One of the beautiful aspects of our school is the fact that students come from a range of denominational affiliations, levels of observance, and Jewish text backgrounds; yet they all manage to get along and study together despite their differences.
Some of our students belong to Reform synagogues; others Conservative or Orthodox. A few don’t belong to any synagogue, and some float between synagogues and even denominations. Some of our boys wear a kippa all the time. Others struggle to keep it on their head during school. A few girls wear kippot.
Some of our students come from homes where shabbat dinner is what connects them most regularly to Jewish tradition; for them, Friday night dinner is non-negotiable. Others come from families where Jewish communal leadership and involvement define their identity most vividly. For others, Israel is at the centre of their Jewish consciousness.
I often wonder whether exposure to diverse expressions of Judaism is confusing to students who are trying to find their own path or possibly threatening to those who are rooted in a tradition.
Instead of just wondering, I sent an email to some TanenbaumCHAT graduates and asked them to respond to this question: “Was the encounter with peers who were different threatening to you, your Jewish identity, or your family’s Jewish convictions; or did it contribute positively to your Jewish identity?”
Dan Poliwoda (TCK, 2013), who is currently studying at Western, wrote:
The diversity in my peers was beneficial for the development of my own Jewish identity. At TanenbaumCHAT I was exposed to Jews from all different backgrounds and religious practices. These helped me grasp the complexities of the Jewish people and help chart out a course for myself.
Laura Goldfarb (TCW, 2016), who is currently studying at Laurier, added this:
Every student and teacher I encountered was open-minded to my beliefs and respectful in sharing their own. As I learned about other Jewish ideals, I improved my ability to examine my own convictions and deepen my beliefs. I feel more assuredas a Jewish person after being enlightened to so many Jewish perspectives throughout my time at TanenbaumCHAT.
Judah Hoffman (TCW, 2016), who is now studying at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, Israel, and is heading to List College at Columbia University in New York in the fall of 2017 wrote:
Going to high school at TanenbaumCHAT with students from all denominations of Jewish Toronto, changed my life significantly. I learned critical thinking and open mindedness. In an atmosphere where all ideas are respected, I have become confident in formulating and articulating my own concept of right and wrong. I now love interacting and exchanging ideas in classrooms and in hallways, with people who think very differently from me. By giving me the ability to debate and defend my opinions, TanenbaumCHAT was an effective catalyst in strengthening my own sense of Jewish identity.
Danzi Ekstein (TCK, 2015), who is currently studying at Ryerson, shared this reflection:
I have never felt so accepted and inspired by the diverse community of TanenbaumCHAT. I truly believe that there is immense importance in surrounding oneself with people of different observance levels. Personally, I am a modern Orthodox Jew, and I was definitely nervous about coming into an environment where my practices would be questioned and challenged. However, the different outlooks on Judaism really enhanced my appreciation of Judaism. Everyone is eager to learn and explore these differences, and being able to contribute to that was life changing….TanenbaumCHAT taught me how to accept others, communicate with others, and find meaning within our differences as a people. I am very proud to be a Jew and I will never stop wanting to be educated, and educate others on the diversity of our beautiful religion.
High school is a time when students define and re-define their Jewish identity. They do this in the context of their family’s commitments and in the encounter with texts and teachers and with students who come from different religious backgrounds. In so doing, they widen their understanding of different expressions of Judaism so that as they can grab onto one that serves as a source of meaning. Far from being a threat to Jewish identity, the diverse population at TanenbaumCHAT serves, in Judah Hoffman’s words, as an effective catalyst in strengthening students’ own Jewish identity.