Kristie Lindblom is not Jewish, but she is married to a Jewish man, and “for all intents and purposes,” she said, she is raising her children Jewish.
So when it came time for Lindblom and her husband to decide on a school for their son — and an alternative to the Wilkinsburg public school system, where truancy exceeds 75 percent — they had a bit of a dilemma. While they considered homeschooling, they did not want to deprive their son of a classroom environment.
“Our priority was a solid education,” Lindblom said. “We looked at Christian schools, but they were not for us.”
Lindblom sought advice from a co-worker, Mickie Diamond, to whom she lamented that she did not think that any Jewish schools would enroll her son. Diamond encouraged her family to look at Community Day School.
When they did, what they found was an inclusive environment. Although she and her husband do not have an observant home, faculty at CDS teach “what your family does at home is right for your family,” said the mother.
“They are not teaching the children what to think,” Lindblom noted. “They are teaching them how to think.”
The diversity of families at the school — which range from those affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to those who are unaffiliated with any synagogue — and the emphasis on making all students feel comfortable and respected regardless of their families’ Judaic practices at home was examined last year by a committee of CDS leaders. They sought to determine the policies that would shape the school environment after recognizing that its demographics had been changing.
CDS has long been a member of the Solomon Schechter network of day schools, which had been affiliated since its inception with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In late 2013, Schechter and the USCJ separated as joint nonprofits.
But it is not just the Schechter split from USCJ that motivated the re-evaluation of the school’s policies, according to Avi Baran Munro, head of school. CDS had been evolving for some time, she said.
CDS was launched in 1972 as a nondenominational Jewish day school in Squirrel Hill. In 1988, CDS merged with South Hills Solomon Schechter School. At the time of the merger, Munro said, there were fundamental questions that had to be addressed regarding the merging of a community school with one that was affiliated with the Conservative movement.
Questions raised in 1988, such as, “Should the kids wear kippot or not wear kippot?” or, “Should the school be kosher or not kosher?” were questions that school leadership found were once again being raised because of a shift in the demographics of the students in the last 15 years, including an influx of Reform families as well as those who are unaffiliated with any movement, Munro said.
But although the school had a “diverse demographic distribution,” some families felt “that we were having a preference toward the Conservative movement. … The big question is, ‘I don’t do this at home, why should my kid do this at school?’” Munro said.
Last year, the school established the Council of Jewish Life and Learning, comprised of board members and educational staff, to intentionally create a school community where all families wanting a Jewish education for their children would feel comfortable.
“We always wanted our students to have a rich enough background that they are informed, literate, equipped to choose any path of Jewish living, but
not made to feel that they have to choose a specific path of Jewish living,” Munro said.
The children are thus exposed to the full gamut of Jewish practice.
“They know what it’s like to go into an Orthodox service; they know about tefillin; they know about kippot; they can read any kind of siddur; and they are not limited in their choice by having only learned a certain thing, but they are open to choosing because they have learned about everything,” Munro said.
Because Pittsburgh has both a Lubavitch day school and another Ortho-dox day school, she continued, CDS is “really the school for the broadest diversity of possible Jewish families, because we want to be a place where every kind of Jewish family — including intermarried families — feel comfortable.”
After engaging in a process of establishing the questions they wanted to answer, and the outcomes they wanted for a Community Day School student, “we decided that we are primarily an educational institution, not a religious institution,” Munro said.
“That was one of our guiding principles,” she continued, “that we would make decisions based on educational principles, not denominational principles.”
Policies that have come out of that process include that, while boys will, and girls can, wear kippot during the school day, a student will follow his or her family’s practice in determining whether or not to wear kippot on field trips (unless the destination is Jewish-themed), at recess, gym or after-school and evening activities. And while CDS serves exclusively kosher food for school lunches, school events and field trips when meals are provided, children are permitted to make their own food choices when purchasing their own food on field trips, at the discretion of their parents.
“In terms of curriculum, we added a component where there’s a discussion about how different families express Jewish practice,” Munro added. “They will learn, for example, how to build a kosher sukkah, but children will have the opportunity to say how they do it in their home, without feeling like it’s wrong. So every family can say, ‘I don’t build a sukkah,’ or ‘I build a sukkah that’s not quite kosher, but we had a really good time experiencing the holiday.’ And all that is welcome and invited.”
The practice of respect the children are learning for each other is noteworthy, said Tovah Kinderlehrer, the mother of a third-grader at CDS, who says her family “is leaning toward the Orthodox side of the religious spectrum.”
One of the reasons that she chose CDS over the other Jewish day schools here, she said, is because she prefers her son to be in a classroom where the genders are not segregated.
Although her family’s religious practices are different than many of the other families at the school, “there is definitely a practice of respect,” she said. “There is not a lot of judgment.”
She said she is also impressed with “how much the school focuses on being a mensch.”
“To me, that’s what Judaism is, being a really good person,” she said.
Likewise, Rochel Gasson, the mother of four children at CDS, identifies as an Orthodox Jew and is affiliated with B’nai Emunah Chabad in Greenfield. She and her husband chose CDS for their family because of its diversity, she said.
“We wanted our children to be around all different kinds of Jews,” she said. “We wanted them to see all different types of people in the world, but in a Jewish environment.”
“It’s proven to be wonderful,” she said, “and the academics are phenomenal.”
Gasson is also impressed by the opportunities for participation in an array of extracurricular activates, including sports and the arts.
Ken Levin, a Reform Jew who is the parent of three CDS students, appreciates the fact that his children are acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of their heritage.
“I am impressed with how much more my kids know than I do and that they enjoy and share it with each other,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.