February 11, 2005

Pluralism in practice

By URIEL HEILMAN
WATERTOWN, Mass.

As trans-denominational Jewish schools flourish around the United States, the question of how exactly to transmit a coherent Jewish tradition can be quite a challenge-especially when a school is built on the idea that there is no right or wrong way to practice Judaism.

"It's a constant conversation, it's constant questioning," says Hamutal Gavish, head of the Jewish Community Day School of Watertown, Mass.

Founded in 1995, JCDS is one of several trans-denominational institutions concentrated around the Boston area, and it has made "intentional pluralism" a centerpiece of its teaching philosophy.

"The intentional pluralism really reflects today's world and the possibilities that happen when you really celebrate the world's practices," says Arnee Winshall, the school's founder.

That means that the school not only teaches the wide array of Jewish customs students observe in their homes; it puts them into practice at school. The resulting hodgepodge is JCDS's vision of what being Jewish means, says Rahel Wasserfall, who teaches at the school.

"The symphony of voices-that's what makes the people of Israel," Wasserfall says.

When it comes to school prayer, for example, JCDS has designed an educational service where students of all ages and genders read from the Torah and traditional prayer is sometimes blended with yoga or prayer in nature.

When it comes to religious garb, however, JCDS enforces different standards for each child based on their parents' request. That means that some boys and girls must wear kipot and tzitzit all day, others must wear a kipah just for Jewish studies and others may choose whether or not they wish to cover their heads.

If this is confusing for seven- or eight-year-olds, that's partly the point, say school officials.

"We work very hard to teach the kids to be proud of who you are, what you do at home, and at the same time to know what other people are doing and what's out there," Gavish says. "The difference is we don't say you must do this and this is the only truth."

So, for example, when teaching about Shabbat, students share with their peers the ways they observe Shabbat-whether that means going to synagogue or going to the mall. And though the students also learn what the tradition has to say about Shabbat, they are taught that whatever their families sanction is OK. There is no right or wrong at JCDS.

"There is no judgment from our part. As long as it's something that is important to you and special for you, it's Shabbat for you," Gavish says. "If you have a stand, are you really, truly pluralistic? These are the things that we are grappling with constantly."

Judaism may place the Day of Judgment as the religious centerpiece of the Jewish year, but judgments have no place at JCDS. "Once we make judgment, we're going to eliminate some kids from the conversation," Gavish explains.

That kind of approach has invited criticism from some Jewish religious leaders who say promoting pluralism often leaves Judaism devoid of its core principles.

"It's pretty much left up to the individual. Everything goes," says Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary. "So, in place of a Judaism which is defined and structured by halacha, you get a Judaism that is driven by spirituality. And spirituality is a soft criterion which pretty much leaves it up the individual to define what is meaningful and what isn't."

The approach is slightly different down the road at Waltham's Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, where the relatively older age of the students makes it somewhat easier for the school to offer a variety of Jewish options without imposing any single one.

Students may choose whether or not to pray (though some prayer is required at least twice a week), how to pray, and whether or not they want to wear kipot or tzitzit.

The idea at New Jew, says its headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, is to "develop an active engagement between peoples of different denominational affiliations and different religious commitments and perspectives."

The key, Lehmann says, is to have many different denominations under one roof.

"Increasingly, I think the institutions that are some of the most creative in Jewish life today are those that are not strongly attached to particular denominations," he says.