Grappling with Pluralism, Living the Lesson

Hornstein students, Kraft Seminar in Israel, December 2017

By Gabrielle Hersch BA/MA’18

The words Beit Knesset (literally translates as “house of assembly”) labeled the only room available in our Jerusalem hotel on the Saturday afternoon of our 10-day educational seminar in Israel. My pluralistic cohort of dual-degree master’s students studying Jewish Professional Leadership and I entered the space, seating ourselves in the semi-circle of chairs that would face our lecturer, a famous Israeli journalist and political correspondent, for the next hour.

Typically during our time with program presenters, most students took notes, which they later referred to for their questions at the end of the lecture, and afterwards, as they reflected on this educational and impactful trip. However, this was Shabbat, in Jerusalem, inside a Beit Knesset. Given these conditions, should those who wanted be permitted to take notes?

What do you think?

Of course, this is not a simple question, but rather a complex case study. There is no easy solution given the intentionally diverse and pluralistic nature of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University. This is an example of a Jewish question that Hornstein graduate students are given the opportunity to grapple with — on the ground, in real time.

When one thinks of academia, one often imagines the intellectual ivory tower which separates theory from practice, and ideal from reality. Analyzing theories and imparting idealistic values are certainly worthwhile ventures in forming a person’s goals and moral considerations. However, the Hornstein Program seeks to go beyond this, giving students the opportunity to utilize experiences and implement ideas in practice as they venture out into the world.

The Myra Kraft Seminar in Israel, during which the aforementioned situation took place, is one example of “ideas in practice.” Each fall semester, a faculty member of Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, (in our case, Dr. Rachel Fish), teaches a course on understanding Israel’s history and current realities through a range of academic texts, class lectures and discussion. In late December, the Hornstein cohort embarks on a week-and-a-half-long trip through Israel, meeting with a wide range of different leaders and scholars on topics related to our semester coursework.

Hornstein ensures that students are not passive observers on this impactful trip. Well before departure for the trip, students participate in various planning committees. For example, the processing committee develops debriefing activities to help us share, analyze and absorb personal and complex situations encountered on the trip. The Shabbat committee plans for the roles, structures and materials to help their classmates experience Shabbat as a cohort. As a pluralistic program with students coming from diverse religious and political backgrounds, the tasks of these committees require immense thought and important conversations that teach students about pluralism in real time and real space.

You might be wondering what happened during the lecture on our Shabbat in Israel together. Were students permitted to take notes? Did we try to find a different location for the lecture? The short answer is, no. The more important answer is that a critical conversation was born from this scenario.

Our committees had not addressed the possibility of taking notes on Shabbat ahead of time. In that basement Beit Knesset a decision had to be made quickly, a decision that would inevitably make some students uncomfortable. We regularly discuss in our classes what it means to be a Jewish leader in the 21st century. We are now presented with an opportunity to actually put these intentions into practice. We are now presented with real stakes — ones that many of us will surely face in our futures as Jewish professional leaders — concerning what it means to be a pluralistic Jewish community in the 21st century.

We have not yet come to a satisfying conclusion for our Shabbat question. The conversation on pluralism and inclusion remains unfinished still today. But we are in meaningful learning and conversation as a community, both inside and outside of the classroom. We care about each other, and about how to create Jewish community that respects us all.

At the outset of the Kraft Seminar, Dr. Fish told us that our role as students is not to come out of this experience with answers, but rather with more questions, and to learn how to be community leaders in the face of challenging and complex issues. I am proud that in Hornstein we learn to think for ourselves and as a community, both in theory and in practice.

Gabi Hersch is completing her BA/MA degree in May 2018. A graduate of the Brandeis undergraduate Class of 2017, she majored in Near Eastern & Judaic Studies and Anthropology, with minors in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies and Religious Studies.