As the Religious Chair of a small-ish sized Hillel at Miami University of Ohio, I hear the word “pluralism” frequently. And I too am guilty of branding our Hillel as pluralistic. “We have a pluralistic minyan,” I tell prospective students. But despite my dependency on the term, I question whether a pluralistic minyan is possible, or merely an unattainable ideal.
Fortunately, I am not forced to deal with this question head-on very often, since Miami is home to a grand total of zero Orthodox Jews (although a few have graduated in recent years). It is much easier to bridge the gap in Shabbat services between Jews with Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative backgrounds. But even this is not easy–some Jews went to camp and sang Debbie Friedman melodies in their youth, some are familiar with traditional davening, while some are only comfortable with English, and still others kvetch over not hearing this or that tune for Lecha Dodi or Adon Olam. Nonetheless, a minyan consisting of egalitarian Jews is not overly difficult to organize on a college campus. But is this minyan pluralistic?
What happens if you consider the non-egalitarian, typical Orthodox Jew? Can Miami’s Hillel service still be considered pluralistic if they cannot pray with us? Unfortunately, I don’t believe so. If someone is excluded, then pluralism has failed. An egalitarian minyan, therefore, cannot be pluralistic while non-egalitarian Jews exist. Orthodox services are similarly restricted to certain participants, and even though all forms of Jews are permitted to attend their service, many do not feel spiritually able to be an active participant in an Orthodox minyan. So pluralism is a useless term, in my mind. The pluralistic ideal that many communities strive for is an unattainable goal. But I would also say that ideals in Hillels across America are relative. Each college campus and each Hillel has their own ideal service structure and community based on the student body makeup and resources available to them.
At Miami, I don’t believe we have yet reached that ideal, but we are headed in the right direction. From struggling to make a Friday night minyan three years ago, we now regularly have over 50 people at Shabbat. This has been a result of what you could consider a “progressive-traditional” style of prayer. We include many traditional elements, but utilize various non-traditional songs, English readings, and different prayer leaders in order to add a variety of elements to our service for the different backgrounds of Jewish students at Miami. We are not by any means an ideal Hillel, nor are we a pluralistic Hillel in the true sense of the word, but we are certainly striving to be the ideal Miami Hillel!