Last night I was proud to be among those attending the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, an agency with which Gesher is fortunate to partner. Along with a number of meaningful awards and remarks, we heard an analysis of some of the challenges and opportunities facing the American Jewish community right now, and the focus was on ways in which to deal with an increased polarization between ends of a political and philosophical spectrum. The challenge was framed as a widening gap between Jews who are “particularist” and those who are “universalist” in their world views and approaches to Judaism.
As the leader of a community organization with an explicitly pluralistic purpose, I am particularly interested in this kind of issue, and because my institution has an educational mission, I believe that we are uniquely positioned and prepared to address this type of challenge. In fact, we spend every day educating the future leadership of the Jewish community with the necessary skills and knowledge to step up and navigate our community’s path with strength and moral fortitude.
The recent demographic study of our region identified five ways in which Jews in our community express their engagement and identities. The researchers labeled them:
- Immersed (18%)
- Involved (33%)
- Cultural (17%)
- Holiday (18%)
- Minimal (14%)
Immersed Jews are most likely to send to their children to Jewish Day School, but when I look at the definitions used to determine these percentages, I think there is a circular logic misleading us in that particular statistic – anyone who sends their child to Gesher, for example, is engaged in Judaism on a daily basis – this is the defining characteristic to be labeled “immersed” by this study. However, when I look at the families, supporters, lay leaders, and professionals who are part of the Gesher community, I see a much wider range of Jewish practice and identity.
In fact, what schools like Gesher have been able to do successfully for several decades is to act as a focal point for Jews from across many spectra to unite around a core shared Jewish value: educating our children with excellence. It is common misperception among Jews who are not connected with Day Schools to imagine that either our schools are “too Jewish,” too expensive, or less academically excellent than other outstanding local schools. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
We proudly serve families that are completely unaffiliated with the Jewish community in any other way than attending Gesher as well as those who are completely immersed in Jewish life from dawn to dusk. We work our tails off to raise the funds needed to make it possible for families to afford to send their children here and in fact offer tuition assistance to well over 50% of our population. Finally, we demonstrate academic excellence well above and beyond that of local public schools, and are on par with or ahead of other local private schools in test scores and placement into top high schools like Thomas Jefferson.
Gesher has plenty of room to grow, like any school, and we will. But if our community is seeking spaces in which knowledgable, caring educators are creating spaces in which to engage with community members from varied backgrounds…that exists here. Intentionally. Because we have known for years that Jewish peoplehood only thrives when we come together to explore commonalities and encounter differences, while acknowledging the deeply held core value that Jewish people are linked in shared mission and responsibility to care for one another and the world around us.
If you speak to one of our students or graduates about the challenges raised above, you will hear some version of acknowledging these differences. But then you will also hear כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, that all of our community is linked and responsible for one another, and that is more powerful and more important than any difference.
This Shabbat, I encourage to speak with your family about what it means to be responsible for one another, even if you have different beliefs or philosophies. Ask your children if they think that brothers and sisters need to think the same things in order to love each other and take care of each other. Share with them stories from your own life about times when you encountered someone who wasn’t like you, and what you felt and learned.