For most Jewish day schools, a central component of our mission is to prepare students to engage effectively with the broader world and interact confidently with people whose perspectives may be very different from their own—while maintaining unwavering strength in their individual Jewish identities. How do we know if we have succeeded in reaching this goal? It is rare that we have the concrete opportunity to assess our effectiveness in nurturing students to show pride in their Jewish commitments alongside eagerness to understand the diverse worldviews that shape our society.
Fortunately, our school had precisely this opportunity this past summer. Three graduates from the Class of 2018 embarked on their own interpretation of a classic summer pastime, the Great American Road Trip. Like most such journeys, theirs included stops at national parks and homespun roadside attractions (think the Corn Palace, Wall Drug and the largest candy store in Minnesota). What distinguished their trip from the more traditional version, however, is that their explicit mission in devising their itinerary was to broaden their horizons, better comprehend their world and seek out opportunities for genuine engagement with people whose perspectives varied dramatically from theirs—all within the context of honoring their personal Jewish commitments.
Along the way, our alumni sought to understand the cultures of religious traditions that were new to them, so they visited Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a Baha’i Temple and similar sites. They participated in a high-profile political rally, at which their personal views were not necessarily aligned with those of the speakers (though the alumni did not always agree even among themselves). In Colorado, they stopped at the Masterpiece Cakeshop and engaged the baker in conversation. And in the subsequent days, they identified other locations and organizations around the Midwest that had been in the news recently, including some representing controversial or polarizing viewpoints, and spoke thoughtfully with the people in those places.
As Shabbat approached, having spent their week gaining exposure to this incredible array of worldviews, the students sought to return to their familiar traditions. They found a shul in South Dakota and participated in Shabbat services, and they ended up spending the evening in the home of the rabbi.
The summer experience of these three alumni epitomizes the mission of many of our schools as dynamic communities dedicated to the core value of lifelong learning. Our graduates demonstrated acute awareness of the issues that are shaping their society, commendable curiosity and impressive facility in interacting comfortably with people representing diverse backgrounds and viewpoints (including one another!). Most importantly, they showed a courage of conviction in their own identities, speaking openly in all of these settings about who they are and what they value, and returning “home” to the synagogue—even one 1800 miles away from home—as the sun set and Shabbat arrived.
As the society into which most of our graduates will be entering becomes increasingly cosmopolitan and diversified in viewpoint, it becomes even more important for us to prepare students to navigate this society successfully—all the while ensuring that their interaction with multiple identities does not serve to weaken or undermine their own identities as committed leaders of the Jewish community. This requires us to maintain a tricky pedagogic balance in our schools, and we seldom have the opportunity to test the effectiveness of this balance. Fortunately, every once in a while, we hear about experiences like that of our three graduates from this past summer, and we gain confidence that we are doing something right.
By Dr. Michael Kay
Dr. Michael A. Kay is head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.