One of the more apt images that symbolizes Jewish day school diversity is the Havdalah candle. Multi-plaited, the Havdalah candle is Gann Academy’s school logo and the basis of a resonant midrash on diversity and pluralism offered by Rabbi Dina Brawer, Gann’s assistant head of school for Jewish education.
Brawer tells JewishBoston that, like the plaits of the candle, she sees Gann’s pluralism intertwined in the school’s curriculum in the diverse practices, personal identities and journeys of its students and faculty. “The different-colored strands intertwine into a unique wick, while retaining their own color,” she said. “They do not melt into each other to become all the same. It’s a process by which you create a much stronger flame. When we bring our different strands to Gann, it requires extension and accommodation. We ask questions and learn other points of view.”
Founded in 1997, the Waltham school was launched “as the same kind of bold, innovative thinking that inspired our founders to create this new, international model of Jewish high school education. [The school] continues to animate this dynamic community today,” Brawer said.
Students arrive at Gann from over 40 middle schools, including public and private schools. “We take pride in the amount of diversity in our school,” she said. That diversity also brings together students at different places in their Jewish literacy. Brawer said the school meets a student at any point in their Judaics journey. “We move their school career toward being able eventually to access some of the Hebrew in Jewish studies classes,” she added. “The material is always accessible in English as they build their skills.”
Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe, dean of Judaic studies at the Maimonides School’s upper school, says the school has ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic diversity. He told JewishBoston there are students in the school who proudly identify as Latinx, Sephardim or who have lived in the Middle East.
Maimonides is a standout among Orthodox schools in the country for its unique approach to co-education. “What was revolutionary about our school [when it was founded by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and his wife, Tonya Soloveitchik] in 1937 is still true,” he said. “We are an Orthodox Jewish school that has the same educational opportunities for men and women. You can count the number of co-educational Orthodox institutions that have that equality. We’re proud that everyone has equal access to all parts of being Jewish at our school.”
In many respects, Gann and Maimonides are flagship institutions for many of the 14 Jewish day schools in the Greater Boston area. Gann’s example of pluralism is evident in the approach of day schools that brand themselves as community schools. To that end, Amy Gold, head of the Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead, recently told JewishBoston, “The face of day schools in 2022 is different than it was even a decade ago. Homogeneity of the student body is not as big a concern as it was for prospective families.”
Gold noted that Epstein Hillel’s diversity consists of LGBTQ, biracial, interfaith and single-parent families. In addition, some families are secular, and some belong to Chabad. But all of Judaism’s branches are represented at the school. “Research has shown that very few people want to put a label on their Judaism these days,” said Gold.
Gary Alper, director of admissions and marketing for MetroWest Jewish Day School, observed that the student body at his school reflects a similar diversity within Judaism. “Children at our school celebrate all forms of Judaism,” he said. “Our interfaith children may even see other celebrations within their families.” Alper further noted: “There are many choices of public, private and Jewish day schools for families. One thing we teach very well is how to be a mensch, and to ask questions respectfully. That’s important in a diverse community where everyone has value and a place at the table.” Alpert said the school’s commitment to teaching a child to be a good human “is core to engaging with all people.”
In the evolving day school climate, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston is no longer formally affiliated with the Conservative movement, and the Solomon Schechter Network is gone. The school is now part of the Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, an organization working with day schools and yeshivas across the Jewish spectrum.
Jonah Hassenfeld, director of learning and teaching at the school, noted that the change is in keeping with the school’s growing diversity. “We have students who belong to different denominations,” he said. “It’s something that is important to us. And we now have the flexibility to serve the diversity of the Jewish community, which includes LGBTQ and interfaith families.”
Hassenfeld also said the 1990s saw a sea change in how day schools handled diversity and sexual orientation issues. “At Schechter, we honor and support who kids are in our goal to be an open and welcoming school,” he added. In keeping with Gann’s example, Schechter sees itself “as a community school moving in a pluralistic direction.”
JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, was a forerunner of the community day school model. Head of school Shira Deener told JewishBoston that when the school was founded 27 years ago, it was done “on the principles of intentional pluralism. We focused on the religious pluralism of the Jewish community, embracing people who walk different Jewish walks and practices.” Over the years, the school has enrolled students from modern Orthodox to secular Jewish homes to interfaith and LGBTQ families.
Deener said that although homogeneity may be a worry for some parents considering Jewish day school, she has consistently seen JCDS students graduate with the tools to navigate a diverse population. “Everybody has a perspective, and we need to be humble about that,” she said. “Those notions are baked into our curriculum and pedagogy. We’re always seeking answers.”
Diversity at The Rashi School starts at the top. Geraldine Acuna-Sunshine, chair of the school’s board of trustees, is a woman of color who is also a Jew by choice. Acuna-Sunshine’s position sets the stage for the school’s robust diversity. Ilyssa Greene Frey, Rashi’s director of admissions, said the school “has been working hard to be a place that families of color and those with differing views want to be a part of.” Students come from more than 20 towns, and 20% of the student body is from interfaith homes. Rashi students are part of LGBTQ families and single-parent homes.
The school is affiliated with the Reform movement and takes it cue from that in its embrace of families of all backgrounds and observances. Greene Frey is part of an interfaith family who sent her children to Rashi. She said that “interfaith families bring a new diversity into day school spaces that welcome them.”
To that end, Greene Frey doesn’t see homogeneity as an obstacle at her school. Instead, she said there are many ways to interact with diverse people outside of school through town sports, volunteer opportunities and congregations. “At Rashi,” she said, “we’re proud to hold up Judaism and Jewish education as an immersive experience.”
Rabbi Binyomin Mermelstein, executive director of Torah Academy in Brookline, said his school “adds a beautiful diversity to the 14 Jewish day schools in the Boston area.” The K-8 school offers a Torah-centric education in a place that Mermelstein said “is passionate about Yiddishkeit.” He further described the academy as providing a “specific niche” among the area’s 14 day schools. “We want our kids to be Orthodox,” he said. “And while some of our students supplement the curriculum with things like Russian and math, at the end of the day you cannot supplement Yiddishkeit. That’s why our families pick the school.”
As the only day school in Sharon, Striar Hebrew Academy is an Orthodox day school with some features of the community school model. Rabbi Jordan Soffer, the academy’s head of school, is dedicated to building the school’s diverse community “one child at a time.” He believes that children learn best and discern examples of diversity when empowered to explore. “Children explore differently, and teachers have to be prepared to help students learn differently,” he said.
Soffer noted that the school attracts students from the town’s Chabad and Young Israel communities and the local Conservative temple where the rabbi is a woman and a parent in the school. “It’s a core value of ours that we welcome everyone,” he said. “We’re unapologetic in how we practice our Judaism, but that expression does not come at the expense of validating other people’s Jewish expression and identity. If we have a child who wants to be here, our first inclination is to love and welcome them.”
The academy is a K-5 school, and most of its students go on to Maimonides. Soffer said some also attend Schechter and then Gann. He said wherever his students enroll, they feel supported and prepared. He’s similarly confident that grounding his students in Judaism and helping them cultivate their identities are the best preparations to live in a diverse society. “We hope that our particularism prepares our students for a world of universalism,” he said. “And that they have their own language so they can speak in the universal language. Their unique voices are part of the grand chorus of universal voices.”