HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Response to Berger by Sylvia F. Abrams

by Sylvia F. Abrams Issue: Religious Purposefulness

Berger suggests a heavy mission for Jewish communal day schools, the vast majority of which serve children in grades K-8, when he advocates that the creation of intentional Jewish communities will result in students who can become the core leaders of the next generation. Berger further posits that creating natural Jewish communities will only result in nostalgia and will be unable to withstand the trumpet call of American individualism.

In my view, Berger does not give sufficient weight to the role of parents in the formation of Jewish identity and is placing too much credence in the ability of formal educating institutions to create deep ties. In particular, Berger posits three elements to intentionality: “Vision, engagement with Jewish sources, reflective performance of regular ritual.”

Berger indicates that the holder of vision is both the individual and the school. I would agree that all Jewish schools, whether communal or other types, need to articulate a vision of possibility about the place of Judaism in the future adult life of the student. What troubles me is how much hold this ideal can have if the school ends in grade 8. It is the most unusual child who will have the autonomy in high school to realize and continue any vision offered by the school without additional communal structures in which the vision may be practiced, i.e. the synagogue, youth group, summer camp, or Israel experience. It is very rare for American Jewish children who primarily live in suburbia to have the agency to continue any vision without some type of structure.

Berger suggests two criteria for engagement with Jewish texts: reflective practice and Hebrew fluency. I would suggest a third: the cultivation of the tools for independent further learning. Today’s students are familiar with all the technological tools of the Internet. Even in schools that cannot find authentic Hebrew speakers to teach the language, students can hear correct speech and communicate with Israelis through such technological tools as YouTube and Skype. The greatest limiter to obtaining true Hebrew fluency is the lack of qualified personnel, not the ability of the students. Berger does not address how to include the faculty in creating an intentional community.

The most intriguing element in Berger’s list to create an intentional community is the idea of “reflective performance of regular ritual.” It does not appear that Berger is suggesting the creation of innovative ritual, but rather is advocating for the creation of habits in a conscious manner; however, habit implies a natural occurring community since it is the most unusual student who can resist the tide of social acceptance and engage in ritual without the support of a community. And this continuing support after leaving the comfort of the Jewish day school is what Berger does not adequately address. If the Jewish community provides day high school education, then Berger’s hypothesis has an excellent chance for success. If day school education is only until grade 8, there are too may social contingencies in the crucial years of adolescence that can undo elementary Jewish education. This is the conundrum of all elementary level Jewish day schools: Can the creation of intentional communities until age 13 or 14 have a sufficient impact on adulthood?

Sylvia F. Abrams is professor emeritus of Jewish Education and former dean at Siegal College of Judaic Studies; she currently directs Project 20-20, a partnership between the Central District of the Israel Ministry of Education and Siegal College to explore cross-cultural differences in identity formation with Israeli educators.

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Religious Purposefulness

The AVI CHAI Foundation has promoted the notion that day schools are primary incubators of “religious purposefulness,” developing the capacity to live deep, authentic Jewish lives through regular contact with the sources of Jewish tradition, be they textual, ritual, communal. Authors here probe the ramifications of this notion for our understanding of the mission of day schools and their role in Jewish communal life.

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