Holding the Center: How One Jewish Day School Negotiates Differences in a Pluralistic Community

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This study centers on the experiences of students and religious study faculty in the high school division of "CDS," a successful Kindergarten through Twelfth grade Jewish day school that defines itself as a "community" institution. The school affirms a high-profile commitment to including "the widest spectrum of Jewish practice and belief" in its recruiting materials. While the student body comprises individuals who are diverse in their affiliations and beliefs, the school employs a religious studies faculty that overwhelmingly draws from the most theologically conservative subset of the larger community. Almost none of these instructors share the same orientation with respect to religious practice, beliefs or general cultural frames of reference as the students they educate. Nonetheless, the school's administrative leaders claim a high degree of success at creating an embracing community, where individual differences are honored and respected. The purpose of this study was to examine and critically evaluate this claim. By employing a range of classical ethnographic research strategies, including participant observation and individual interviews, this study explores the following question: How does a culturally heterogeneous group of religious studies faculty and students negotiate the challenge of communal participation in the high school division of one Jewish day school?

While the results of field work were analyzed using a range of classical anthropological methods, this study makes special use of the communities of practice literature to create an interpretive schema for understanding the cultural life and experiences of this school community. Coding and analysis of field data suggest that a commitment to defer engagement around significant areas of ritual practice as well as the construction of a value system which reinforces the merits of coexistence create a loose framework for the notion of "community" at CDS. These findings expand an emerging literature on pluralism within Jewish institutions and suggest new interpretive tools for understanding the meaning of community within the growing field of pluralistic Jewish community day schools.