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Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education

reviewed by Jeffrey S. Winter

coverTitle: Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education
Author(s): Barry Chazan, Robert Chazan, & Benjamin M. Jacobs
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 3319515853, Pages: 159, Year: 2017
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The authors of this somewhat brief but richly informative volume draw on many years of deep experience and analytical expertise to present a unique and informed discussion and investigation of ideas, themes, developments, and conceptual understandings that shaped the lived beliefs of the world of Jewish education and Jewish civilization.

The book contains five major sections and an epilogue, beginning with pre-modern and emergent developments and concluding with an exploration of 20th century American cultural expression, countercultural perspectives, and reflections on implications and meaning. Early chapters explore various layers of Jewish education presented through an historical framework, from pre-modern times through the present, along with an analysis of social and political structures as they unfolded through various eras and major historical events. Major early themes of Jewish education include understanding the demands of covenant and other significant issues raised in the narratives of Hebrew scriptures and early sacred texts. The authors explain that as the Jewish world found itself subject to migrations and vastly changing times, the need for direction during new circumstances of semi-autonomy compelled rabbis and scholars to enforce educational norms and expectations in order to assure Jewish literacy and belief systems.

The authors analyze the “crisis of modernity” as it emerged in the late 18th century, when semi-autonomous Jewish self-governance and the coercive power of the community began to deteriorate.  Dramatic changes occurred as leaders introduced ideas such as separation of church and state which allowed for greater movement and rights. In their discussion about French citizenship, for example, the authors describe how Jews found it necessary to show themselves to be loyal Frenchmen, which resulted in new expectations about education. They explain, “No longer could Jewish schooling focus almost exclusively on religious teachings; rather, secular education became a central aspect of educating the Jewish young.” (p. 39)

Later themes illustrate examples which had a direct impact on post-enlightenment Jewish life, for example, how legal and social changes permitted Jewish communities to gain rights, but simultaneously pushed them into a world of new options and diminished rabbinical control. As core beliefs of pre-modern theology were upended, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, Jewish education followed new narratives leading to modern and later post-modern dispositions toward thought and practice.

As Jewish communal expectations and organizations changed or diminished, a variety of responses led to tensions and debate within the Jewish world as to how to assert one’s Jewish identity, observe ritual, and express nationalistic longings. The authors discuss how modern Zionism, among other issues, was an important factor in redefining and responding to changing notions of citizenship, identity, and freedom. As Jews embraced full participation in Western society, they began to radically alter their beliefs regarding absolute responsibility for observing mitzvoth (religious precepts), the evolving role of science and theology, supernaturalism, divine election, and divine intervention in the modern world. As challenges to these assumptions grew, so did skepticism and scholarly tensions. Disputes between traditionalists and reformers “was protracted and intense, with charges and countercharges flying throughout Europe” (p. 51).

The second half of the book highlights America as offering a unique and powerful context for transformation, evolution, and opportunity. The open culture of America encouraged ethnic identification, and Jewish educational structures were developed to guide American Jews as they navigated the many choices available to them. Synagogues, educational institutions, and communal organizations emerged as central sites for Jewish social and religious functions. With this emergence of Jewish expression came challenges related to the lack of singular leadership and communal fragmentation which were linked to increasing rates of Jews who opted out of Jewish life.

Some immigrants maintained the desire to reestablish the Old World formats of traditional learning by establishing “yeshivot” or other institutions meant to recreate the learning institutions of the Orthodox world, while the vast majority of others attended public schools for full-time education and supplementary schools for their Jewish education. The relatively small percentage of traditional and Orthodox Jews who established day schools remained a stark contrast to the large Jewish mainstream.

In spite of ambiguous or even negative feelings toward supplementary educational programs, parents looked to afternoon and Sunday school programs for their children to learn Hebrew, prayer, holidays, and other mainstays of the curriculum along with some basic level of Jewish literacy and knowledge. The chapter on American Jewish schooling outlines the challenges and opportunities faced by (and facing) these part-time programs as well as day schools as they attempt to meet the needs of postmodern American Jewish life.

The book concludes with a summary of “countercultural” approaches to Jewish education that occur outside traditional classroom venues, such as summer camps, youth groups, museums, Israel tours, etc. As Jewish community structures become increasingly diverse and heterogeneous, with weaker allegiances to movements, synagogues, or Judaism itself, new models will most certainly continue to emerge. The authors discuss the piecemeal evolution of non-school options which act in a supplemental capacity for some, but for others are more curricular than extra-curricular. An ever-shifting and growing “democratization of Jewish life” (p. 131) reflects new realities, priorities, and choices born of rapidly changing needs and capacities which transcend geography and time constraints. There are now a diverse set of options for schooling which can create similar learning opportunities for the distant, small Jewish communities of rural America and those who reside in large metropolitan areas.

One area of Jewish education that was largely absent from this volume and may have added a valuable dimension related to successful contemporary approaches to Jewish learning would be exploring the contemporary growth and success of Orthodox organizations and programming. While these populations remain smaller relative to the overall Jewish community, the Orthodox world appears to be in a dynamic growth cycle and utilizes a number of innovative models which might be best understood as countercultural. While this topic was largely beyond the scope of this book, it would certainly be worth including in future writings and would add an interesting and helpful perspective.

The book concludes by offering suggested essential themes as well as questions about the meaning of Jewish identification and the transmission of Jewish life and a Jewish worldview. Among the many strengths of this book are the rich descriptions of how Jewish communities adapted to meet the rapidly changing needs of children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation, only to find that from each set of choices emerged fresh challenges. The authors suggest that the core mission of Jewish education should be to help students search, engage, and interact in order to form meaningful responses to life’s greatest questions.

This highly engaging, thought-provoking, and compact text presents a valuable framework for understanding the contexts and dynamics of how Jewish education evolved to the present day, and offers essential considerations as new models emerge and take root.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22417, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 11:50:57 PM

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