HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Shared Mind, Shared Place, Shared Kinship

by interview with Alex Pomson Issue: Strengthening Community
TOPICS : Community Parents

With his Melton colleague Howard Deitcher, Alex Pomson is the editor of the recent volume Jewish Schools, Jewish Communities: A Reconsideration. We asked him to reflect upon the anthology’s formation and significance.

What inspired the idea for this volume, and the conference that it was based on?

The conference that gave birth to the book was inspired by a sense that although the field of Jewish day school education had significantly expanded worldwide, there hadn’t yet been sufficient consideration of the consequences of that expansion for the larger Jewish community. My colleagues and I were also aware that while a burgeoning research literature has explored the potential of public schools to serve as anchors of community within and beyond schools, little consideration of that potential exists in relation to Jewish schools. My own ongoing research at the Downtown Jewish Day School in Toronto provided an intimation of these possibilities; I was curious as to whether such phenomena might be more widespread.

A number of articles reference a field of “communitarian” studies. What can you tell us about that field, and why is it of interest to the field of Jewish education?

The emergence of genuinely pluralistic rather than simply non-denominational Jewish community day schools is a recent phenomenon. The tensions implicit in these institutions and the potential they promise has not yet been fully explored. With “community” being such a promiscuously overused term, the broader scholarly literature on community can help us understand the sources of stable community, the forces that can sustain it and the influences that can undermine it. In my own work, I have been much influenced by Debra Meier’s account of the nurture of community within schools and by Claire Smrekar’s research on the school’s role and function within the larger community. I was especially pleased that they both agreed to participate in the conference at Hebrew University and then contribute to the volume.

In the Jewish professional world, “community” is a term much in vogue. Is there a corresponding interest in the study of community within Jewish scholarship in general, and scholarship of Jewish education in particular?

I think that there has long been an interest in the varieties of Jewish community organization and how Jews have lived and acted together in different eras despite their differences. The historian Yeshayahu (Isaiah) Gafni, for example, has produced some compelling work on how community functioned in Mishnaic and Talmudic periods that has strong resonance for the present day. The cultural diversity of Jewish life today also offers the tantalizing possibility that despite circumstantial differences there may be something quite fundamental about what holds together collective Jewish life wherever it is located. For historians and sociologists of Jewry, then, community is an especially fertile field of inquiry.

Tell us about the ways that this volume breaks new ground.

The volume may be less original in what its specific chapters offer than in the variety of perspectives conveyed by the volume’s contents as a whole. It brings together a range of voices that would not usually participate in the same conversation. The contributors—scholars and practitioners of public education and also of Jewish education in many parts of the world—ordinarily pursue discrete concerns, but within the pages of this book they all have something important to say about community both inside and beyond Jewish schools.

The first section focuses primarily on American public schools. Do you think that Jewish day schools lag behind this sector in their thinking about community and/or tapping into community resources?

Jewish day schools almost certainly lag behind public schools in this respect, and for good reason. While the rhetoric of Jewish life has always celebrated the value of Jewish education, most Jews have regarded all-day Jewish schooling as a luxury or as the concern of a small elite. It is only in recent years, as the continuity of Jewish communal life has looked less robust, and as day schools have attracted a more diverse population, that the potentially transformative capacity of day schools for the Jewish community as a whole has become increasingly appreciated. By contrast, there is a lengthy tradition of viewing public schools as potential agents of social transformation that goes back through John Dewey to Horace Mann. This tradition is alive and well today in, for example, the KIPP network, the small schools movement and in the schools inspired by Ted Sizer’s ideas.

The second section contains articles about Jewish schools throughout the Diaspora. What insights from them did you feel are particularly relevant for North American schools?

The most important insights relate to the impact of public funding on day school education. In America today, economic pressures have stimulated increased interest in securing public funding for Jewish day schools or in pursuing charter school options. The chapters on Jewish schools in France, the UK and Germany, where day schools are to a greater or lesser degree publicly funded, demonstrate the educational costs, as well as the benefits, of such arrangements. Schools in these places recruit a high proportion of Jewish children but their programs and practices are highly constrained by governmental regulations that extend to every aspect of school life. These regulations include limitations on the hours available for Jewish studies, on the content of the general curriculum, and on the profile of students that schools must enroll. These chapters demonstrate that public financing of Jewish schools is at best a mixed blessing.

The articles about Israeli schools paint a fairly bleak picture. Was that a conscious choice? Do you feel the book gives an accurate portrait of community relations in Israeli schools?

It was not intended to offer such a bleak view of education in Israel. I suppose that researchers are more readily drawn to the diagnosis of problems than they are to the analysis of success. At the same time, the Israeli chapters point again towards the complexities inherent in public education systems – a Jewish one in this case – where well intentioned social change agendas are clumsily implemented in schools or where public accountability measures make education overbearingly complex for practitioners.

In particular, what does your book have to teach administrators, teachers and lay leaders of Jewish day schools?

When the book was complete, and the publisher pressed me to compose a substantial introduction, I came to realize as I reflected on the book’s contents that it confirmed a long-standing sociological insight about the grounds for sustained community: community is anchored in shared mind, shared place and shared kinship. Of course not all Jewish schools must possess these attributes, but those most likely to sustain a meaningful experience of community will include a clearly recognizable Jewish student body (kinship), will be located in a Jewish locale (place), and will inculcate Jewish values, culture, or religion (mind). Community, I came to realize, does not just provide the context and content for the Jewish day school; the constituent components of community ultimately provide the strongest raison d’être for Jewish day school education.

What do you hope emerges from this book? Do you envision a Jewish communitarian movement of some sort taking shape?

To be honest, I think that launching such a movement would be too grandiose an objective. Besides, I believe that RAVSAK is doing a fine enough job in this very respect. I hope that the book, and any further work it inspires, enables volunteer and professional leaders in Jewish schools to act with greater self-awareness of the potential in the institutions they lead and of the complex mix of forces to which they must attend if they are to sustain an innovative mode of joint learning and living. ♦

Dr. Alex Pomson is a senior lecturer at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He can be reached at apomson@mscc.huji.ac.il.

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