Guest Blog

The Importance of Individualized Identities

By Michael Kay on July 26th, 2016

Editor's Note: The Jim Joseph Foundation supports Jewish educator training programs at institutions of higher education around the country. These programs help develop educators and education leaders with the skills to succeed in a variety of settings. This blog--the second in a series of reflections from participants in these training programs--is from Michael Kay, Head of School at Solomon Schechter of Westchester, who received his Ph.D. at New York University’s program in education and Judaic studies.

During the summer of 2014, a recent graduate of our High School experienced one of the preeminent rites of passage of those pre-college months: learning the identity of his soon-to-be-roommate. The excitement of the moment wore off quickly, however, as our graduate looked up his roommate on Facebook and found that his page was full of virulent anti-Israel rhetoric. One might have expected that such a discovery would bring about extraordinary anxiety or even paralysis in a student who was entering a diverse university after 13 years in the nurturing environment of a Jewish day school.

In fact, the opposite was the case. Our graduate confidently picked up the phone to introduce himself to his roommate. He explained who he was, what values were important to him, and why. He noted that an important part of his identity was his connection with the people, land, and State of Israel, having traveled there twice during his Middle School and High School years. In a self-assured but non-threatening manner, he asked the roommate about his own views and what motivated them. This profound conversation set the stage for a fruitful, intellectually vibrant relationship—and even led the roommate to reconsider his position and take down his incendiary postings.

A week later, I asked our student what prepared him to engage in such a sensitive, powerful conversation with a person whom he had only just met. He cited two particular elements of his Jewish day school experience. For one, his detailed knowledge of the history of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship equipped him to provide a factual basis for his own perspectives. But even more importantly, his experience in Judaic studies classes endowed him with what I call the skill of diversity: the comfort and wisdom to develop a strong, individualized viewpoint; articulate this view in a constructive, compelling manner; listen open-mindedly to people who represent different opinions; challenge when appropriate; and ultimately build positive connections with these people—even if they may never agree.

This conversation with our graduate brought into focus for me the practical benefits of my years of study in New York University’s PhD program in education and Judaic studies. My work during this time focused on defining and enacting pluralism in Jewish education, and I wrote my dissertation on leadership and community-building in ideologically pluralistic Jewish high schools. I studied theories of pluralism in the realms of philosophy and general education and sought in my field research to apply them to the very practical world of North American Jewish day schools. For me, my years at NYU turned out to be the perfect marriage of theory and practice, preparing me both to develop a philosophical vision of leadership in pluralistic settings and to implement it in real-world situations of curriculum-development and conflict in schools.

It has been clearly documented in research both outside and inside the Jewish community that learning in an environment that highlights exposure to multiple perspectives promotes—perhaps counterintuitively—the development of both robust individual identity and strong communal sentiment. This understanding, which was affirmed by my own qualitative dissertation research in the field, has played a significant role in shaping my practice through ten years of leadership positions in both denominationally-affiliated and non-affiliated schools.

One of the most prevalent critiques of Jewish day schools is that they are lacking in “diversity.” In fact, little could be further from the truth. In order for the concept of diversity to have significance, it must be understood not merely as aesthetic variety, but rather as an opportunity for people of divergent perspectives to interact in meaningful ways and craft community with one another without seeking homogeneity. This is a competence that can be taught and practiced, and there are few institutions in the world better equipped to teach it than Jewish day schools—after all, such vibrant, respectful articulation of strongly held viewpoints has been a hallmark of Jewish tradition for over 2000 years.

There may be no more important skill that we can impart to our students to prepare them for success in the 21st century than the ability to develop individualized identities, articulate them eloquently, and engage constructively with people who think and act differently. Through my graduate school experience—in the seminar room, in the library, and at case-study sites—I became convinced that Jewish day schools are uniquely well suited to provide this training. And my years in the field have served only to embolden me further in this conviction about the value of our institutions—just ask our graduate who was confronted with a seemingly anti-Israel roommate.

Michael Kay is Head of School at Solomon Schechter of Westchester. He received his Ph.D. at New York University’s program in education and Judaic studies.

Read the first blog in this series from Ilana Horwitz, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education Concentration in Education & Jewish Studies, with a focus on Sociology of Education



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