Clutching white roses and garbed in blue caps and gowns, the first graduating class of Shoshana S. Cardin Jewish Community High School celebrated its diversity yesterday as well as its academic achievement.
The 29 graduates and their families were lauded yesterday as pioneers who believe in the school's mission of Jewish education that spans all denominations and branches of the faith.
Named for the renowned local Jewish philanthropist and first female president of the Council of Jewish Federations, the four-year-old school is the first independent Jewish community high school in the Baltimore area.
"It isn't often that you have a vision and watch it come true," Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of the school's board, told those gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Oheb Shalom yesterday.
When it opened in rented space at Oheb Shalom on Park Heights Avenue, the Cardin school joined a growing trend of free-standing community high schools, said Marc Kramer, the executive director of Ravsak, the Jewish community day school network.
Nationwide, there are about 120 Jewish community day schools, and about 20 offer high-school level courses, he said.
The overwhelming majority of community day schools, including Cardin, teach children "who are Jewish by any recognized definition," he said.
Most of Baltimore's Jewish high schools are associated with the Orthodox community, according to Barbie B. Prince, chief administrator of Cardin.
"We've shown that we are viable, and that a community-independent high school serving the needs of all Jewish kids is definitely something that was needed in Baltimore," she said.
At Cardin, "everyone's ideas are accepted and explored," Prince said. "Every student has the ability, the right to make their statement."
That appealed to Dr. Michael "Mickey" Lifson of Pikesville, a Conservative Jew whose son Max graduated last night. "Regardless of your synagogue affiliation, you're going to be comfortable there," he said. "The concept of a big tent is appealing."
Of Cardin's 86 students, more than half identify themselves as Conservative, nearly a quarter are Reform, about 12 percent are Orthodox and 2 percent are Reconstructionist. About 5 percent are unaffiliated with any branch of Judaism.
There's growing diversity of tradition and belief within the different denominations as well as among them, Kramer said, so independent schools expose Jews to people from other denominations and traditions that they will encounter at religious and secular events.
"It prepares them well to live in peaceful coexistence with other Jews," he said.
Cardin offers modern Hebrew instruction, taught as a spoken language, no matter how much experience the enrollee might have. Some have Israeli parents and speak the language fluently; others might not recognize the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Students also study biblical Hebrew in Judaics classes that rely on the Hebrew Bible and scholarly texts.
But unlike Orthodox schools, where students would do biblical learning in single-sex classes, male and female students study side by side.
"The families who invest in our school invest in the philosophy that everyone should be learning together," Prince said.
Cardin, like other schools, offers a variety of communal prayer services during the week known colloquially as minyan. "These are schools in which developing one's Jewish identity will de facto require a certain degree of experimentation," Kramer said.
Three days a week, students can choose from a traditional prayer service based in one of the three denominations or even pray "from the perspective of someone who might believe in God, or who is questioning God," Prince said. The school gathers as a community on the other two days.
"It was just interesting to see everyone come together and really work together," said Erin Dechowitz of Pikesville, who learned about Cardin while attending religious school at Temple Oheb Shalom, a Reform congregation.
Dechowitz led a Reform minyan all four years. "They accommodated even those who didn't want to pray," she said, with discussion groups on Israeli news and poetry.
For some students, the school gave them exposure to Jews from other branches of the faith.
"This really was my first contact with people who weren't Orthodox," said Max Vidaver of Northwest Baltimore, who attended Yeshivat Rambam, an Orthodox school, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
"We never had an issue. It definitely was a positive thing. We get all the different opinions," said Max Lifson, who will study engineering at Dartmouth College next year.
"You came to Cardin to build," Shoshana Cardin told the audience. "In that experience, you yourselves have been built. You yourselves have become mature, sophisticated, well-educated young people prepared for life."