Embracing the Hard Work of Building Sacred Diverse Community

By Ray Levi

As the child of refugees, I have long wrestled with the question of how to find my place in America, in the Jewish world, in the American Jewish community. My family’s experiences certainly influenced my political and religious perspective and shaped a journey in quest of belief and belonging. If that route has been circuitous, there has certainly been some clarity in seeing both my connection and obligation to Am Yisra’el – that diverse group with many shared and varied beliefs and practices that is the Jewish people. I have come to embrace that diversity with all its messiness, focusing on deep values grounded in shared texts whose understandings are debated, recorded, and in the best of settings, ultimately respected.

Yet living that reality – getting to that place of respect – can be more challenging than we might think. The Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), the program I lead, is by design, a program that brings together senior leaders from schools representing diverse practices and affiliations. It has been easy to discuss dilemmas of practice about budgeting or recruitment or even handling difficult conversations with staff members. In so doing, we build a professional community of colleagues who feel less isolated than senior educational leaders traditionally are.

But our obligation to our students and families is greater. The Hasidic text Tanya reminds us, “The purpose of the creation of every Jew and of all the world is to make a dwelling place for God in this world” (Chapter 33). How, in our little DSLTI circle do we build a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community with deep Jewish commitments to one another? Addressing this question is both the ongoing challenge and joy of the team that shapes the program at DSLTI, one that has been greatly influenced by our rabbinic mentor, Harry Pell, who is the associate head of school at the Leffell School. As we all know, we can offer no recipe for creating a professional space that is sacred. We are engaged in an ongoing process to identify core processes that contribute to building this fragile space.

Bring our teachers and mentors to Jewish places where we can share vulnerability.

  • We often find common ground in sharing our Jewish journeys. As a community, we have done a remarkable job of leaving even the most engaged Jews feeling “less than” or “not enough.” The emotional toll of some of these experiences inspire us to offer more embracing ones in our schools.
  • What we see in sacred texts and historical and contemporary commentaries offers opportunity to gain respect for the perspectives of others. How we respond to them during beit midrash havruta study provides moments of empathy.
  • Spiritual Checkups, based on the practices developed by Aryeh Ben David, inspire more personal discussion as we seek to apply the themes of shorter texts in our own lives. Our goal is not to change or advise in our hevruta, but rather to listen deeply and offer questions that encourage our partners to think more deeply.
  • When one of our out-of-town participants became a grandmother, we traveled to her grandchild’s bris in his home congregation. She told us how wonderful it was to look up, in a room filled with many people she did not know, and see the DSLTI community, her community. Sharing simhahs creates opportunities to appreciate the practices and minhagim of our colleagues.

We have to risk and even embrace some messiness. The practices just described take us to places we often don’t venture, but as our community of participants has grown increasingly diverse, we’ve had to plan experiences that help get us past the assumptions that others might have of us – or perhaps more significantly, the assumptions we think others might have about us. We’ve been challenged to determine how to get past these barriers and our efforts, even when carefully guided, provide moments of uncertainty, intensity, and discomfort. “What do you wish others would know about you and your practice of Judaism?” seems like a simple question. But when we look at responses taped to a wall and offered anonymously, we discover pain caused by unconscious bias or even focus on ourselves. We must work on activating a vocabulary that shows curiosity and deep interest even when we may feel that our own priorities are being questioned and it’s easy to feel defensive.

In the end, we hope for moments that allow our participants to share reflections such as this:

I think a defining characteristic of our group is the presence of an ayin tovah (a good eye). We give each other the benefit of the doubt. We see the good and the great in each other. It is in such an environment that we can tackle thorny issues, always with respect, even in passionate disagreement. We dare not take that for granted.

We dare not take this for granted. And we must acknowledge that this sacred work is indeed very hard.

Dr. Ray Levi is the director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.

This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.