The Importance of Individualized Identities
Reposted with thanks to The Jim Joseph Foundation’s blog.
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.
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Michael Kay, WGF Alum (Class 16) is Head of School of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a K-12 Jewish day school with campuses in Hartsdale and White Plains, NY. He completed a seven-year tenure at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, MD, where he served as Upper School Principal, Upper School Director of Judaic Studies, and a teacher of Bible and Jewish History. Michael holds an undergraduate degree in Religion and History from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Jewish Studies from New York University, where he wrote his dissertation on leadership and community building in pluralistic Jewish high schools. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.