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Jewish Diversity as Mosaic: Interview with Amanda Pogany

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

August 7, 2014

This interview is a continuation of a series featuring leaders who are participating in AVI CHAI-sponsored professional development opportunities this summer. In this interview, Amanda Pogany discusses the Jewish mission of the school where she serves as Head, the Luria Academy of Brooklyn, and how it is lived in the school and community. You may also view a video where she describes her school’s Jewish vision below. She participated in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), a program of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
[youtube]http://youtu.be/K2HV6wb27U4[/youtube]

What is the Jewish mission of the Luria Academy?

We talk about our school as a Jewish mosaic. We moved away from the vision of a melting pot, where everyone has to be and do the same thing. Rather, we help our students retain who they are while coming together with those from so many diverse places in Jewish life to form this beautiful picture. We often live only with those like us, with similar values to us. The reality of the Jewish people is we all look very different from each other, but we share the same mission. We’re trying to introduce our students to that in a really sophisticated and respectful way, so that as they become the leaders of the Jewish people, they will know how to interact with each other in real ways. We try to integrate Jewish learning into a larger framework of how we interact with each other, how to be curious about rather than afraid of difference. We look to families to teach their children what’s important to them and be involved in the conversation. I always say to prospective parents, “This is not a place where you can drop your child off and say, ‘Make them Jewish like xyz.’” You’re going to be engaged in the process, and your child is going to come home and ask you questions about how a friend’s home, food, or kippah looks different from ours. I think that’s actually very powerful.
Tell me about the families in your school community and what is important to them Jewishly.
We have stakeholders from a lot of different communities. For Israeli families, the connection to Israel and Hebrew language is really important. We have Chabad families for whom tradition and the knowledge and practice piece is very important. We have families who find themselves somewhere in between all of those things. They’re focused on arming their kids with real knowledge and the ability to make responsible personal choices along the way. Other families appreciate the progressive nature of our education, but we are pushing comfort zones when it comes to the philosophy of diversity. We work hard with kids on how to talk about diversity, and that’s something we’d like to work on more with parents as well. We also integrate students with special needs into our classrooms, as it’s important for all our families that our students are open to learning how to be friends with those with all types of needs.
In all instances, we try to be very transparent, supportive and honest: We’re not trying to make anyone more or less observant, nor do we have a vision for who you’re going to be in your Jewish life. That’s your vision, and those decisions are decisions we think families need to make. We are here to support it from an academic place, a cultural place, and a place of knowledge. We all feel that we want our kids to have a rich Jewish education that engages and inspires them.
Describe what your school looks like Jewishly.
Our school is a Montessori school, so a lot of the learning is intentionally very integrated. Students have a large chunk of time called work time. Some students might be working on math while students next to them work on Chumash. There isn’t a sense that this is Jewish time and that is not Jewish time. When a holiday like Pesach is coming up, we reframe all the learning around it: for instance, the math word problems are about how many seconds your matzah has to be in the oven. Also, as much as possible, we have full-time native Hebrew speakers speaking to the kids, so that throughout the day you have some people speaking Hebrew and some people speaking English. That’s just what’s common as you walk through the hallways.
Generally, the feeling is: We are a Jewish school; we’re not a school that does Jewish. When we think about who the kids are and who we want them to be, we think about them as Jewish individuals. It’s really an integrated big picture.
What would a successful graduate of your school look like?
Our goal is to create knowledgeable, sophisticated Jewish leaders who understand in a profound way what it means to interact with people different from them. We want them to have the breadth and depth of a high-level Jewish education, so that they are comfortable with traditional texts, have strong Hebrew language skills, and can open up a page of Talmud and navigate their way around it as best an 8th grader can. For those families for whom Jewish high school is the right next step, we want our kids to be prepared to take that step, and for families for whom Jewish high school is not in the cards, we want them to have enough of a foundation that they can continue to live a strong Jewish life, even without a formalized education continuing.
Tell me about your experience at DSLTI.
The most powerful thing about DSLTI has been having a cohort of peers who are going through similar challenges and experiences. We are all coming from the same place in terms of the challenges, excitement, and big picture of: What are we doing to contribute to Jewish education in the world?
The mentoring has also been amazing. I like to ask my mentor about best practices in different areas so that I can think about whether it’s the right decision for our community. It has been really powerful to have mentors to remind you that there’s another way to look at a given issue, and a whole field supporting you and pushing you to be better.
There were also certain things that were really tachlis and helpful. We’re a young school and I’m the first head. Through DSLTI, I have come to understand the value of strategic planning and now have a lens for making decisions when there are so many decisions to make. I feel armed to go into the next stage: Where are we now, and where do I want us to be in five years? Now I have to enlist my parents and teachers to help us get there.

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