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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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The wide road of Judaism

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Daniel Held

Over the last five months, I’ve had opportunity to visit the 14 Jewish day schools affiliated with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These schools span the breadth of the community: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, haredi, Sephardi, pluralistic and everything in-between and to the side. The diversity of these schools, their students and the spectrum of their religious and pedagogic philosophies is quite amazing and serves as an example to the rest of our community. 

I usually begin a school visit by asking the principal to describe the school and it students. The question offers an opportunity for me to hear about the religious philosophy of the school, the vision, modalities of teaching, and about the students and families who choose to attend. I usually expect scripted answers aligned with the school’s mission statement, responses such as, “We’re an Orthodox school that inculcates a love for Torah and Israel and strives for excellence in Jewish and secular education.” 

While I did hear responses similar to this from some schools, I was surprised by the ways that other principals describe their schools. To paraphrase, a significant number said, “Our school is middle of the road religiously. School X is to our right and School Y is to our left”.

At first I was irked by a school defining itself in relation to others. I felt schools should have a strong enough sense of self to define themselves by who they are rather than who they’re not, to make plain statements about their religious and pedagogic principles and the ways these manifest in their curricula. 

As I visited more and more schools and heard one principal after another articulate a similar message, I came to the realization that these definitions were not framing the school in the negative – stating what the school is not – but framing them within a positive sense of Jewish peoplehood – recognizing the diversity of our community and unique place of each school within that diversity. 

Diversity is a critical element of contemporary Judaism. That the community offers a smorgasbord of educational options speaks to the wide range of Jewish identities and affiliations the community espouses. It gives parents the choice to find the school that’s right for their child and their family. 

More important, the fact the schools define themselves within this diversity shows they don’t see themselves as isolated elements, but as vital parts of a diverse whole. To borrow the classic metaphor of Canadian multiculturalism, our schools see themselves as stones within a broader mosaic, each of which has its own distinct shape and form, but which contribute to the larger constellation of the system of Jewish education and the Jewish community at large.

In addition to appreciating the perception of diversity, I was taken by the recurring description of “middle of the road.” In some ways this is market positioning, ensuring the greatest reach for admissions. In other ways it’s a philosophical statement. Maimonides, the 12th-century scholar, insisted that the upright path is the middle path, that extremes in either direction are dangerous. Indeed, our schools all play a balancing act, widening their market while maintaining strong philosophical underpinnings, true to the ideological underpinning of the school. Recognizing there are schools to the left and schools to the right means they realize that their school may not be for every student and that other options exist. Finding the right school for the right student is a critical role for any admissions process. 

Taken alone, a single mosaic stone is not striking. When combined with those around it, however, the stone draws a beautiful picture. In listening to their responses, I was struck that the principals chose not to focus on their individual stone, but to sketch the full breadth of the mosaic of schools.

Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

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