My experience as a PhD student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University is exceeding my expectations in every possible way. The interdisciplinary nature of the concentration has been especially valuable because I have been able to take classes in, and learn methodologies from, the fields of sociology and education policy. As a result, I examine American Jews and their experiences with Jewish education within the broader social context in which they live. Through my interdisciplinary training and collaborations with scholars outside of Jewish studies, I hope to advance the theoretical and methodological rigor in the Jewish education field.
A particularly helpful part of my studies at Stanford is my fellowship from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (part of the GSE Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA)). The IES Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Program in Quantitative Education Policy Analysis provides doctoral students with advanced training in state-of-the-art quantitative methods of discipline-based education policy analysis. Through this program, I am participating in an interdisciplinary core curriculum consisting of coursework in education policy, discipline-based theory, and applied quantitative research methods. I hope to significantly improve the way scholars, funders and practitioners of Jewish education think about evaluating the effectiveness of their work. There are ample opportunities to conduct more rigorous research and evaluation studies by improving our standards for what counts as rigorous research, and by adapting quasi-experimental methods used by scholars of public education.
As I work towards completing my Certificate in Quantitative Research Methods through the CEPA IES Program, I am exploring the interaction of religion and education in three populations: families, adolescents, and emerging adults. I think it is quite misleading to study American Jews separately from their social environments. Thus, in most of my research, I examine Jews in the non-Jewish contexts they inhabit to illuminate how social contexts and sociological phenomenon influence their lives and choices about Jewish engagement and Jewish education.
Currently, I am looking at how being religious affects how adolescents and college students from all religious denominations in the U.S. perform in school. Central to this work is my dissertation entitled, The Long Arm of God: How Religiousness Shapes Educational Outcomes. Based on secondary analyses of longitudinal surveys and interviews from the National Study of Youth and Religion, I find that more religious students consistently report better grades than their less religious peers, even after accounting for social class, gender, and race. I find that religious adolescents are more conscientious and agreeable, traits that are linked with academic success. Being religious helps adolescents in middle/high school because they are rewarded for being obedient, respectful, disciplined, and cooperative. Next, I will examine whether the traits that help religious adolescents in high school continue to help them in college.
As I progress in my studies, I look to further hone my interests, build relationships with colleagues, and continue exploring new areas of research. I am particularly excited about my collaboration with five Stanford scholars, including Abiya Ahmed, to conduct longitudinal surveys and interviews with 150 Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and Christian college freshmen over their first year. Our goal is to understand how they form social networks and construct their identities from the time they set foot on campus. We focus on how identity construction occurs through social networks by building on earlier research I did with Dr. Ari Kelman and my colleagues to examine how American Jews construct, negotiate, and reaffirm their Jewishness through ongoing social interactions. This research serves as a counter narrative to literature that conceives of Jewish identity as something that inheres in individuals, and can be cultivated, strengthened, or enhanced. Two papers resulting from this study are published in Contemporary Jewry and Jewish Social Studies.
I also want to note two key opportunities that would help strengthen the Jewish education field. First, we would greatly benefit from stronger researcher-practitioner partnerships (although this is not a problem solely in the Jewish education field). It is a shame that scholars conduct research that never reaches the hands of our educators and decision-makers. And, it is a shame that Jewish organizations don’t have more opportunities to collaborate with researchers to build their knowledge and to improve their work. With help from The AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and The Crown Family, among others, CASJE (whose Board I recently joined) is bringing together researchers, practitioners, and philanthropic leaders to strengthen our field.
Second, we need to do a better job designing studies to identify strategies and practices that predict learning and engagement. This means better evidence using regression techniques, which allow for deeper analysis and understanding of associations between variables. Our field needs to raise the standards for what counts as quality research and to incorporate decades of knowledge from the general education field. Of course, none of this can happen without stellar graduate programs to train future scholars.
This is Rebecca. She’s Jewish.” This was often how Rebecca’s high-school friend introduced her to new people in their small New York town where few Jews lived. In these brief encounters with others, Rebecca’s Jewishness made her different. It made her uncomfortable. Self-conscious. Teens usually want to blend in, not stand out. Now, in her twenties, Rebecca remembers those moments of difference when she recounts her life story. It was in those moments that Rebecca felt most keenly aware of her Jewish identity.
Rebecca’s story was one of 57 life narratives I collected as part of a research project in Stanford’s Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies. We wanted to understand how Jewishness fit into people’s overall life stories without asking them explicitly about their involvement in Jewish organizations, how many Jewish friends they had, or how often they lit Shabbat candles. When we started the project, I was a new doctoral student in the Education & Jewish Studies concentration at Stanford University. I realized fairly quickly that the concept of identity was far more complicated than I understood. After all, cultivating, strengthening, or enhancing “Jewish identity” was the goal of countless Jewish organizations and it had become part of my own lexicon. As I thought about other aspects of my life and realized that I might say I have a “White” identity or a “female” identity or a “Jewish” identity, but that the relationship between those social categories and myself was not at all stable.
Three years and multiple sociology classes later, I finally understand why it’s problematic to talk about strengthening Jewish identity. Jewishness, like ‘race’ and ethnicity are not stable and static qualities that inhere in individuals. Instead, ‘race’ and ethnicity are something constructed, negotiated, and reaffirmed through ongoing social interactions. I stopped thinking of ‘racial’/ethnic group membership as based on a relatively fixed ‘presumed identity’ and began seeing it as a dynamic and complex social phenomenon that ‘can change according to variations in the situations and audiences encountered’ (Nagel, 1994: 154).
I realize that this explanation sounds very academic, so let me illustrate with another story from the aforementioned research project. The key point I want to highlight is how the salience of our Jewishness changes based on our social situations and the audiences we encounter. Meet Dalia, who grew up in a highly Jewish area of New York and attended Jewish day school. She never felt particularly Jewish because many people around her were more observant or more engaged in Jewish organizations. In her twenties, Dalia moved to Texas and became a minority. Her curly dark hair was no longer the norm, but rather a feature that distinguished her from other people. But this difference was not an objective fact— her difference only became apparent when she came into contact with other people. And it was not just her appearance. Dalia’s Texan friends referred to her as the “rabbi,” a stark contrast to how Dalia perceived herself in New York where many people were more knowledgeable than her. Dalia felt obliged to educate others about Judaism and began hosting Shabbat dinners. By moving to Texas, Dalia’s sense of Jewishness moved into the foreground of her life, not the background. Her level of observance or belief may not have changed between living in New York and Texas, but her sense of Jewishness certainly became more salient. Being Jewish was not a stable and static quality that Dalia possessed, but was something she became more aware of because of her social situation.
If Jewish identity is socially dependent, what are implications for the Jewish education field? For social scientists and evaluators, one question is how to measure Jewish identity given its social nature. Surveys need to take into account the social and contextual factors that affect how Jews see themselves, and should ideally measure how one’s sense of Jewishness fluctuates over time. Meanwhile, practitioners may need to re-imagine how they affect and interact with program participants. Perhaps cultivating or strengthening levels of Jewish engagement (which relates to behaviors and participation in activities) may be more productive. Funders, who drive and support much of the work going on in the Jewish education field, would also have to adapt their mindsets and strategies to reflect the social—not fixed and inherent— nature of identity. And we should all remember that Jews are not vessels to be filled up with Judaism. Rather, they are dynamic beings who are shaped by the people they encounter, the places they live, and the myriad social situations they find themselves in everyday.
Nagel, J. (1994) ‘Constructing Ethnicity’, Social Problems 41(1): 152–76.
“Do you think the whining and complaining was worth it?”
I asked this question while meeting with a set of parents in the weeks following their child’s bar mitzvah. I had just gotten comfortable on their green living room couch when the conversation got tense. The mother described how hard it was to get her son to practice his Torah portion and prayers, and she mentioned the many arguments they had over the past few months.
So, I asked. And what ensued was a heated discussion about family values.
Even their poodle’s ears shot up as the voices got more confrontational. I decided I should stop taking notes and just let the recorder do its job. Basically, the father argued that since their family does not live in Israel or go to synagogue regularly, there is no practical reason for his child to learn Hebrew. The mother then recounted her upbringing in a traditional Jewish household and emphasized the importance of carrying on the Jewish tradition. Their respective opinions are important, but I’m going to put them aside for the moment and focus on the fact that a heated argument even took place.
Over Hebrew school.
In the midst of my panic that my interview was causing marital problems in this seemingly happy couple (I had not accounted for this in my IRB), I realized how little we think about parents as separate people rather than as units.
A typical question in Jewish educational research asks about parents’ motivations for sending their children to religious school, or about their commitments in Jewish life, more generally, in order to understand how the family makes decisions about Jewish education. Researchers and practitionersin both Jewish and secular education tend to lump parents into a single unit and assume they share the same attitudes. In almost all cases, researchers interview one parent (usually the mother) and then make general statements about how parents think, feel or act. Not only does this privilege the mothers’ perspective, but it doesn’t account for variations in parental opinions within the family unit.
In the case of this couple, the meaning of the bar mitzvah was not at all clear. Instead of hearing a single, unified story, I witnessed a heated exchange that illuminated just how differently the parents felt about the bar mitzvah and their commitment to Hebrew school. If the mother had it her way, her son would keep attending. If the father had it his way, their son probably wouldn’t have attended in the first place. So what does this say about the parents’ attitudes towards Jewish education?
It tells us, importantly, that they are different. It tells us that, although they make decisions about their child’s (and family’s) Jewish commitments all the time, that those decisions are not necessarily the result of a shared commitment, nor are they always the result of a rational, well-articulated, discussion. Watching this couple, I realized how emotionally intense it is for parents to make decisions about Jewish education, and that we, as researchers, should be careful to not overlook the complex processes that lead to such decisions.
When I ask parents why they send their children to religious school (i.e., Hebrew or Sunday school), they talk about wanting their child to learn the history of the Jewish people and to feel part of the Jewish community. None of them have spoken about wanting their children to develop a relationship with God or to become religious. Yet, their children spend much of their time in religious school reading prayers, learning religious laws, and talking about God. Herein lies a palpable tension about the role of the Jewish religious school: should it view Judaism as an ethnicity and nurture children’s sense of connection to the Jewish people? Or should it aim to make children religious?
These contradictory goals are not new. They stretch back into the history of American Jewish education, almost to its very origins in the mid-19th century when, in response to Sunday laws, missionaries, and the emergence of American public education, American Jewish leaders started to consider how best to educate Jewish children in order to protect them from American Protestants. Should Jewish education come in the form of separate Jewish schools or should children attend public schools and receive Jewish education in supplementary settings?
Mostly, American Jews opted for the latter. Jewish immigrants saw public education as a welcome avenue to Americanization, acculturation and good citizenship. Public schools promised American Jews true equality, not mere toleration, in the law and social attitudes. Importantly, this equality rested on the condition that the schools be nonsectarian. But, American public schools retained and practiced a kind of non-denominational Protestantism, and students regularly had daily bible readings and prayer recitations. American public schools were not nonsectarian — they were nondenominational Protestant. By embracing public schooling, American Jews also embraced many Protestant values and attitudes— not least of which was the framing of Judaism as a faith in the Protestant mold.
The Protestant influence infused Jewish supplementary schools, too. In the mid-19th century, the Protestant Sunday school came about in response to high crime rates. In response, religious groups sought to bring self-discipline grounded in faith by enforcing laws that restricted public activities on Sundays. Jews of the period thought it would be best to keep Jewish children off the streets as well, which led to the formation of the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS). The founders of HSS saw it as a mechanism to counter missionaries and religious apathy. The HSS adapted its style and structure from Christian Sunday schools. Lacking materials of its own, HSS used Christian Sunday school catechisms, although they deleted “objectionable phrases” like ‘Christ’ and ‘Saviour’. HSS had a bibliocentric curriculum (e.g., students were tested on Exodus, Ruth and Esther) that reflected the Protestant rhetoric that filled the press at the time. Furthermore, HSS emphasized domestic piety, the hearts longing for and devotion to God, and God’s loving kindness— ideas that are staples of Jewish private meditation, prayers and mystical traditions. By emphasizing the more individualistic elements of Jewish devotion, HSS tailored Judaism to fit the common American belief that religion was a matter of personal conscience, in the Protestant mold.
Although American Jews ardently fought against Protestantism, they could not fully escape its influence. Quite the opposite: American Jews embraced and adopted elements of Protestantism as part of the process of becoming “Americanized.” Learning to be Jewish in America went hand in hand with learning to be Jewish in a Protestant mold, which meant that Jews began to view themselves as members of a primarily religious community. The tension between these distinct and often competing notions of religion continues to influence the landscape of Jewish education, as well as general debates about what it means to be Jewish in America.
Ashton, D. (2003). “The Lessons of the Hebrew Sunday School.” in American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader Edited by Pam Nadell. New York, N.Y.: NYU Press
Cohen, N. (1984). Chapter 2. Encounter with Emancipation. Philadelphia: JPS.
Klapper, M. R. (2005). Jewish girls coming of age in America, 1860-1920. NYU Press.
Richman, J. (1900). “The Jewish Sunday School Movement in the United States.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, 12(4), 563-601.
Sussman, L. J. (1986). “Isaac Leeser and the Protestantization of American Judaism.” American Jewish Archives 38, 1-21