Beyond Identity: Day Schools Deliver Jewish Literacy

by Dr. Marc Kramer

A great many articles about day schools, including recent pieces by Gil Graff (“Of Blintzes and Jewish Education”) and Rabbi Josh Cahan (“Is day school worth it? How do you judge?”), take as their starting point the assumption that the main argument in favor of day school – the main reason why parents should send their children there – is its impact on Jewish identity. Jewish day schools exist because they are the most effective shapers of strong Jewish identities. Want your children to be Jewish and raise Jewish children? Your best odds lie in day-school education.

I beg to differ. “Jewish identity” is a flimsy shingle to hang on a school door. These authors acknowledge as much when they hedge their bets: Jewish summer camp has been shown to be likewise a powerful force for molding Jewish identity, and no force is stronger than a Jewish home where Judaism is practiced consistently and lovingly. As discussed in the literature, Jewish identity is understood to be idiosyncratic and fluid, highly personal, beyond critique and subject to change.

The real argument, I believe, is that Jewish day schools uniquely make possible authentic Jewish literacy. Camp, great. Youth group, great. Israel trips, great. But none of these experiences give our children the skills, tools, role models, information, exposure and positive dispositions to personally engage with Jewish sacred texts – ancient to modern – in ways that leave a lasting imprint on their hearts and souls.

Too many American Jews have little more than a passing acquaintance with the treasures of Jewish tradition. They can neither read nor write, let alone speak, their national language. They do not understand the laws of Judaism and have little sense of the aura of obligation and sanctity that the mitzvot engender. They fundamentally understand their own calendar, holidays, history and culture through the lens of another society – secular American norms that are strongly colored by Christianity – so much so that are more likely to pass cultural litmus tests of Anglo-Protestantism than those of Anglo-Judaism. (Consider: How many US Jews know more about Valentine’s Day than Shavuot? They cannot name three kings of Israel yet know the names and habits of every British royal.) They mistake acceptance into Western society as proof of the superfluousness of Jewish mores and values.

And yet, most American Jews still “identify” as Jewish. They encounter Jewish moments and “feel Jewish.” They partake in certain foods and feel they are “eating Jewishly.” They do good and just and charitable deeds and think that are “acting Jewishly.” They don’t go to church or hunt because these are “not Jewish.” In short, they have personally defined a sense of what “being” Jewish is and as such, have a “Jewish identity.”

Jewish identity is fuel-efficient: Just a little juice and it runs. As such, the small jolts of energy that supplementary schools and camps and youth groups and summer trips to Israel provide are enough to fuel “Jewish identity.” (Full disclosure: I am a product of all of these enterprises.) I am reminded of the classic third grade science fair project of wiring a nightlight bulb to a halved lemon: the ion interaction of citric acid, iron and copper creates enough electricity to light the bulb. It is relatively cheap, easy to do, easy to explain, and the fact that little light is produced is accepted and acceptable.

Jewish literacy, on the other hand, is a real gas guzzler. It takes a great deal of fuel to power Jewish literacy, especially when Jewish literacy and Hebrew literacy are intertwined (as I believe it must be). The engines of Jewish literacy – engines that drive Jewish citizenship, peoplehood, spiritual meaning, ethical living and intellectualism – cannot simply sip from Sunday school and summer camp; they need full tanks and ample refills at the pumping stations we call day schools. Here I think of an atomic power plant: it takes a great deal of expertise, time and energy to make fusion possible, but the result is an ever more powerful, energizing source that can light 100,000 homes. It isn’t cheap, it isn’t easy, it comes with risks, it comes with controversies, yet the results are unparalleled.

Day schools likewise require tremendous resources and demand sacrifices from parents and the community. But they are capable of generating a Jewish light that no other source can remotely equal. Judaism is a difficult religion, with a great deal to learn just to achieve a baseline of proficiency. It is easy to “feel” Jewish; it is just as easy to feel less Jewish. For the hard work of achieving competency, the confidence to take ownership over our heritage and translate it in ways that it continues to be resonant and meaningful for Jews today and in the future – for this, there is no substitute for day schools.

Dr. Marc Kramer is Executive Director at RAVSAK

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  1. Jon A. Levisohn says


    Many of us have become increasingly disenchanted with the ways that Jewish educators and policy makers talk about “Jewish identity” as the desirable outcome of Jewish education. You’ve put your finger on some of the reasons why.

    I recently re-read Leon Wieseltier’s piece on the importance of Hebrew (“Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry”). He’s right about some things, wrong about others, but the piece that caught my attention was the following:

    “There are two ways in which we can educate our children… One is conviction; the other is competence… [But] we cannot teach our children what to believe, or rather, we can try to teach them what to believe, but we can never be certain of the success of our effort… [However,] if we cannot make sure that we will be followed by believing Jews, we certainly can be sure that we will be followed by competent Jews. Indeed, competence leaves a Jew favorably disposed to conviction.”

    It is true, of course, that different institutions work differently in promoting a variety of competences. Certain summer camps, for example, do a better job in developing facility with tefillah than some day schools do. And we ought to think broadly about the competences of Judaism and Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood, including “cultural” competences alongside specifically religious or ritual ones.

    Still, your point is well taken: encouraging young people to identify as Jews is no worthy goal. They do so anyway. Cultivating the capacities to enact Jewish practices, to know their background and understand their meaning, to become fluent in those (literal or metaphorical) languages, those are Jewish educational goals worth investing in.

  2. Yehudah Mirsky says

    Well said, Marc and Jon. I couldn’t agree more about the dreadful state of American Jewish literacy. Even Orthodox Jews don’t feel the need to learn Hebrew.
    As for identity, a couple of years ago I wrote a brief essay, laying out just how new, and problematic, our use of the term “Jewish identity” is, indeed it itself is symptomatic of the very genuine problems its promotion seeks to solve. It seems to me a kind of linguistic ghost into which we drain the residual meanings of theology into a grab bag term for everything from Steinsaltz to Seinfeld. It’s a pale reflection of commitment and belief, but for now may be all we’ve got.
    “Identity” can help, however, if it involves thinking through, and affirming, foundational commitments and the fact of our choice. And choosing, as conscious and responsible beings, itself entails at least a trace, and perhaps more, of transcendence.
    But none of this will come to a hill of beans if Jews can’t read their own books, or write any of their own that others will want to read later on.
    You can read the above-mentioned essay here

  3. Gil Graff says

    Thank you for the interesting reflections and for your important work in strengthening Jewish day school education. I was surprised, however, to read your “midrash” on my recent post, attributing to my comments the proposition that Jewish education is exclusively about identity building. I appreciate the editor’s link to my piece “On Blintzes and Jewish Education” in which no reference is made to Jewish identity building (in fact, it is Jewish learning that is, several times, referenced), and the focus is on the SUBSTANCE of the blintz (Jewish education). I thank you for drawing attention to my observations, and leave it to readers to distinguish between those observations and the read that you impose on them. Thank you, again, for your advocacy of a setting of Jewish education (though, by no means the exclusive one, as Professor Levisohn reminds us) within which Jewish learning — of which literacy and cultural competence are surely a part — is nurtured. With wishes for a shanah tovah, Gil

  4. Sarah Levy says

    I think the real issue is in defining Jewish identity. The literature on the subject of Jewish identity is extensive with no real consensus as to how to either define or measure Jewish identity. Jewish literacy, likewise, suffers from a similar identity crisis in that scholars cannot agree on what constitutes a literate Jew or how to assess that literacy. Personally, I find that, however ambiguous the two terms are, Jewish identity and Jewish literacy and strongly connected as one cannot be an authentically identified Jew without some level of Jewish literacy upon which to base that identity.

  5. says

    As a head of school, I would like to expand beyond Dr. Kramer’s suggestion of Jewish literacy as a defining purpose to day school. I believe that Jewish day schools are the best existing institution for teaching the relevance of Jewish wisdom and tradition to secular life.

    I have worked in synagogues, camps, and Hillel. Each helps Jews in different ways. Synagogues do a great job ritualizing the cycle of seasons and life events; they are also extraordinary resources for community in times of tragedy or communal giving. Synagogues are not great at bringing Judaism to bear on STEM, Language Arts, Social Studies (apart from politics of Israel and some U.S. social issues). Camp does a great job living Judaism from the time one awakens ’til the time one goes to sleep; it does not get a chance to do that during the year when school and activities dominate. Hillel does a great job being a mentor to those who are engaged on their own or by Hillel; Hillel cannot reach every aspect of a college student’s learning, let alone social life.

    Day school, whether in a split-day or blended classroom, constantly reminds students that Judaism has relevance to their learning and their lives (if it doesn’t, it should. There is a Jewish language with grammar, history, and literature that parallels and influences our understanding of English (or other languages). Jewish values affect our ideas about learning, about teamwork, and about behavior. Jewish learning gives us insight into ways of reading, commenting on, and sharing text. In physical activities, play, music, painting, and other arts, Jewish life finds meaningful expression. Similarly to camp, the start of a day school’s morning; the food we eat; the respect we give to others, our world, and our studies; and the way we mark Shabbat and holidays are all experienced through a Jewish lens. Like synagogues, we address the cycle of seasons, the liturgy, and many significant local or national moments. To my mind, only a day school is positioned to do all of the above well.

    Why is day school important to me? Day school is important to me because it is the space in which Judaism has a voice in all areas of the life American Jews live.

  6. says

    Kol HaKavod to Dr. Kramer for so powerfully and cogently articulating the essential and unique value proposition for Jewish day schools.

  7. Jeremiah Unterman says

    Marc Kramer’s article is excellently expressed – as far as it goes. He is certainly correct on the need for Jewish literacy and the incomparable role that day schools play in meeting that need. Day schools, however, go, or should go, further. Literacy meets the goal of the cognitive and intellectual parts of the full Jewish personality, but to have true relevance it needs to result in Jewish behavior. Jewish literacy cannot be exiled to the theoretical. For example, to learn about tzedakah and gemilut hasadim and then to translate that education into action should be a process inherent in every day school. Then the “feeling” of Jewish identity will be based on a foundation of substance and not on trivialities.