Our school is an exciting example of how pluralism works in a faith-based institution. Pluralism in this context means a setting where people with different beliefs and backgrounds can find common ground for a particular purpose. Our purpose is engaging children in an education that is compelling, challenging, enduring and foundational. What are the values that address this context?
A few years ago, one of our thoughtful parents asked me to name four Jewish values that shape our school. Since that conversation, my staff and I have had some time to think and rethink which values best support our community. It has been an iterative process of thinking about what we do and linking that to a value, and then looking at the value and seeing how could we strengthen that in the education program. From my perspective, the how-to of balancing the differences that bear on our common purpose rests on four core Jewish values that shape both the curriculum and how we all interact on a daily basis.
The first and most easily seen value is that of kehillah (community). We have built an intentional community with opportunities for everyone in the community – children, parents, staff, alumni and donors – to know each other in multiple ways and in different roles inside and outside of school. Within the school, chavurot are a vehicle for every child and teacher in the school to know students who are in different grades, and for older children to assume leadership roles. The volunteer chai-hours that we expect our parents to complete actually serve the purpose of building community as parents get to know parents of children from different grades. Our ambassador programs for children and for parents connect the people within the community to those visiting or considering becoming a part of the community.
The Jewish value that best represents our academic efforts in a pluralistic school is t’vunah (wisdom/discernment). In all cases, this value supports our focus on critical thinking where children learn to find assumptions in different arguments and develop their own thinking knowing that it too is shaped by values and assumptions. In Judaic Studies, students are pushed to think about and to respect different perspectives, to understand “Jewish” in a global context and to see Jewish texts as inspiration for our moral commitments. Best examples of how this value occurs would be the fall harvest unit in kindergarten that begins with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and continues looking at other harvest festivals from around the world and the comparative religions units in the middle school. Similarly, our 8th grade Israel trip is designed to answer the question of “what are the different identities that make up Israeli society and how does that effect societal issues?” General and Jewish Studies are taught as a vehicle for discernment (t’vunah) not as doctrine.
Emphasis on Tzedek (social justice) has always been a commitment of our school that goes far beyond food drives and visits to senior centers. Our school is known (not only among Jewish institutions but also within the larger San Francisco Bay area) for the 7th grade Tzedakah program. This program is an interdisciplinary unit taught by several teachers – English, Social Studies and Judaic Studies. Students identify values that are salient for them and their families – for example, values about the environment, health care, hunger, homelessness, race, prison injustices and third world humanitarian issues. Students then locate a local non-profit organization that works in the area of their interest. They interview a representative of the organization, volunteer for the organization throughout the year and ultimately develop a public advocacy piece for their organization. Their research for their advocacy piece includes a dive into Jewish texts that address their particular value.
The value of Kedusha (holiness) permeates the school in the way we talk about and experience daily prayer, as well as in the way we interact as a community. The concept of kedusha implies that we elevate our interactions and our actions throughout the day to represent the best of humanity. Our prayer services emphasize gratitude, celebration and interpersonal values. They are spirited, introspective and joyous – and they set our intentions for the day. All communication among the different constituencies within the school is premised on the concept of b’tzelem elokim (the idea that godliness resides in every individual). The language we teach and use to help children and adults critique and edit their work – “I appreciate, I wonder, I notice” – fits into this value of kedusha.
Recently I’ve been reading about societal trends in the United States with respect to engagement with faith-based institutions. Rabbi Sid Schwartz of Kenissa, an organization that connects people and institutions that are leading efforts to re-define Jewish life, has written a book called Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Coincidentally, he wrote about the same four values that I’ve identified above. Rabbi Schwartz is leading an effort to bring together forward thinking Jewish organizations to analyze and test his thesis about the impact of these four values on our organizations. He has reached out to me to join this national think tank, and I will be joining a group of other forward-thinking heads of institutions to analyze this thesis. I look forward to learning from the other participants and bringing back and sharing new insights from this experience with you.
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