Studying Pluralism in Jewish Education

Pluralism is one response to the diversity of the contemporary Jewish community. While increasing numbers of Jewish educational organizations identify themselves as pluralist, what they mean by the term is not often clear.

This project was stimulated by the desire to better understand what these settings mean by “pluralism,” both in terms of their rhetoric and action, or put another way, in terms of espoused theory and actual practice. Its basic questions are what do the settings mean when they claim to be pluralist, how do they enact their pluralism and what effect does this have on its students?

This work began in 2002 with a faculty and practitioner seminar focusing on the background of pluralism — its meaning in Jewish thought, in a contemporary political framework, and across history. Participants studied a wide range of texts and looked at different examples from Jewish schools and camps.

This inquiry developed into one of the first field-based studies to focus on how a pluralistic education is enacted in Jewish day school that purposely recruit students who, with their families, hold many different perspectives on Jewish life. The study was designed:

  1. to document the school's vision of pluralism in action,
  2. to analyze the ways it tries to enact its vision of pluralism in its ongoing work, and
  3. to show how its approach to pluralism has affected its students and alumni.

The study made use of multiple methods, including participant observation, interviews and focus groups with students, faculty, administrators, lay leaders and graduates, and surveys of students and graduates.

Researchers worked with two data sets: the first compared 12th graders' ideas of pluralism with responses they gave as 9th graders, charting how their ideas have changed over their four years in the school, and how the pluralistic environment has shaped their own ideas about Judaism.

The second data set focused on alumni of the school to learn how being in that school influenced them in college and beyond. As far as we know, this work is the first of its kind to follow students past their school experience.

The work of this project has implications beyond the day school classroom. Many pluralist settings, like the school being studied, are becoming places that prepare people to affirm and develop their own Jewish identities while respecting different approaches and engaging productively with people unlike themselves. This is a formidable challenge in schools, camps, and other Jewish educational venues where identity development is central to the agenda.

Selected Presentations

  • What Pluralism Means to High School Students, Conference on Pluralistic Jewish Education: Trends and Challenges, Jerusalem, July 2009.
  • Consultation on the MA program in Jewish Education and Pluralism at the Hebrew University and Hebrew Union College, July 2009.
  • Three sessions with seniors at the Gann Academy in Boston on the meaning of pluralism in their lives.
  • Alumni Views of the Impact of Pluralism, Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Autumn 2008.
  • Network for Research in Jewish Education Annual Conference, 2006, 2007, 2010.
  • The Challenges of Forging Community in a Diverse Setting, Reframing Jewish Education Worldwide conference at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University, 2006.

Project Resources


Working Papers

  • The Language of Pluralism in a Jewish Day School, Rahel Wasserfall, PhD and Susan L. Shevitz, EdD

  • Building Community in a Pluralist Jewish High School: Balancing Risk and Safety, Group and Individual in the Life of a School, Susan L. Shevitz, EdD and Rahel Wasserfall, PhD