The Importance of the Jewish “Periphery”

This is a photo from the Alliance archives of a school in Southern Morocco. The students are flanked by two teachers – one European French teacher and one Observant Native Moroccan teacher – one from the center and one from the periphery; photo courtesy.

[This is the second article in our series on day school leadership from the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. In this series, alumni of our leadership institutes share their visions of effective day school leadership, reflecting on their aspirations for the field and describing paths toward those goals.]

By Adam Eilath

As a day school leader in San Francisco, I’ve begun to notice an interesting trend. In the past few years I’ve hosted tour groups of Jewish leaders from Israel and New York who come to the Bay Area to learn about the variety of unique expressions of Judaism in what is described as one of the most radical and unaffiliated communities in North America. Although these trips are not explicitly framed in this way, this is how I experience them. I believe these New York and Israeli visitors understand themselves as leaving the “Jewish centers” and visiting the “Jewish periphery.” Put differently, I perceive them as self-identifying with the Jewish norm and using their trip to understand the non-normative Jewish practices.

Today, the Jewish centers in New York and Israel are not only where the majority of Jews live but also where values, ideology, culture, and literature are produced. The periphery usually consumes and when the periphery doesn’t actively consume, the Jewish centers are concerned with Jewish continuity. Geography matters. It is significant that the vast majority of professional development and training programs for Jewish educators take place in Jerusalem or New York. These programs focus heavily on Hebrew instruction, Israel, and text study, topics that are perceived to be less important to secondary places like the Bay Area. Educators become ambassadors of these “centralized” values in the periphery.

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Hebrew, Israel, or Jewish-text study are not important. I am however, suggesting a change in our approach. We need to shift responsibility away from these centers and empower local communities to become producers and owners of their own futures.

One hundred years ago, the center of the Jewish educational world was not in Israel or New York but rather in Paris. For almost 100 years in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle was the largest Jewish educational organization in the world and, perhaps, in all of Jewish history. The school network consisted of hundreds of schools with hundreds of thousands of students across North Africa and the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Remarkably these schools were unified under a common curriculum and a single-track, teacher-training program in Paris. Yet, in all of my years in Jewish education and educational leadership, I have never heard anyone speak about what we might learn from the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Yet, the experience of the Alliance in these countries is crucial because it begins to address the dearth of knowledge and awareness about the experience of Jews in North Africa and the Middle East. And, it can provide us with crucial insights into how we might address the pressing issues relating to Jewish education today.

The Alliance was founded during a very different time in Jewish history. When the priorities were the political empowerment of Jews to emancipate themselves in each and every country through the vehicle of education, French Jews wanted to replicate their success in achieving their emancipation by teaching all Jews the French language, science, and the humanities.

Yet, as is frequently the case between the center and the periphery, the communities that the Alliance worked with did not always subscribe to the values of institution and pushed back against losing their individuality and uniqueness. The Alliance is in no way a model institution that we should replicate. We have an incredible amount of documentation available to us through the Alliance archives that houses the thousands of letters that teachers and principals wrote to the central organization describing the tensions between the values of the organization and the local communities they worked with. Thus, it is an opportunity to learn important lessons about how we educate in communities outside the center. Two areas of tension that school directors wrote about that are highly relevant for the current state of Jewish day school education can serve as illustrations.

Language Instruction

Alliance directors were firmly committed to French language instruction in all of their schools. However the local communities were not overly interested in teaching students French. In one of his letters to Alliance, A. Beneviste, a school director in Istanbul, wrote:

But the unfortunate truth is that we cannot ignore the importance of two significant factors. The first is that we are Ottoman Jews and must therefore satisfy the parents of our students by teaching Hebrew as religion and a language … Naturally, French remains the very core of our teaching, eminently suited to the diffusion of liberal values, that we can raise our children up from the state of dejection imposed by centuries of oppression and moral degeneration.”

The experience of these directors and the tension around language instruction should be comforting to contemporary educators who struggle to convince their communities about the relevancy and importance of Hebrew language instruction. In the case of Beneviste, he acknowledged the fact that the school must compromise and teach Hebrew to satisfy the parents of the community and yet he wanted to strike a balance with what he believed was the more important language – French. In letters of other school directors, they describe negotiating with local rabbis and parents over the number of hours that each language would be taught. The Alliance did not have any special solution to the problem of language instruction, but we can learn a great deal about the way they took the communities’ needs and values into account.

Religious Purposefulness and Spirituality

We often think about the struggle to infuse meaning into religious practice as a modern experience. In the Jewish day school system, I frequently hear educators lament the challenge of making tefillah meaningful. In many schools, I hear about the challenge of making Jewish text study relevant and meaningful in the lived experiences of students. It is comforting to know that this challenge is one that Alliance educators encountered as well. Isaac Navon, a school director in Constantine, Algeria, writes:

There is nothing more saddening than to see the manner in which a religion of idealism and life giving spirit has been transformed here. It has been frozen into an inert mass of gestures and external expressions that answer none of the needs of the soul … In Constantine, nothing of what constitutes the very essence of Judaism remains. By that I mean the open discussion and invitation to understanding of those things considered most sacred. For it is in this that Judaism is superior to all dogmatic and authoritarian beliefs.”

Jewish diversity is incredible. For thousands of years, Jewish communities across the world produced their own unique liturgies, styles of dress, cuisines, ideologies, and cultures. We are moving toward a relatively uniform Jewish identity that you can either opt in or out of. And, most of us look toward the great cultural and religious centers and stand by as consumers. For us to solve the problem of empowering local Jewish communities toward deeper Jewish experiences, we need to allow them to become independent producers of Jewish culture. Differences in Jewish practice should be celebrated and encouraged.

When I read about the work of Alliance educators, I take comfort in the fact that the current challenges facing Jewish educators are not new. I feel empowered to learn from our Jewish past and shift the relationship between centers and peripheries to a more dialogical relationship between places where there are more Jews and places where there are fewer Jews. And, when I think about the Bay Area as a tourist attraction for Jewish leaders, I want to make the argument for us to look to the Bay Area not as the periphery but as a new center. Not as a producer of content or teacher training but as a center of inspiration for how to innovate Jewishly and how to foster a community filled with producers of Jewish content. Geography matters. We need to empower places like Montréal, Mexico City, Seattle, and Minneapolis to convene Jewish conferences, training programs, and professional-development opportunities for educators, for this so called periphery must play an equal role in producing the values, content, and people that will sustain our Jewish future for next generations.

Adam Eilath is the director of strategic initiatives and dean of Jewish studies at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. He is a leading thinker in the world of Sephardic and Mizrahi education and is at the forefront of thinking about the ways in which Jewish day schools can become sustainable, community-based institutions.