Diversity is the one thing we all have in common

Diversity is the one thing we all have in common

Modern Orthodox educational institutions must accommodate two crucial, but superficially conflicting, Torah values. On the one hand, an unwavering commitment to our movement’s principles must pervade our halls, a commitment that is expressed in both actions and words. On the other hand, it is our duty to provide a high level of Jewish education to all children, regardless of whether they follow Orthodox belief and practice.

I emphasize that these are both values of paramount importance and are both Torah values. There is, however, there is a tension between them. The presence of non-observant students in an Orthodox institution is perceived by some as a dilution of the institution’s religious character and is therefore viewed as a compromise of its commitment to Torah. For this reason, several Orthodox schools have, in the past decade, adopted a policy to no longer enroll non-Orthodox students.

I have been shocked and saddened by this trend, and my years in a Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school that serves a mid-sized but highly diverse Jewish community have helped me realize that these values are not dissonant but mutually enhancing.

At the Robert M. Beren Academy, in Houston, TX, we aim to educate our students so that when they leave our halls, they will form the backbone of a strong Jewish community. Moreover, a strong Jewish community needs two key ingredients to succeed as a serious Jewish community. First, we want all Jews to be as Jewishly educated as possible and to experience a positive interaction with Orthodox Jews. Second, we want a solid group of Orthodox Jews who are proud, committed, knowledgeable, and open-minded. We are committed to cultivating both of these ingredients, all in one place.

If we create a religiously diverse environment in our school, it will demonstrate to Orthodox and non-Orthodox students alike that Torah is everyone’s to study – morasha kehilat ya’akov – “it is the inheritance of the (whole) community of Israel.” Cultivating such an environment will teach derech eretz (goodwill and common decency) between members of different denominations and between all human beings. It will foster Ahavat Yisrael (Love of our fellow Jews) in practice, not just in theory.

Finally, it will teach all of our students that non-Orthodox denominations represent a viewpoint that we respect. Even if we disagree with some of their philosophies, we value them as one of many necessary instruments in the Jewish symphony. In this way our diversity is not a compromise of our commitment to Torah, but a confirmation of it; it is our way of teaching certain core Torah values outside the classroom and not just inside.

As a practical matter, I understand how hard it is at times to have children facing religious challenges, such as spending time at the house of a friend who does not keep kosher or hosting a family who is not Shabbat observant. But we believe that children can rise to these challenges. Of course, this requires parents to help their children by supporting and encouraging a commitment to the values they hold dear and by supporting the mission and expectations of the school. It also strengthens their commitment to their observance.

At the end of the day, all of our students will have received a first-rate Jewish education consonant with Orthodox principles and will have grown in achdut (unity) and mutual respect, and be well on their way to becoming proud and well-integrated Jewish adults. They will come out stronger, prouder, and better-suited to serve the Jewish community of tomorrow.