The New Purpose of Jewish Education

By Bill Robinson, PhD

For decades, many have looked to Jewish education to prevent intermarriage and assimilation. This perspective now seems out of sync. So then, what are the new purpose and desired outcomes of Jewish education?

Our current issue of Gleanings, a publication of the Leadership Commons of the Davidson School at JTS, explores this question creatively and critically with articles written by Dr. Barry Holtz, Dr. Susan Kardos, Dr. Chip Edelsberg, and Dr. David Bryfman, along with Dr. Jeff Kress, Dr. Jon Levisohn, Charlotte Abramson, Rabbi Sheryl Katzman, Abi Dauber Sterne, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow, and me.

To give you a taste …

Holtz’s article kicks off the issue by focusing our attention on the pivotal moment in 1990 when Mort Mandel’s Commission on Jewish Education in North America released “A Time to Act” and philanthropic funding “came into Jewish education in amounts that were unimaginable before. In a talk at JTS in the mid-1990s, Professor Seymour Fox, the intellectual architect of the Mandel Commission, told education students that they were living in the ‘golden age of Jewish education’ in America.”

Today, more and more educational leaders (lay and professional) are challenging what came to be the dominant view among funders that the purpose of Jewish education was to insure the “continuity” of the Jewish people.

Offering a more contemporary perspective, Bryfman asserts that Jewish education must be focused on making a positive difference in the lives of Jews today. This is foundationally different to Jewish education that has traditionally seen its purpose as making people more Jewish, allowing Jewish institutions to prosper, and making the Jewish community stronger. Instead, the significant outcome that Jewish education and engagement should be tackling is that Jewish educational experiences enable people to thrive as human beings in the world today – as human beings, in their various communities, and in the world at large.

Edelsberg extends this understanding by finding the relevance of Jewish education today in providing “inventive, easily accessible ways for individuals to mine Judaism’s rich treasury of wisdom for purposes of making meaning and living authentically in a complex, dynamic society.” Despite the use of the word “individuals” here, he sees learning not as an individual pursuit, but as a relationship among Jews. “Learning for its own sake in the 21st century, given the pervasive presence of networks, will ineluctably become learning done in relationships learners have with others.”

Kardos, bringing forth John Dewey, reminds us that the classroom is a place of life, not just a preparation for life.

Thus, when students are in a learning environment that both shapes and tests beliefs and commitments, these challenges are real-world opportunities for growth, for strengthening some beliefs, and for abandoning others. In the best education settings, learners wrestle with beliefs and commitments (as they do with content and skills) in a deliberate environment characterized by rigor, respect, and love. If we do our jobs correctly, they will wrestle for the entirety of their lives.

This issue of Gleanings also reprises Levisohn and Kress’s great (fake) debate, which was first presented at the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) Conference in June 2016: Should Jewish education focus on general social-emotional outcomes or subject-specific knowledge and skills?

As Kress (not per say his personal view, rather in the context of the debate) offers:
We want students to find relevance and meaning in this tradition as it plays out outside of the classroom. We want them to make Jewish friends and find a sense of belonging in Judaism; to experience Jewish pride; to see how Judaism can inform important decisions, deepen moments of emotion, and provide support during challenging times; to feel a sense of responsibility for others and tikkun olam; to come to see themselves within the flow of Jewish history; and to be prepared for “citizenship” within the current and emerging Jewish community.

As Levisohn (also in the debate context) responds:
Well, that all sounds lovely. But I believe that domain-neutral outcomes – the kind of “Jewish developmental outcomes” that you are talking about – are bogus, artificial constructions. We invent them and then we turn around and we believe in them as if they’re really real. … But there’s no justification for turning the idea of “strengthening Jewish identity” into a goal of Jewish education. There is no “Jewish identity” muscle in the body, which then controls our candle-lighting and Federation-giving. And since there’s no “Jewish identity” muscle, we shouldn’t expect that Jewish education is going to strengthen it.

Dauber-Sterne offers a stimulating analogy that illustrates the integral relationship of gaining knowledge and achieving social-emotional outcomes:
To make a comparison to other areas of our lives where knowledge plays a critical role, let’s think about our relationships with other people and, in particular, with falling in love. When we first meet another person – while the relationship is still superficial – we have a general sense of liking the other and wanting to spend time with him/her. But, the only way for that relationship to become truly sustainable and long-term is to really develop a deep knowledge of the other.

Similarly, Orlow recalls “a classic debate from my time in yeshiva: What makes tea sweet? Is it the sugar or the stirring? In the context of this discussion, we can ask the same question: What is more important? Is it the Jewish content (the sugar) or the process of developing Jewish identity (the stirring)?” The answer is to be found in the dialogue that happens in Jewish education between text and life. Quoting the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, Orlow affirms that today “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life … back to the Torah.”

Like falling in love, I suggest that Jewish learning demands not only a dialogue between text and (individual) experience, but also between learners, where they come to deeply understand and value one another in the process of learning together. Looking at it this way, the goal of learning is simply understood as (more and better) learning, because in Jewish learning we experience what it means to thrive Jewishly as humans. This is true, in my view, of experiential education. We still hope for continuity, but the best way to achieve this is to trust in the immediacy of the educational process.

Katzman and Abramson capture this perfectly in their question: “How do we intentionally foster students’ desire to contribute competently to the ongoing Jewish conversation, long after they leave our classrooms?” They assert that we do this by having the educational experience be a model of citizenry and ongoing Jewish conversation. We then have faith that this experience will both inspire and provide students with the skills to continue choosing, as adults, Jewish ways of thriving in the world.

Returning again to John Dewey, we find this point argued even more poignantly, “Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.”

I encourage you to dig deeper into this conversation, review the complete articles throughout this entire issue of Gleanings, and share your feedback with us at

Dr. Bill Robinsion is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.