Too Jewish? Yes. Also, No.
Over the past two weeks, I have written posts directly addressing some of the major concerns, questions, and perceptions we hear when we talk with families who are considering providing their children the gift of a Gesher JDS education. I wrote about financial concerns, and how likely it is that a family will qualify for tuition assistance that makes Gesher realistically affordable. I also wrote about logistics and transportation, and how we serve families from all over Northern Virginia. This week I’d like to address one final major misconception, which is the idea (incorrect) that you have to be a certain type of Jew to fit in at Gesher.
In recent demographic studies we’ve learned that around 70% of non-Orthodox Jews are married to someone who is not Jewish (to be clear – I’m not talking about people who have converted to Judaism here – I mean people who were not born Jewish and did not convert). Many of these couples are intentional about transmitting aspects of Jewish identity to their children, sometimes along with another religion, sometimes just Judaism. It is often the case that the non-Jewish parent is more motivated to make sure that their children learn Jewish rituals, experience Jewish holidays, and engage in Jewish education. Many of these families do not affiliate with a Jewish movement or congregation, and find other ways of engaging in the community.
Here at Gesher, about 40% of our families fit (more or less) into the description above. This may surprise many, as the perception (incorrect) we hear often is that Gesher is “too Jewish for us.” No, we are not. Gesher is a pluralistic community school. We serve a wide range of families from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and belief. That is our mission, and we are very good at it, though of course we are not perfect. Some of our students wear tzitzit (knotted tassels like those found at the corners of a prayer shawl, or tallit). Some of our students have a Christmas tree in their home. Some of our students go to synagogue weekly, some once in a while, and some hardly ever or never. Some of our students know far more about Judaism than their parents, and some are just scratching the surface of the kinds of texts their parents study regularly. When my daughter entered Gesher in Kindergarten, her class included the children of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Rabbis, as well as children from unaffiliated families and many other backgrounds – that is Gesher.
What is truly outstanding about our culture, which is created by the faculty, leadership, students, and parents, is that each of those students I just described knows in their hearts that they are an integral part of a single, strong, nurturing community when they are here at school. I challenge any school to meet the same level of joy, comfort, ownership, pride, and commitment that is demonstrated by our community daily. Part of this strength is derived from the fact that our community is intentionally engaged in a pluralistic experiment, in which children and adults are encouraged to learn about themselves through their encounters with a wide range of ideas and practices.
This is very different from the surface “diversity” found in other schools, in which it is possible to find others like yourself and simply never really engage with people who are different from you. Our brand of encounter diversity offers practice in the kinds of skills our children will need as they move through the globalizing, interconnected world we inhabit. We know from our alumni that this training is leading them into relationships and careers that offer them the opportunity to become ethical leaders both inside the Jewish community and in the broader communities in which they live.
So is Gesher too Jewish for you? Yes! And also, of course not! We are not one thing – we are a community committed to encounters. Can you afford us? Can you afford not to offer this unique educational experience to your children and set them up to live meaningful lives? Don’t worry, we will make sure there is a seat on our bus for you.
Wishing you and yours a wonderful Winter break, and a Happy New Year!
Kol tuv (all the best),