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  • What Do We Know About Jewish Education? Not as Much as You May Think.

    Posted on February 22nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    The form is there, the facts are fuzzier

    The form is there, the facts are fuzzier

    We all believe in the importance of Jewish education, but creating and maintaining  experiencew, opportunities and institutions of Jewish learning is not always simple.  This week, Rabbi Scott Aaron, Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh and a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy of Education at Loyola University Chicago, raises some questions about how much we know about Jewish learning and the reasons we need to know more.Rabbi Scott Aaron

    Rabbi Scott Aaron

    “Given the importance of religious and ethnic identity and the specific concerns of the Jewish community, it is surprising how little systematic information exists about Jewish college students.  Much of the extant data were gathered in the 1960s and early 1970s and lack contemporary relevance.”[i]

    I was surprised by this point when I first came across it a few years ago as I began my doctoral studies in Jewish education and identity development.  The Jewish community really had so little data on such an important segment of the community?  My own area of interest is the 18-26 year olds, but as I expanded my research to look at data on Jewish education overall, I saw that there has indeed been a paucity of identity information before the 1990s.  Much of what has been generated since then has been focused on pediatric education and Jewish identity.  Moreover, much of what had been done involving Jewish identity (adult or child) was evaluating it from the perspective of sociology rather than education.  Simply put, and with apologies to all of my sociologist colleagues for the generalization, what little was out there was mostly measuring what Jewish adults did or did not do, not what they did or did not know or believe.  This has always perplexed me given the broad spectrum of credible data across the various fields of secular education that I was encountering as part of my studies.  How could the most educated ethnic identity group in American history make such massive investments in Jewish education and identity development with so little reliable data to show for it?  However, some recent perspectives from academics in the community have gone a long way to explaining this discrepancy for me.  It all seems to boil down to a need for reflection.

    1. Academic Reflection – As Dr. Adam Gamoran pointed out in a recent webinar through the Berman Jewish Policy Archives of New York University (http://www.bjpa.org), the Jewish community is spending a lot of time seeking a cure for our communal education problems without actually doing valid measurement and diagnosis of them.  Many of our studies and evaluations of Jewish identity are not truly objective experiments that result in clear and unbiased data and extrapolation.  The problems related to this flaw are often rooted in the tension between deeply held personal and communal assumptions and truly objective evaluation, not to mention a sense of communal crisis needing to be assuaged.  (Dr. Gamoran’s critique of the recent much-heralded Birthright Israel study – http://ir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/23380 – is worth hearing if you want to listen to the webinar yourself.
    2. Theoretical Reflection – In a very interesting recent article in the Journal of Jewish Education[ii], four authors presented important ideas to elaborate on this problem.  Two in particular struck me as powerful.  First, Dr. Stuart Charme of Rutgers University observed that educational philosophies in the Jewish community could be metaphorically understood as a Drink-Your-Milk model.

    Jewish identity is likened to the human body and Jewish education is likened to milk.  What one consumes strengthens one’s being.  The more “nutrition” i.e. Jewish education, the stronger the body i.e. Jewish self.  The stronger the body, the less susceptible it is to threats like assimilation and intermarriage in adulthood.  Stronger = more Jewish, weaker = less Jewish.

    Charme points out that the community has tended to structure Jewish education on this binary philosophical model and conducted evaluative outcomes in this vein.  The result, he points out, is that “[t]o a great extent, research on Jewish identity has been a byproduct of the communal concerns of a minority living in a pluralistic, open society where ethnic survival as a coherent group is not guaranteed”.

    The problem with this byproduct is twofold.  First, as Charme points out, it sets Jewish identity up as a goal, as something that can be reached and once achieved is assumed to be stable.  Second, it does not easily allow for alternate measurements of success.  To extend Charme’s metaphor, it negates the nutritional value of skim, 1%, Lactaid or soy milk, not to mention cheese, yogurt, etc, i.e. a multiplicity of dynamic contemporary Jewish experiences that may not easily fit in to a normative or traditional model of Jewish education.

    3. Personal Reflection – Additionally, in the same article, Dr. Tali Hyman of HUC-JIR LA also makes the very cogent observation that almost all those who have studied Jewish education and identity in the last two decades are themselves Jews.  Dr. Hyman correctly asks how well Jewish researchers of Jews filter out their own biases based on their own personal Jewish life experience and identity.  Are they self-reflective enough to see any personal bias?  Are we truly getting reliably objective data from our research efforts?

    So where does this leave us?  Now we know why we do not have enough reliable data, but knowing highlights for the need for that information.  My own confusion at the lack of significant and reliable data that can be built upon to develop testable new theories for Jewish education and identity is explainable by the ideas offered by these three commentators.  Their own reflective observations can assist all of us in better serving our community as both practitioners and students of education.  I share with them the hope and belief that as the community continues its recent efforts to engage in extensive academic research in to Jewish education and identity, it will be able to rely on those findings to develop new and meaningful paradigms of Jewish education.


    [i] Sales, A., & Saxe, L. (2006). Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus. Waltham: Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

    [ii] Charme, S., Horowitz, B., Kress, J., & Hyman, T. (2008). Jewish Identities in Action: An Exploration of Models, Metaphors, and Methods . Journal of Jewish Education , 78 (2), 115-143.

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