Orthodox Schooling: What Do We Know?

By Yoel Finkelman
Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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. 

Fortunately, you would have many places to look.  Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, JData.com, 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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