Fixing American Jewish Education

By Aviv Maman

There exists a perpetual interplay between culture – the quintessential expression of being human – and education – the keeper of culture and society. Said differently, education is shaped by culture, yet at the same time shapes social mores and individuals. A new book written by three scholars, one a curriculum expert, one a philosopher, and one an historian (Barry Chazan, Ben Jacobs, Robert Chazan), Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), sets out to examine how Jewish education has been influenced and shaped by the cultural and social settings in which it has taken place. (In full disclosure one of the three authors is a professor of mine at The Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership).

The book offers a compelling survey of Jewish education from Judaism’s early history to contemporary America. The book starts by emphasizing the bible as the core text for Jewish education, which reflects the idea taught throughout the ages that “history reflects the will of God, and the vicissitudes of history are activated by human behaviors, positive or negative.” Such ideas were at the forefront of Jewish education for millennia as an outcome of the absolute control, granted by non-Jewish rulers, religious authority and communal leadership had over the Jewish community.

From modernity onwards, the book identifies new societal structures, and the diminished role of religion which effected the Jewish community as well. The fragmenting of the Jewish community, due in part to the rise of mobility, also led to the fragmentation of Jewish religious beliefs and attitudes “made possible by the dismantling of the earlier authoritarian Jewish communal structure.” These cumulative changes impacted Jewish education, not the least, by forcing Jewish education to prepare “Jews for their roles as productive citizens in a new egalitarian society.”

The book devotes a chapter to the transformation of Jewish education in America, noting for example, the significant impact public school education had on the integration of Jews into mainstream American society. The authors point to integration into broader society and an even further fragmentation of communal structure as prime causes leading to the voluntary nature of Jewish life in America. It is here where the authors identify the fractures in current Jewish education which leads them to their argument of what is to be done to fix Jewish education.

The authors implore the Jewish community to begin a conversation over what is the “clear overarching vision or mission” for American Jewish education. With all its accomplishments, and the authors grant that there are many, current American Jewish education lacks the answer to Jewish education for what? To use the authors terminology Jewish education today lacks “Paideia – that is, a theory and practice of education that asks and proposes answers to questions about how we should live our lives, what the role of reason is in life, how history is shaped, and what our core virtues and values are.”

To achieve this the Jewish community and educators are asked to view Judaism not as a subject to be studied in school, but rather something expansive encompassing “new technologies and platforms, new institutional and non-institutional settings, new pedagogies, and new kinds of learners.” Put into practice, the authors suggest focusing on educators, which is a term defined broadly in this context, to facilitate this change by reconsidering who teaches, how they teach, and what type of preparation they need. The book quotes the educator Parker Palmer saying that “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher and from the courage to help students weave a life for themselves.”

The emphasis on education and educators is seen from the diverse perspectives of three disciplines – history, philosophy and cultural studies. In this instance, it’s worth mentioning the fact that two of the authors are brothers and together with the third they created a PhD Program in Jewish education at New York University. The convergence of the three authors in this book brings together multiple disciplines to a common subject in a quite integrated fashion.

The book is no doubt inspirational and optimistic with its proposed vision, but it leaves two important problems unresolved. First, if culture and context are as important as the authors claim, then the lack of Paideia and investment in Jewish educators and Jewish education is a direct product of the current broken culture of American education. And while the change can come from within, as the authors propose, it is likely that the shift will only occur when Americans at large rethink their investment (not only financial) in education.

Second, for the vision to come to fruition someone needs to champion the idea. With weakened major institutions, uncooperative leadership, and communal fragmentation who will advocate for reformation? Who will champion these ideas? I can only assume the authors hope that the reader will, but for this to become a movement beyond an idea, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Aviv Maman provides technical system support to the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, having served as a program support associate for ROI Community in Jerusalem. He is a graduate student in the Masters for Jewish Professional Studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and an iFellow at the iCenter for Israel Education.