This post is written by Jonah Hassenfeld, a second year student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies
Perhaps more than anything else, the bounty of reactions to the recent Pew study demonstrates how much the goals of American Jewish education have changed since the beginning of the 20th century.
But not in the ways that you’d think.
Since the early 1990’s, conversations in the American Jewish community have become so wrapped up in the crisis of continuity that it is hard to remember that Jewish educators ever aimed at anything beyond ensuring that the next generation will affiliate with the Jewish community. To be sure, Jewish educators of an earlier generation built Jewish institutions that would ensure the transmission of Jewish knowledge and culture. But perhaps more than that, they believed that Jewish education was going to teach American Jews to become American.
As Jonathan Krasner describes in his book, The Benderly Boys, during the first decades of the 20th century, Samson Benderly, one of the architects of American Jewish education, tried to create a system of supplementary Jewish schools independent of synagogues that served geographically defined communities. In other words, Benderly based his system of Jewish education on the model of the American public school system. He was a strong opponent of Jewish day schools, arguing that in the past, the Jews “had paid dearly for their isolation” (27). And he was not alone.
A generation later, Ben Rosen, believed that Americanization ought to be an explicit outcome of Jewish education. He wrote that Jewish schools needed to teach students to “align… with the progressive and liberal forces which are struggling to preserve the democratic system in American and elsewhere” (345). Rosen observed with pride that “Jewish schools have very consciously and systematically introduced love of our country and its ideals into their program of studies” (345). A 1959 survey conducted by the American Association for Jewish Education, found that more than half of the 1,561 Jewish education leaders surveyed identified “freedom from feelings of inferiority in relationship to non-Jews” as an indispensable goal of Jewish schools. In contrast, only 376 identified Sabbath observance as an indispensable goal.
Lamenting the failures of Jewish education has become something of a popular hobby, and the results of the Pew Report seem only to confirm the popularity of that pasttime. But looking back over the course of the 20th century, we must at least consider the possibility that American Jewish education has succeeded spectacularly. Today, Jews have achieved the kind of integration that was previously the central aim of Jewish education. The reason it can sometimes look like a failure is that the goal posts have shifted, while the field has not.