Our Challenge for Denominational Diversity

By Aviva Janus

During a conversation with a seasoned Synagogue Education Director, I shared that I am enjoying my new position as the Religious School Director at a Reform Temple. He said to me, “I have to tell you, in my two decades working in the Jewish community, I have never seen a Reform Synagogue hire an orthodox person to direct its school.” At first I was flattered by his remark, thinking I must possess a unique skillset to account for this unusual occurrence. Later, as his comment sunk in, I was saddened. If his observation is accurate, it suggests Jewish communal professionals are, dare I say, closed-minded. This, at a time when terms such as “welcoming,” “connecting all Jews to each other” and “inclusive” are the first words on the website of nearly every Jewish institution in North America. How can these two contradictory truths exist and what can be done to narrow the chasm?

We Jews have all heard the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. We sing Psalm 133 Hinei MaTov U’Manayim (how good it is to sit all-together like siblings). Jewish schools in every denomination teach the principle of Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze L’ Ze (all Jews are responsible for each other) Talmud, Shavuot 39a. Are these commandments, songs and teachings intended to encourage the love of fellow Jews who are exactly like us?

I have had the privilege of teaching in religious schools across the Jewish spectrum and have a profound respect for every denomination. This diversity is one of the Jewish people’s greatest assets. I am delighted to explore the viewpoints and priorities unique to each one. My role as a principal is to steer our school to be a living embodiment of the ideals at the institution I serve. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a multiplicity of perspectives is one sign of a strong school with secure lay leaders and a confident principal.

As leaders of Jewish schools, it is time to appreciate and value our colleagues outside our zones of similarity so that we may expect the same from those teachers, parents and students we are entrusted to lead.

Our synagogues websites claim us to be inclusive, welcoming and connectors of Jews to other Jews. Surely it is up to us, as educational leaders, to model these in our schools. Therefore, I applaud those of us in the field of Jewish education who teach across this beautifully wide spectrum, giving of our time and talents to build a solid future for the Jewish people. For those teachers and educational leaders whose personal practice is different than the schools in which they are employed, Kol Ha Kavod for stepping out of your comfort zone in order to have an impact on Jewish children. I invite my colleagues in educational leadership roles to open a respectful dialogue in order to foster an environment free of judgement. Let’s challenge ourselves to match the ideals of inclusiveness, welcoming, and connecting Jews with fellow Jews that can be found on our organizations’ websites. Let our Religious Schools serve as a model for our entire institutions.

Aviva Janus is the Religious School Principal at a Reform Temple. She previously served in that role for seven years at a Conservative Synagogue. Aviva is a member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. She holds an MA in Jewish Professional Studies from Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.