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Orthodox Schooling: What Do We Know?

Let’s say you are an American Jewish leader concerned about the state of Jewish education in America.  Let’s say you want to fund or create programs to help increase the number of passionately committed and enthusiastic Jewish young people.  The first thing you might ask yourself is, “What works?”  You might want to know something about day schools, youth movements, supplemental schools, camping, and Jewish family education. You might want to know how likely it is that a Jewish participant in Birthright will marry another Jew, celebrate various Jewish rituals, or affiliate with a Jewish organization on campus.  You might want to know where graduates of American Jewish secondary schools go to college, or how they fare Jewishly and academically once they get there. 

Relevant Links
Crisis in the Curriculum  Yoel Finkelman, Jewish Ideas Daily. In 1953, the Ministry of Education passed a law to wrest the schools out of the hands of political parties. At least, that was the theory.
Are Day School Vouchers the Answer?  Moshe Sokolow, Jewish Ideas Daily. Is Jewish education a parental or communal responsibility?  The private heder emphasizes parental responsibility; the public talmud torah reflects communal obligation.  Either model can work, if pursued seriously and energetically.
The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School  Aryeh Klapper, Jewish Ideas Daily. The largest costs of high day school tuition are not financial but moral, and the key to solving the financial dilemma is to address the moral problem.  Here, a bold new solution.

Fortunately, you would have many places to look.  Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education,, and local Federations and Boards of Jewish Education have supported significant data-based research on these and matters and made them available free of charge on the Internet or published them through university presses or in academic journals. 

But these studies share an important feature: they pay relatively little attention to Orthodox Jewish education.  Some 80 percent of Jewish day school students in the United States come from the Orthodox sector, but the research on the meaning and impact of Jewish education, even day school education itself, focuses primarily (though not exclusively) on people and institutions that are not a part of it.  Don’t blame this on the research organizations: they do what the funders in the community are willing to support.  It’s perfectly clear where the responsibility lies: the Orthodox community itself has simply not been interested in financing systematic research on the state of Orthodox education. 

I can think of many reasons why this might be the case.  It could be due to a preference for spending money on school buildings and classrooms rather than on research, or to skepticism about the value of the social sciences, if not a rejection (in at least some quarters) of secular knowledge in general and even fear of what researchers might find.

Still, the result is that we just don’t know all that much about Orthodox Jewish education. We don’t know much about students, families, teachers, classrooms, curricula, summer camps, youth groups, college choices, administrators, or communities.  We don’t know what Orthodox Jewish young people think, believe, or feel as Orthodox Jews, and we don’t know how they act.  We don’t know what they like or dislike about observance, what they feel attached to or distanced from.  We do not know how many Orthodox people stay Orthodox, and what it means for them to leave or stay.  We don’t know what factors correlate with or cause young people to thrive religiously, what causes them to abandon religion, or what leaves them ambivalent.  For decades we have had a thoughtful and insightful anthropological study of a fundamentalist Christian day school—written by a Jew, no less—but not even the beginnings of a similar study of an Orthodox Jewish day school. 

How is the community to have a serious and thoughtful discussion about the present and future, about its priorities, about community building, about needs and wants, on the basis of the very limited data we currently possess? 

Yet there is some reason to be optimistic.  Educators and researchers at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School of Jewish Education have begun to gather data about Jewish belief and practice within Orthodox high schools.  They have followed groups of students from their schools in the United States to Israel, where the students spent a year or more engaged in full-time study, then examined them at their college campuses around North America.  In another study, researchers sent questionnaires to some 1,200 Orthodox high school students and conducted in-depth interviews with scores of them, trying to figure out what they believe, think, feel, and experience as observant Jews. 

A full discussion of the findings will soon appear, I hope; but Yeshiva University has offered the raw data to its faculty and graduate students, who have begun to look for patterns and conclusions.  Recent dissertations and lectures can provide us with a richer understanding of the internal dynamics of the Orthodox world, how schools and family affect one another within it, which schools and communities have been successful and which have been less so.  All of this could help parents and educators think more seriously about what they might do to help students thrive religiously. 

It might not shock educators to discover, for instance, that girls in single-sex schools are more observant and spiritual than other subgroups; it might be more surprising to discover that Orthodox students who attend non-Orthodox schools described themselves as not only happier with their Judaism than students in Orthodox schools but also kinder people.  I suspect most Jewish educators understand that parents and families have enormous influence on their children’s religious lives, but would hard data encourage educators do a better job of cooperating with families or even being modestly aware of the limits of schools’ influence? 

The post-high school year that most Orthodox day school graduates spend in Israel reportedly helps to solidify their Jewish commitments and even encourage them to “flip out” and make major changes from their modern Orthodoxy to more haredi commitments.  The newly available research suggests that for a plurality of young people, religious change is less drastic.  Many observers assume that the more right-leaning teachers in year-in-Israel programs successfully encourage their students to become more intensely religious and lose some of their interest in general education.  According to one dissertation, students do become less interested in general education after their year in Israel, but there is no correlation between this shift and the extent of their religious transformation.  A year without tests, college applications, advance placement exams, and report cards leaves students less focused on secular education, irrespective of whether or not they are or are not more religious than they were before. 

Soon, I hope, Yeshiva University and its researchers will collate their new data, contextualize it within what we know about American religion and American Jewish Orthodoxy, and offer a coherent narrative of what is actually happening in the religious and spiritual lives of Orthodox young people.  In the meantime, until we get these richer findings, the surveys themselves are important.  For the first time, the Orthodox Jewish educational community is collecting data from the same set of respondents over the course of several years, all with the purpose of getting a sense of how the experiences of observant life play out in the context of families, schools, Israel programs, and campuses. 

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel.  He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

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Daniel Steinmetz on April 24, 2013 at 8:51 am (Reply)
There is another reason why there is not much research on orthodox education, especially haredi education. These institutions refuse to cooperate with most researchers. They also refuse to allow research that would more reliably establish rates of sex abuse or rates of Herpes infections in children whose circumcision included direct oro-genital suction (MBP). Science is their enemy. They are in any event not going to let science alter their policies so why allow research that would refute their factual claims.
    Eli Barashev on April 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm (Reply)
    Mr. Steinmetz, thank you for your well written input. In my opinion, you are too taken by urban legend and you comment seems unfounded.

    I think it much more realistic, as the author inferred, the Haredi institutions are barely making it, paying salaries and expenses. They do not have the financial ability to do something like a study, as important as it may be.

    All the best!
Samson Fine on April 24, 2013 at 8:58 am (Reply)
I am thrilled to see this piece by Dr. Finkelman.

As the father of 3 current Orthodox day school and 1 Orthodox HS student, I have often wondered about the lack of Quality Assurance for both the Jewish and secular educations our children are receiving.

While in the NY/NJ metropolitan area, this discussion has taken a significant backseat to the "tuition crisis" storm of the past 5 years, it is actually the more important and fundamental issue.

I am also happy to hear that YU is surveying the patterns of our HS students, but would submit that the most pertinent analyses can only be garnered by taking a longitudinal view from early grade school, through JHS (where many kids are becoming tuned out to tefillah, learning, etc.) and HS years.

This data, coupled with analyses of community norms and parental/family factors would provide a more complete picture.

It is also important to note that it is not at all obvious that the Jewish studies curricula currently in place across almost all Modern Orthodox day schools/HS is appropriate or conducive to the life long learning we may desire for our children.

Given the amount of time our children spend in school, it will require our best and most honest educators sitting down to reconsider these issues.

Here's looking forward to more productive discussion on this topic.
Abe Katz on April 24, 2013 at 2:16 pm (Reply)
I find it interesting that no one has thought of interviewing the parents of Orthodox Day School graduates. I think that we know very well how well our children’s Day Schools are doing-not very well. The emphasis in those schools was and still is on teaching Gemara. That remains the goal despite the fact that Gemara is probably the most difficult Jewish subject to teach. Because of that emphasis, all the other Hebrew subjects are neglected.

I look back at my own Jewish education and now recognize that the most important skill I learned in high school was the ability to read Modern Hebrew. Why is that so important? Because if you want to be at the cutting edge of Jewish learning today, you have to be able to read the books and articles being written in Israel by Rabbis from Hesder Yeshivot and by professors from the Jewish Studies Departments of the universities in Israel. It is not enough today to teach students to read the gemara with Rashi and Tosafos. We now have the ability to show students when the Gemara is presenting the customs of Bavel and when the Gemara is presenting the customs of Eretz Yisroel. We can compare similar sugyas from the Bavli with the Yerushalmi. We can show students how what Rashi and Tosaphot wrote may have been influenced by what was going on in their communities.

Asking when a text was written; who wrote it; what was going on in Jewish life at that time and what was going on in world history at that time are not only relevant to understanding what you are studying but those questions can forever change your understanding of those texts.

You may be wondering which high school I went to that I learned to read Modern Hebrew fluently? Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, the school established by the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l, the Rav. When people remember the Rav they think of him as the preeminent Maggid Shiur of REITS, which of course he was. Some of us remember him for the unique curriculum he set up at Maimonides. And don’t let them fool you by saying that the Rav did not know what was going on at Maimonides. He was a regular presence there when he was not in New York. If you need to interview eyewitnesses, you will not have a difficult time finding Maimonides alumni who will report to you of incidents in which the Rav encountered students who were waiting to see the principal after misbehaving but instead the Rav approached them and spent time learning with them.

It is therefore fair to say that when the Rav organized the curriculum at Maimonides, he forsaw the importance of his graduates being able to read Modern Hebrew and he was right to do so.
Yoel Finkelman on April 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
Yes, Daniel, I suspect you are right, that some of the reason for not doing research is not wanting to know what researchers might find. But there are enough examples of research done on Haredi communities that involve Haredi cooperation. So it's not impossible.

Samson, my sense is that Jewish education is a market driven product. If the consumers - i.e. the parents like you -- collectively demand data, they will eventually get it.
Micah Segelman on April 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm (Reply)
This is an exciting development but without properly understanding and applying social science concepts this sort of information can be highly misleading. The finding you highlight that "Orthodox students who attend non-Orthodox schools described themselves as not only happier with their Judaism than students in Orthodox schools but also kinder people" begs for deeper analysis and certainly may (depending on what it really means) be very misleading.
    R Klempner on April 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Reply)
    I agree with Mr. Segelman's point here. I think that it's highly likely that the actual causal factor of these students' greater happiness with Judaism and feelings they are "kinder" have to do in part with the students who would be in non-Orthodox schools.

    1) They live "out of town"--sometimes way out of town, not just L.A. or Baltimore where there are Orthodox day schools.
    2) They have different types of parents, who parent differently.

    Also, I don't necessarily think that it's the "non-Orthodox" part of the equation, but the effects of different teaching methods and the non-Gemara (for example) focus in this types of school that's being seen here. We would need serious, detailed research in order to find out more.

    I agree with several of the other comments above, too. I think that the tuition crisis is the #1 issue in our schools. However, I think we need to plan long-term. If we had a better idea about how and where to most effectively spend the money in school budgets, it could help us know how to spend less overall.

    What I'd really like to see? Grad schools teach all those teachers getting MEd's and other advanced degrees how to do field research. Why not encourage Jewish ones to do research in our day schools...and then publish it? You'd get LOTS of data, from all over the place, at very, very low cost.
Dov on April 24, 2013 at 3:53 pm (Reply)
For those who don't know, Abe Katz (commenter above) is the publisher of Beiurei Ha'tfillah, an excellent newsletter that discusses the origins, meaning and purpose of specific elements of the traditional liturgy. As I recall from when I first started receiving it, he credits his Maimonidies educayion for giving him the appreciation and knowledge of the subject.

I happen to have relatives at Maimo now, so I am happy to see it praised.
G Pickholz on April 25, 2013 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
The lack of precision is exceedingly important to the orthodox narrative in all facets of the society -- and I mean the modern orthodox community, not charedi. Millions upon millions of fundraising is predicated upon truths that just ain't so, but support the broader community self image and narrative. It would be suicide to participate in the type of metrics that Solomon Schechter schools voluntarily undertook.
Yah on April 27, 2013 at 7:56 pm (Reply)
I just want to point out that you can be nominally Orthodox Jewish. Just take a look at the Jewish community in South Africa, or even the UK. You don't need to be a religious lunatic to be an Orthodox Jew.

Anyway, in general the American Jewish community has a lot to learn from the Jewish communities of countries like South Africa, the UK and Argentina where they maintain a secular Jewish community that still mostly attends Jewish day schools, is fiercely proud to be Jewish with high support for Israel and low intermarriage. You even have a lot to learn from the Syrian Jewish sub-community in Brooklyn, NY in the way they stick together, have amazing social services, Jewish schools and isn't structured in a way where once a Jew becomes secular he ends up marrying gentiles and starts living in a non-Jewish area.

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