone again and called the prospective roommate. “I just want to introduce myself, here’s who I am and part of who I am is a strong connection with the land of Israel and the State of Israel. Here’s why I feel that way, here’s why I’m such a passionate supporter of the Israeli cause, here’s the impact that my trips to Israel with my school had on me and my identity development”. And he asked the roommate to articulate his own views, “where di d you develop these opinions that you have, help me understand them”, and they had a conversation about history, about media bias, about propaganda, all of that. And you know it’s always hard to know whether minds were actually changed, but sensitivities certainly were. The two of them were now sort of well prepared to live together to form a community even if they may never ultimately agree, and by the way an important post script to that story is that, in large part result of this conversation, the roommate actually took the postings down from his site and the two of them are now prepared to move forward and live together in community. So of course the substance and sophistication of this student’s Jewish education played a hugely important role in his preparation to have that conversation, the fact that he had that content preparation is important. But I would argue that equally as important and maybe even more important was the experience that he had in our school, being in situations where he was expected to develop a strong viewpoint for himself, articulate that view point, listen open-mindedly to people who might think differently, challenge when necessary and ultimately live together in community with people who think differently even if ultimately they may never agree. So I don’t know about you but that is the type of diversity in which I would want my own children to be skilled. You learn a lot of stuff in school and some of it even is relevant later in life actually, but probably there is no more transferrable, more relevant skill to success in today’s 21st century world than this skill of diversity or this notion of interactional pluralism. It’s a skill that can be taught, it’s a skill that can be practised, and by the way not only in the realm of religion, right, it’s a skill that’s crucially important in culture, politics, history and everything else. And by thinking strategically about how they can implement atmospheric pluralism, informational pluralism and interactional pluralism in whatever manifestations they have, Jewish organisations can set themselves up to be the best equipped institutions in the world to train students to be successful there. And while these forums of pluralism have been prevalent in Jewish culture in one way or another for over 2000 years, there has probably never been a time as much as today in the globalised diversity infused world that we have where it was more important for people to be prepared to do this effectively. A time when community tends to be defined much more strongly by our differences than by our similarities. And as it turns out, being well prepared to engage with diversity and difference in this world where community is defined by our differences not only strengthens individual identities but also strengthens our own connections to our community, that is the paradox of pluralism. Thank you

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