Revisioning Jewish Education

March 1, 2004
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By Michael Zeldin

Envisioning the Educated Jew: A Review of Visions of Jewish Education
Edited by Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler, and Daniel Marom
(Cambridge University Press, 2003) $26, 366 pp

TURNING THE PAGES of Visions of Jewish Education, readers find themselves in the midst of a deep and textured conversation. Philosophers, scholars, and educators explain their views of Jewish life, its past, present, and future, and the role that Jewish education can play in educating children and adults. Listening carefully, the reader can hear a chorus of responses — each coherent, compelling, and quite diverse — to questions like: What is an educated Jew? How does the notion of the educated Jew in the Diaspora differ from the image of the educated Jew in Israel? What are the roles of Hebrew and the Jewish textual tradition in the life of the educated Jew? What is the role of family in nurturing the educated Jew, and how can schools and other Jewish educational institutions play a part in shaping the educated Jew?
The conversation is filled with lofty ideals and abstract conceptions of human nature, Jewish peoplehood, individual morality, the quest for meaning, and the need for community. But the philosophical conversation, from its very beginning, is grounded in two realities. First, the conversations that readers hear in these pages were, indeed, actual conversations — part of an extended, multi-year “Visions Project” conducted by the Mandel Foundation. The essays that occupy the heart of the book, written by a halakhist, a secular Israeli, a biblical scholar, a historian, and philosophers of general and Jewish education, were subjected to challenging questions by other scholars and educational practitioners holding a wide spectrum of ideologies, representing a wide variety of settings, and working with a wide range of age groups. Second, from the opening pages to the volume’s closing, the editors display their acute awareness that philosophy, which they argue occupies a central if not the central role in the reform of Jewish education, must be translated into educational practice if it is to be real.

The essays that form the core of Visions of Jewish Education present coherent ideologies that can leave a reader nodding in agreement with each one of them, even though they present different and often contradictory understandings of Jewish life and Jewish education. The editors implore us not to reify the visions presented by Isadore Twersky, Menachem Brinker, Moshe Greenberg, Michael Meyer, Michael Rosenak, and Israel Scheffler, but rather to consider their ideas the starting point for dialogue within and among Jewish educational institutions — formal and informal — in the Diaspora and in Israel.

Following these essays, Seymour Fox tackles the question likely to occur to readers as they listen to the scholars: How can philosophical reflection be translated into educational practice? Fox’s answers address the unique challenges of translating vision into practice for two extremes in the life span of learners: early childhood and adult. He then goes on to affirm the following critical roles:

  • principals (articulating a clear vision and “refus[ing] to separate vision from its onging implementation”)
  • teams (because “a spectacular educator can be the leader of a team that develops a school’s vision, but not a soloist”)
  • policy makers (“who can transform the depth and impact of an idea and become ever more sophisticated in assessing the merits and hazards of future ideas”)

Daniel Marom recounts the gripping tale of working with a North American Jewish school on its vision. He started not with philosophical discourse or with written vision statements but with an effort to make the school’s implicit vision explicit, deepen that vision through study and dialogue, and develop strategies for sustaining the vision in practice. Marom’s narrative is all the more vivid because he self-consciously writes in the first person, tacitly acknowledging that all research — especially research centered around philosophy — of necessity can only be narrated by an “I” who openly acknowledges his or her place in the action. Marom’s story strikes the reader as credible because he illustrates each concept and principle with a vignette that has the ring of truth to any adult who has spent time in a Jewish school.

In the concluding paragraphs of his essay, Fox reminds readers that “some of the most urgent problems require not immediate action but profound thought.” Visions of Jewish Education is an invitation to everyone concerned about Jewish education and its role in shaping the Jewish future to share in that profound thought. By joining the philosophical conversation, principals, teachers, policy makers, and other concerned Jews may find that their responses to urgent problems will be more visionary, more coherent, and more effective in touching the lives of Jewish learners of all ages.

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