HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Jewish Differentiation

by Dr. Bryan Conyer Issue: The Whole Student

In some community day schools, a gap in expectations and mutual comprehension between teachers and students creates frustration and dissatisfaction for all. Conyer suggests strategies for changing this pivotal relationship.

After interviewing Judaic studies teachers and students in three high schools located in Australia and the Western United States, it became apparent that their worldviews about Judaism were built upon strong assumptions, often not shared by one another. The teachers did not recognise the Jewish worldview of their students and vice versa, bringing confusion and dissonance into a challenging teaching and learning environment. Such an observation does not negate the teachers’ professionalism or the authentic engagement of students. However, the quality of this engagement appeared to be undermined by a key element: the teachers and students misunderstood one another’s Jewish worldviews. While this small sample size makes this point hard to generalize, my experience tells me that it is not an uncommon experience either. I believe that teachers can do more to serve our students’ emerging Jewish identities.

One of the great challenges that teachers confront when entering a classroom is how to include each individual student and the differences that they bring with them in a positive manner. A liberal ethic demands that we treat each student fairly and equally, yet our professional training demands that equal and fair are not always the same. Differentiation is one of the latest catchwords that compel us to adapt our instruction to facilitate the unique learning needs of each student. Fairness now requires us first to recognise and acknowledge each student’s difference, and then to differentiate our teaching to include them. Such a concept has also long been part of the multicultural education agenda.

I have often wondered how these ideas translate into Judaic studies classrooms. Our students often bring very different Jewish worldviews, patterns of participation and Jewish knowledge into our classrooms. What responsibility does a Judaic studies teacher have to recognise, understand and even validate or nurture this Jewish difference? Do we share the same responsibility towards Jewish differentiation as our other educational colleagues have to academic and cultural differentiation, or are we solely responsible for transforming the students’ existing identity into something better or different? I have found four factors that complicate this challenge.

The first challenge is the impact of individualism upon contemporary Jewish identity. The major denominations once offered a collective identity against which individuals measured themselves. In turn, the formal values and philosophies of these denominations provided the lesson plans for teaching about them and explaining Jewish difference to our students. How many websites can we still find that use the language of Conservative Jews do X while Reform do Y and Orthodox do Z? How many schools teach about Jewish difference in such a way?

In a world of individualism, however, the locus of authority has moved from external influences, such as denominations, to the “sovereign self.” In a world of individualism, individuals happily pick and choose from each denomination and outside sources in seemingly inconsistent ways, as denominational philosophies are not necessarily compelling. The 2000-01 NJPS already concluded that individuals who identify with a denomination do not necessarily belong to its institutions or subscribe “to the practices and beliefs as articulated by that denomination.”

The second challenge is globalization. Today, many of our classrooms include Jews from Russian, Israeli, South African and other backgrounds. Jews raised in different countries demonstrate both distinctive and subtle patterns of Jewish identification and paradigms for understanding Judaism. For example, Australian Jews are highly influenced by Israel and the Shoah while American Jews are more readily inspired by creative innovations in synagogues.

How well do our Judaic studies teachers and students understand or represent the Jewish understandings and experiences that these individuals, and their families, bring with them? Do we acknowledge and affirm these differences and use them as rich resources for Jewish learning, or do we require these students to acculturate into the majority Jewish identity of those already in the school?

The third challenge is “color blindness.” Motivated by the value of equality, teachers often choose to be “color blind,” meaning that they strive to treat all students, regardless of backgrounds, as equal. In turn, these teachers are unintentionally inconsiderate of their students’ distinctive backgrounds. Consequently, their presentation of knowledge seldom includes examples or contexts that reflect and affirm the actual lived experiences, values and priorities of these students. These teachers sometimes inadvertently alienate those students who do not share or understand the teacher’s preferred contexts. What does this mean for a Jewish education?

Finally, multicultural education teaches that most teachers, when part of the majority group, presume that their own backgrounds and experiences are normal and indistinctive. When teachers assume their own experiences as normal, they are not likely to present it as only one of many ways for understanding the world. When Judaic studies teachers regard their personal Jewish experience as unexceptional, they do not feel a need to carefully explore and objectively explain it.

Consequently, while Judaic studies teachers thoughtfully teach about other Jewish groups, there is often never an explicit acknowledgement that their own Jewish paradigm is only one of a spectrum of ways for thinking about and living Judaism. For example, how many times do Jewish schools teach about Ethiopian or Ugandan Jewry with a heightened level of planning, excitement and curiosity? How thoughtfully and conscientiously do we teach about the minority Jewish identities present in our school community, or do we rather default to our majority Jewish identities?

My research demonstrated how these factors create a gap between the students and teachers in Judaic studies classrooms. The majority of teachers I interviewed shared a Jewish worldview that was grounded primarily in traditionalist understandings of Judaism built upon a hierarchy of “more Jewish” and “less Jewish.” The student who consistently attends synagogue, observes kashrut and Shabbat, was usually judged to be at the top of the hierarchy of “more Jewish.” If this student enthusiastically related to Jewish text as an authoritative and valid voice, then this student’s comments in class were highly valued. In the three schools of my research, only a minority of students measured up to these criteria.

The majority of students described themselves with a strong individuated sense of self, where personal Jewish choices express themselves more in social and cultural terms, rather than religious terms. The students may have been confused about Israel, active in Jewish youth groups, loved shopping on “Saturdays” with their “mostly Jewish” friends and eating sushi (but not the shell fish) at local nonkosher restaurants. Many loved Jewish camps or shabbatonim but could do without tefillah.

This gap in Jewish understanding caused the teachers and students to usually describe the student’s experience of Jewishness with negative attribution, describing what the students did not do: how they did not keep kosher or Shabbat. Many of the students expressed pride in being Jewish, but felt lost for words when trying to articulate positively why or how being Jewish matters and how they express it. The students often expressed appreciation for their Jewish education, reiterating their ability to now make autonomous and informed choices, while rejecting being told what to do or how to do it.

Thus, one student commented that her Jewish education allowed her “to make educated decisions on why I keep kosher, [or] why I don’t want to keep kosher.” This particular student was active in the Jewish community and did not subscribe to a traditional kashrut. She evaluated herself as a good student, but not as a “good Jew.”

The students also believe that their Judaic studies teachers were judgmental and disappointed in them. Reflecting the perception of many, a student commented: “I think it’s hard for the Judaica teachers to teach something and feel maybe that it’s not being practiced as much as they want it to…because some of the Judaica teachers are very religious, and the students might not be as religious.”

Consistently, the teachers generally judged their students’ Jewish behaviors negatively due to a perceived low level of participation in Jewish ritual. One teacher went so far as to describe his students’ relationship to Judaism as “uniform homogeneous apathy,” reflecting the sentiment of many of his colleagues who take it personally when a student learns about kashrut and still chooses to reject it. In short, the teachers could only see deficiencies in the students’ Jewish lifestyles, as their students’ choices did not live up to the choices that the teachers make for themselves. They could not find positive language to describe or make sense of the choices the students made to affirm their Jewish engagement.

The more traditionalist Jewish mindset of the teachers did not provide the students with the vocabulary or concepts to recognize or affirm the manifold Jewish expressions and identification of their student body in a positive manner. The teachers misunderstood and/or struggled to affirm the newly emerging Jewish identity built upon the “sovereign self.” In turn, the students never really learned to understand themselves. Instead, they learned about a Judaism that at times resonated and at other times reflected the type of Jew they did not wish to become.

To overcome this gap, part of the Judaic studies curriculum needs to provide students and teachers with a safe enough environment to honestly explore and then share their personal Jewish stories. They should be encouraged to interview their families to better appreciate why certain decisions are part of their family’s heritage and share those with their classmates. They should be encouraged to ask questions of clarification about one another, without judging the answers or being required to agree.

They should be encouraged to visit one another’s shuls, share artifacts that reflect their family’s Jewish stories and to explore world Jewish communities that connect to their personal histories. And each of these experiences should be informed by traditional Jewish teachings, to serve as frames of reference for reflection and understanding, rather than judgment about whether each family was right or wrong. The students should seek out commonalities between them, identify differences and be encouraged to inquire deeply about the reasons why.

When I observe teachers referencing Jewish practices or norms that are significantly different from their own, they often present interesting pictures of clothing and discuss the language, music, food, beliefs, customs and distinctive rituals of those communities. If Judaic studies teachers presented their own Jewish experiences in this same way, the students would have a model for understanding and contrasting their teacher’s experiences of being Jewish with that of other Jews in their lives, including themselves. This approach helps students to identify their own assumptions about living a Jewish life and permits the Jewish assumptions of both the teachers and students to be open to the same level of honest scrutiny, questioning and wondering that teachers hope to generate in the rest of their Jewish teaching. Teachers and students are living examples of the contemporary Jewish world and offer a rich source for Jewish learning.

Underlying this dissonance in Judaic studies classrooms is an undecided element in our Jewish educational process—that is, whether we are to affirm the students’ pre-existing identities or solely to transform, assimilate or acculturate them into the teacher’s perceived ideals. If we, as Judaic studies teachers, are to expect that students value our Jewish choices, it is incumbent upon us to recognise, understand and acknowledge theirs on equal terms. Teachers and students bring very different ways of identifying and relating to Judaism into our learning spaces. Our challenge is to consciously and explicitly use these differences to enrich the Jewish learning program, rather than to unwittingly distant our students from it.♦

Dr. Bryan Conyer works as the deputy principal of Jewish life at the Emanuel School in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at bconyer@emanuelschool.nsw.edu.au.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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