'Viva La Pluralism'

Upper West Side, Manhattan, Abraham Joshua Heschel School

At exactly 8:15 in the morning the minyan (prayer quorum) led by Rabbi Natan Kapustin in one of the classrooms of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish community day school in New York begins. The prayer follows Orthodox custom, from the Kol Yaakov siddur and usually lasts about 30 minutes. Today is Rosh Hodesh - the beginning of a lunar month in the Hebrew calendar - and the students also read from the Torah, which is open on a table in the middle of the classroom. On the other side of the open divider, which is made up of three or four tables, the girls pray.

At Heschel, which requires the students to pray every morning, this is the largest gathering, and it attracts about 40 students. In an adjacent classroom, another teacher is supervising a "meditation minyan," which combines parts of the liturgy with yoga, songs and various mantras, sometimes with a kabbalistic influence. The students are scattered among the various minyanim: an egalitarian one, which is held in the school's beit midrash (study hall) - the main prayer hall; an "alternative" minyan, in which the participants recite a number of verses of the Shema and Amidah prayers; a "study minyan," which includes abbreviated prayers interspersed with discussions of values and politics; a "good deeds minyan," which is devoted to brief prayers and discussions about social activity undertaken by the students in the school and elsewhere, and more. An entire world of possibilities; reach out your hand and touch them.

The students are permitted to move from one minyan to another only once a year. The choice of a specific minyan can derive from identification with one stream of Judaism or another, from the desire to try new things and also from the draw of a charismatic figure, like Rabbi Kapustin for example.

Michael Mizrahi, an 11th grader, came to the Heschel high school from the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a modern Orthodox school. He immediately joined the Orthodox minyan. "The other minyanim confused me," he recalls. "It seems to me that they don't pray but mainly hold discussions about the meaning of being a Jew. This seems a little superficial: First they need to experience the Orthodox method, and only after that is it possible to deviate. But after three years at the school, I accept the fact that maybe other students aren't looking for what I want for them, what in the past I thought was the real Judaism. Our personal opinions remain unchanged but the opinions about others have changed a bit."

The prayers end. The boys kiss the edges of the Torah scroll, which is returned to a side holy ark, fold up their tallitot (prayer shawls) and scatter among the classrooms. The tables migrate back to the center of the classroom in advance of the lesson that is due to start in a few minutes. The boys are required to wear a skullcap only during prayers and during lessons in sacred subjects like Bible and Talmud. The Orthodox minyan is perhaps the most popular in the school, but once it is over only two or three of the boys keep their kippot on.

The Heschel School, named for the late rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), was established in 1983. In the first phase, an elementary school (grades 1 through 5) opened, which gradually expanded, adding a middle school. About five years ago the high school (grades 9 through 12) opened, in which 270 students are now enrolled. Altogether, in the school's three buildings, all of them in Manhattan's Upper West Side, there are about 780 students, ranging in age from 3 to 18.

Like other private educational institutions, Heschel is an expensive endeavor. Annual tuition fees are about $30,000 per child. However, 37 percent of the students receive some kind of discount, with the average scholarship reaching $15,000.

The school's definition of a Jewish student is quite broad: "If a denomination relates to a child as Jewish, that's fine for us," they say here. The model that is offered by Heschel may seem odd to Israeli observers, who very often want clear, unambiguous definitions: At a single institution attended by children of different religious backgrounds - Reform and Conservative to modern Orthodox, and in addition to this also quite a number who do not identify with any stream (the key words here are "post" or "trans"-denominational) the differences among the concepts are not always clear, but they do express a religious identity that has its sources in various streams and thus evades the usual definitions.

Heschel belongs to RAVSAK - the Hebrew acronym for the Jewish Community Day School Network in North Ameria - which brings together day schools that are not committed to any particular stream. It began about 12 years ago, with about 12 schools that supported one another and tried to offer ways of dealing with the complexity of Jewish life - and education. Today there are 112 schools in the network, in the United States, Canada and Mexico, with a total enrollment of about 40,000 students. This is the largest organization of schools among the four main streams that are not ultra-Orthodox: The modern-Orthodox network numbers 75 schools, that of the Conservatives 58 schools, whereas the Reform, mainly because of a historic opposition to day schools, have only 19 schools.

"The moment a school defines itself as a community school, we help it understand the commitment to serve every Jewish student in the community - no matter who his parents are, how much money they have, whether they are Jews according to rabbinical law and so on," explains Dr. Marc Kramer, RAVSAK's executive director. According to Kramer, not every student at a day school will necessarily maintain his Judaism, but if he or his family chooses to attend an institution like the ones connected to his organization, the chances of assimilation are much lower. "For me a Jewish student is one who is defined as a Jew by his community. There is no chief rabbi in the United States, and this is not by chance. I'm not going to decide who is Jewish either," he says.

As is the case at Heschel, most of the community schools require that their students pray every morning. According to Kramer, usually when the administration and the teachers begin to feel that they have managed to control the religious tensions, one of a number of new questions will come along that once again upsets the existing order: How should we deal, in our Bible and Talmud lessons, with the negative attitude these texts have toward homosexuals when there is a child in the class whose parents are a same-sex couple? What level of kashrut should be observed in the school cafeteria and what about food that the children bring in from outside? What should the teachers say if a student brings a Christian date to the prom? How should they react if a boy from an Orthodox family invites a girl from the same school to the prom but then his parents object because her mother is not Jewish?

"The school relates to her as Jewish, the boy himself wants her do be his date for the prom but the parents - it can't be helped - say that she isn't Jewish enough and the whole thing creates an argument at the school," says Kramer, recounting one of the recent cases that the organization was asked to help resolve. The principal of the Heschel High School, Ahuva Halberstam, laughs when she is asked for answers to questions like these. "There is no single answer to all the problems at a pluralistic school," she says. "Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers. The students gain from this: I don't want them to go to college and discover things about Judaism that we hadn't told them at school, just as I would not want to use any kind of coercion that would make them finish high school hating Judaism or the Jewish texts. This issue is far too important for that to be the result. It is important to us that the students are able to read Gemara [the commentary to the Mishnah, which, together with it, makes up the Talmud] - and that they will have the desire to do so."

Halberstam defines herself as Orthodox. She comes from a Hasidic family and worked for more than 35 years at Orthodox schools, in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. About six years ago she joined the staff at Heschel and established the high school. She has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in literature, from New York University and UCLA, respectively. Her daughter attended Harvard and Yale and is now teaching at Indiana University - "and she wears a prayer shawl at her Orthodox synagogue, and no one mentions this to her."

Halberstam says she does not try to minimize the difficulties in the transition from the world of Orthodox education to a pluralistic school, but she says that "when I read Heschel's aims, I realized that this was the place for me. In a place where it is possible to be observant or not, which allows freedom of thought and space for debate and discussion - that's where I belong. A religious life means a constant struggle with questions of faith. I could easily have been an administrator at an Orthodox school, the closed nature of which might make things easier, more comfortable, but this doesn't look interesting to me."

At least with respect to the importance that is attributed to higher education, the students at Heschel, as at the other Jewish schools, are no different from their non-Jewish peers. Starting college studies immediately after high school (or at most after one "gap" year) is a normative goal here, one that is so taken for granted that more often than not, other routes aren't considered.

The question of whether there is a large or a small population of Jewish students at a given college is important but it does not appear to be crucial to most, especially as the variety of possibilities is so large. "If I succeed in getting accepted to the college of my dreams, I'll go there happily, even if there aren't a lot of Jews there," says one girl at Heschel. Moreover, for some of the students, especially those who have always attended only Jewish schools, the college experience is perceived as a kind of "emergence from behind the walls."

Emily Nhaissi is trying to decide between a college in Georgia that has relatively few Jewish students, and Brandeis University, near Boston, which has a Jewish character and a large Jewish enrollment.

"When I go to college, I want to be able to understand and decide what I want to do with my Jewish identity," she says. "If I go to Brandeis, I will still be in a Jewish environment - just like the situation I'm in now. I'll take my Judaism for granted. However, I'm asking myself whether I'll change if I choose the other college - whether I'll feel like I have to be 'the model Jew' for the other students or become totally secular. I want Judaism to be meaningful for me, and I think the second possibility makes that more likely."

The students at Heschel move from classroom to classroom according to subject: Sacred studies (Bible and Talmud), sciences, humanities, art and so on. Across from the beit midrash, and not by chance, are the physics and biology labs. In the latter, large pictures of Jewish scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Jonas Salk and also Sigmund Freud hang above the blackboard. "I wanted to show the students how involved Jews are in science," explains the teacher. On the opposite wall he has hung headshots of the students themselves, "so that one day one of their pictures will move to above the blackboard." Looking down from the third wall, he apologizes with a smile, are other Jews whom he loves, who aren't necessarily connected to biology or science, among them Bob Dylan and Amedeo Modigliani.

It is difficult to quantify exactly the proportion of sacred studies in the aggregate of classes at the school: How, for example, should an English lesson in which the teacher uses various kinds of prayer be defined? Nevertheless, formally, every day the students study Bible, Talmud, Hebrew (among other things a series of short stories by Etgar Keret in 11th grade). Added to the prayers every morning, this amounts to three or four lessons out of 10.

In the 10th grade, a lively discussion is taking place about why the fine for stealing an ox is higher than that imposed on stealing sheep. The students read from Exodus 22 and 23 in Hebrew, and sometimes insert a word or two from the Hebrew into the discussion in English. Now the debate moves on to the question of the precise meaning of "there shall be no blood shed for him," at the beginning of Chapter 22. The teacher, Ruth Fagen, who is in charge of the sacred studies department at the school, explains that there are four different interpretations of the concept. This is just the beginning of the discussion, which moves along to interpretations that the students suggest as they become involved in a stormy dispute.

For an observer, the comparison to Israel is inevitable: It is hard to find classes like this in Israel's state school system. The end-of-year report card at Heschel details not only the extent of students' success on tests but also the relationships that the students develop between the religious texts and their personal lives. "This is one of the school's explicit goals," says Fagen. "There is no one right answer and there is no one single method for studying a religious text. It is possible to argue about everything - and it doesn't matter how logical the arguments are or not."

In the cafeteria at lunchtime, one student relates that she joined Heschel at the beginning of high school, after having attended an Orthodox school for several years. "I didn't doubt and I didn't ask questions about what we learned there," she recalls. "I said to myself that this is apparently the correct Judaism, but I didn't have any real connection to it. It was only when I came here that I understood that I am allowed to ask questions, and then afterwards also to look for the answers myself, even if they are ridiculous, like saying in a Bible lesson in 9th grade that God is a girl in a miniskirt. No one threw me out of the classroom, but rather they tried to understand why I thought that."

The emphasis on personal exploration recurs among a number of the students who had previously attended schools affiliated with one of the streams. Adam Gitlin, an 11th grader, for example, attended a Conservative school until the 9th grade. "I wasn't exposed to different approaches to Judaism there, which created a big conflict in me: On the one hand, I wanted desperately to discover Judaism for myself, and on the other, the possibilities were very limited," he says.

Eli Grossman, one of the relatively few students at Heschel who always wears a skullcap, had also studied at a Conservative school. When he tries to compare the two educational models - that of a pluralistic school and a more homogeneous framework - he says that "when you're within pre-ordained boundaries, you don't seek answers. It seems to me that other schools give less encouragement to students to formulate their faith for themselves. In this respect, there is more Judaism here: We seek more, and we find more."

Heschel's director, Roanna Shorofsky, and Halberstam both say that the parents who send their children to Heschel have to be sufficiently secure in their own beliefs. Anyone who is afraid of an encounter with different opinions and new experiences would do better not to come here. Having an attitude like this is a privilege that can be enjoyed by a school that has a long waiting list. This view applies to Reform and Orthodox parents alike. Halberstam can't say how many students from each of the various denominations are enrolled at the school. There are estimates and guesses, but this question, she explains, is not included in the application form, and not by chance. The various definitions are just labels that in any case they try to avoid.

The students themselves say that religious observance does not influence the social ties at the school. It appears that conflicts, to the extent that they arise, are connected less to the material studied in classes than to the surrounding activity, both formal and informal. This can range from the opposition of some of the students to the rule requiring that boys lay tefillin during the Orthodox morning prayers (a group of students has begun to make a short feature film called "The Revolt Against Tefillin") to the complaint from some of the parents about a meeting that was scheduled for Halloween night.

Another source of friction has arisen around the shabbaton - social activity over the course of a weekend in which all of the students at the school participate. About three weeks before the departure for the annual shabbaton, groups of students and teachers formulate the program for the meeting. Sometimes it seems as though there are infinite questions that arise: In what style will the Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening ceremony for greeting the Sabbath) be held and will it include music? Should there be a mehitzah (barrier) between boys and girls during the ceremony and how will students who watch television on the Shabbat stay in the same place as those who observe the day in the traditional manner?

"We manage the tensions, we don't resolve them," notes one teacher. But on the way to finding a compromise (like a barrier at the front of the hall for the more Orthodox students), "the students develop the ability to explain to people who hold different outlooks why a certain thing - from gaming on a laptop computer to focus on prayer - is so important to them," says Tamar Bednarsh, who is in charge of social activities at the school. "There isn't a guidebook here on how to solve the problems that come up, and also pluralism doesn't ensure quiet but rather in fact tension and constant interaction between different opinions. That is what's so interesting."

Based on the students' discussions, a "shabbaton code" was established, adherence to which is obligatory for all participants. Prior to the most recent shabbaton, last October, a number of decisions were added: In their own rooms, students are expected to make well-informed decisions regarding the use of electricity; generally, the use of electronic devices is not desirable during the Sabbath and is totally forbidden in public spaces. The use of musical equipment in personal spaces (including in bed) will not be supervised.

A few months ago, the Heschel basketball team hosted the parallel team from the Ramaz School, on the eastern side of Central Park, which is affiliated with the modern-Orthodox stream, in the framework of league games between the Jewish schools in the New York area. The game was close, and filled with suspense. The basketball hall at Heschel was full of fans. In both schools they tell of groups of students who held up unusual signs reading "Viva la Pluralism." Heschel won the game in overtime, 66-63. More...