Piecing together pluralism

Zara Ducker, Ivan Endelman, Rochelle Berman, Incoming In-depth Editor, Outgoing Features Editor, Outgoing Managing Editor, Copy

Shabbat and Holy Days

As described in the student handbook, while there are many approaches to observance among JDS families, the school still strives to create an environment in which all of their students can feel comfortable and learn from the diverse perspectives that are present around them. The school policies say that there should be no homework assigned over Jewish holidays and that no tests or quizzes should be scheduled for or due on the day after a Jewish holiday. 

Shabbatonim 

During school-sponsored overnight events, high school students spend Shabbat together at Capital Retreat Center. On shabbatonim, traditional and more progressive forms of worship are provided, and students are encouraged to be open to learning from one another’s approaches. Additionally, in order to encourage face-to-face interactions and promote the building of community, cell phones are collected upon arrival at Capital Retreat Center. 

Zman Kodesh

The school holds a pluralistic vision for Zman Kodesh and understands that students come with different personal ideas about prayer and spiritual expression. Therefore, there are several options for Zman Kodesh at the Upper School. Some of these options involve minyan (prayer congregation) with traditional, liturgical prayer, while others incorporate experiential activities pertaining to Jewish learning, worship, culture or arts. All Zman Kodesh options provide opportunities for student leadership and community building.

Dress Code

In the high school, students who identify as male are required to keep their heads covered at all times during school hours, except during physical education (P.E) class. All shirts must have sleeves, should not show midriff and should not have an “immodestly” low neckline. Additionally, dress, skirt and short length should not be overly revealing and shouldn’t be at or below one’s fingertips when standing.

In the halls and classrooms of CESJDS, pluralism is often cited as one of the school’s most important values. Jewish pluralism is the practice of tolerating and celebrating every branch of Judaism. Unlike other Jewish day schools that may be focused on teaching from an Orthodox or Reform lens, JDS students come from different Jewish backgrounds, creating a unique environment. 

An emphasis on pluralism comes with a myriad of complicated questions. How does the school make space for new ideas and beliefs while retaining its central values? How does the school satisfy different beliefs when it comes to topics like the dress code? JDS students and faculty continuously grapple with these questions. 

JDS pluralism manifests most in Zman Kodesh, fast days, dress code policy and friend groups. For Zman Kodesh and the dress code policy, the school attempts to satisfy as many students as possible. For religious customs such as fast days and social life at JDS, the students hold the responsibility of choosing how they implement pluralism. 

Starting in the morning, students have the option to attend one of many different Zman Kodesh options, ranging from journaling to Sephardic prayer. In order to enhance JDS’s offerings, the school recently created the Partnership minyan. Even though it is modern Orthodox, the minyan focuses on giving women more opportunities to lead services and read Torah. 

Students also experience pluralism in the dress code policy, which is meant to accommodate the religious preferences of as many denominations as possible. Boys are required to wear kippot, while girls are required to wear clothing that covers their shoulders and midriffs.

In addition, students have the opportunity to make friends outside of their denomination. Because Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews attend JDS, friend groups have the chance to be religiously diverse. But religious differences can sometimes hinder the possibility of these friendships. When some students observe fast days and keep Shabbat while others do not, friend groups may form based on varying levels of religious observance.

These numerous examples of pluralism at JDS yield diverse opinions on the topic, from students and teachers alike. Community members have thoughts on what true pluralism looks like, what JDS is doing right and what it needs to improve upon.

Where do you see pluralism at JDS?

Abigail Chessman

Book Club Minyan

“I see pluralism in JDS specifically in Zman Kodesh and in religious practices, and also in opinions and viewpoints. I find that even though many of us come from similar backgrounds, we practice Judaism differently at home, and it’s really interesting to learn the different ways that people practice Judaism within that spectrum of Judaism” 

How would you evaluate the way JDS observes minor fast days?

 “I think the school… still providing hot lunch for students who are not fasting and who would like it, and also not necessarily asking the school to fast is what makes it pluralistic because of the way that they (the school) recognize that not everybody in the school is going to be fasting on that fast day, but they provide support to students who are. I think that that is really one of the biggest reflections of the pluralism at our school because the school recognizes that not everyone practices it in the same way, but they still are respectful to all different ways that you might be practicing it.”

What are some places that JDS could work on improving in terms of pluralism?

“I find that there is almost a sort of… stigma… [and that] a lot of students who are less religiously observant, sometimes when learning about holidays, might feel like they’re observing it wrong, or their family customs are wrong. I think that JDS doesn’t necessarily push that narrative, it’s just a personal experience I’ve felt… [Although] I think maybe [there needs to be] more teaching about the different ways that different sects of Judaism celebrate holidays and different ways that they observe Judaism, which I know some classes offer, but I think need to have more of a broader overview of that available to all the students.”

As a member of the dresscode committee, how do you think JDS should approach revising their dress code?

“I think that recognizing that there is not necessarily a one size fits all answer is the first step, and I also think that making sure everyone at every part of the spectrum feels comfortable is the most important thing in any aspect, especially in the dress code, instead of just catering towards a certain group of people.”

Robert Shorr

Partnership Minyan Leadership

Is JDS home to all Jewish denominations?

“Pluralism is changing a lot now as a lot of people… who are my age care less and less about denominational labels, so it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, does JDS have people who are Reform, Conversative, Orthodox?’ Yeah, I guess, but I don’t know how much weight those carry anymore… In the sense of across the denominational spectrum, I just don’t even know if you can really evaluate that at this point for the American Jewish community.” 

How would you evaluate the way JDS observes minor fast days?

It’s important to tell kids to be mindful of their friends that are fasting, but the craziest thing is that people have no idea what they (minor fast days) are or what they’re for. I don’t think that is something that is conveyed well.”

Do you see clique forming based on student observance levels?

“Not cliques that are exclusive to other cliques, but it definitely does play a role. It also depends if there are enough kids to do it. So, in the current 11th grade where there is very strong male leadership in the Mechitza Ashkenazi [Zman Kodesh], I do think that that does create a social bond among those kids, and  that is not something that just anybody could get in on. But at the same time, I also see those kids being friends with other people. In a grade where that doesn’t necessarily exist, I think that is something that is circumvented pretty easily.

Does JDS do well in regard to pluralism?

I want to make it clear that it is really good and that it’s not easy, It’s (pluralism) like a moving target. Like I said at the beginning, a lot of it does depend on how far kids are willing to step out of their comfort zone, with who , they’re going to be friends with or [in their] discussions, so it’s even not necessarily something that can be solved top down. In that regard and in many others, it’s very hard, and I am impressed. The school’s clearly committed, like I said; I don’t think they’re just saying it as a buzzword honestly, I think they are committed to achieving it even though it’s very difficult.”

Shalvah Lazarus

Masorti Minyan

Where do you see pluralism at JDS?

“I think one thing that really stands out is the selection of minyans that you can go to, because … there’s a minyan at JDS for every major Jewish denomination that exists in America as well as non-davening options and a minyan for Sephardi services.”

How would you describe yourself as a Jew?

“I think that I would call myself a conservative Jew, and that being said, I do practice probably more similarly to Orthodox Jews. I keep Shabbat, but not strictly, so if I have an event I don’t want to miss I will drive to it, but my week is built around Shabbat… I keep ‘loose’ kosher, like separation of meat and dairy.”

“I see halacha as practice and not law, so I don’t think I’m bound by it, but I do enjoy having a set of directions for life.”

Do you see cliques forming based on student observance levels?

“I’ve noticed that friend groups tend to be pretty mixed in terms of observance of Judaism, but I will notice that it’s difficult if you’re Shabbat observant and people are hanging out on Shabbat and you can’t go, or if they’re eating at a non-kosher restaurant. And that also goes both ways, because I know that I have friends in my community that I keep Shabbat with and eat with which is great.”

How does Judaism look different at camp versus school?

“I go to Camp Yavneh. I’ve been going for four summers, and I think that one of the biggest differences is that camp is about having fun and school is about learning, so the Judaism at camp is mostly fun, like we do a lot of singing and fun activities and learning, and Shabbat is especially really awesome. The thing is that everybody keeps Shabbat, and no matter what your background is, you’re all there celebrating together, which might be a varying degree of comfort for different people, but I think it’s also beautiful. I think that JDS has more room for people to exist at the level that they’re already observing Shabbat because at camp everybody lives together so they abide by the same rules, and also everything is Judaism-related. I think that JDS does a good job of letting you personalize the way you do your Judaism at school.”

Benjamin Guggenheim

Partnership Minyan

Does JDS succeed in being a pluralistic school?

“In reality, I think the answer is no. JDS uses pluralism to mean different levels of commitment to the same idea of Judaism, which I think is a misnomer. I think [JDS] does very little to promote people finding their own ideas in Judaism…. I think they’re concerned with letting people be secular, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, letting people be religious, but I don’t think they’re fostering a pluralistic environment.”

How would you evaluate the way JDS observes minor fast days?

“I think, generally, it seems like fast days are not acknowledged by the school. To the extent that teachers will be lighter about it is subjective to the teacher and subjective to whether or not there are students that are fasting and will ask them to be. To the extent that there’s ever mincha, it’s because certain members of the faculty and students will push for it and be present there, and it’s not an official thing so to speak. And there aren’t Zman Kodesh options for it, it doesn’t seem like there’s any programming specific to the fast day.… Occasionally, you’ll have your Talmud teacher or your Hebrew teacher mention what we’re fasting for, but it’s not usually acknowledged.”

What are some places that JDS could work on improving in terms of pluralism?

“I think in general the school could be more sensitive towards holidays and stuff, and it’s very clear when certain teachers are giving work over the weekend that should be two days of work but is given over the weekend, which for traditionally Sabbath observant people is really just one workday. So those are all the sort of easy-type fixes. The harder thing, I think, is the student body, and that’s something that I think is a lot harder to change the demographics of. I think JDS has a problem that the vast majority of the student body seems generally apathetic towards Judaism, and to the extent that they have found some compromise between Judaism and secularism, it is a function of convenience rather than a function of philosophy. I don’t know how JDS should change that, I think that certainly speaks to a broader trend in American Jewry in general, that we’re seeing a disappearance of the middle ground.”