This article originally appeared in The Lion's Tale, CESJDS's student-run newspaper. Robbie Shorr is a Middle School Math Teacher, and graduated from CESJDS in 2013.
A lot has changed about CESJDS recently, but I'm going to explain something that has remained constant since my high school days at JDS until my return this year as a math teacher. (And, no, I don't mean the fantastic cafeteria cookies. That's an article for another time.)
Since I started at the Lower School as a student in 2001, the following has consistently been a part of the school culture: many students feel that their particular brand of Judaism, whatever it may be, is minimized by the school. In other words, students feel as if the material taught in Judaics classes, school policies regarding Jewish practices, and the general culture of the school are at ends with how they personally choose to express their Judaism.
This is the most frustrating thing about JDS... but it is also the most beautiful!
Frustrating, in the sense that students are often unwilling to consider perspectives of Judaism that differ from their own. Mind-boggling, because students talk past one another, not truly listening to their peers. Disheartening, in the amount of delegitimization that I see.
Beautiful, because students care enough to speak from their hearts about these issues. Uplifting, because kids remain the best of friends even after having these intense dialogues. Rewarding, to see our students show true depth of understanding.
So, what can we, the people engaged in these passionate discussions, do to ensure more positive outcomes?
To some extent, the frustration will always exist. It is always hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes, especially when discussing religion -something so essential to your identity. It would be silly to imagine a community where these discussions are only positive and understanding.
However, in the Mishnah there actually exists a paradigm for having these discussions with greater empathy (Pirkei Avot 5:17). In the passage, the Rabbis differentiate between arguments that are for heaven's sake and those that are not. The example given for the former is the debates of Hillel and Shammai, and for the latter, the rebellion of Korach.
The commentaries on this passage clarify the difference between these two examples. When Hillel and Shammai argued, they did so with a deep conviction that they were right. However, their discussions were gracious, respectful, and never belittling. Their debates happened out of a love for the Jewish people, with a goal of gaining understanding.
Korach, on the other hand, argued to win. He wanted to overthrow Moshe and Aharon not because he cared about the people, but because he desired power. Korach used hurtful speech to support his claim. He put no effort into understanding the counterarguments of Moshe and Aharon.
So how can we be more like Hillel and Shammai, and less like Korach? Before beginning a dialogue, make sure that you are partaking in it in order to enrich your understanding of your friends and of Judaism. Be very careful that you will not say anything personally hurtful, but also make sure that you understand others are not trying to personally attack you. Continue to be friends, letting the discussions you have had increase your appreciation for those around you and the complex, thoughtful people that they are. Approach everyone understanding that they care about the entirety of you as a person, regardless of your disagreements with them.
Easier said than done, I know. But even a small commitment from all of us to be more like Hillel and Shammai, and to support each other along that journey, can create a more compassionate and vibrant school community.