David Schoem reflects on his research study from 30-plus years ago, published as Ethnic Survival in America: An Ethnography of a Jewish Afternoon School (1979, 1989). Schoem points to the continuing importance of giving greater focus to meaning-making, relational identity, and deep community. Schoem argues that through a renewed focus on engagement with American pluralism the role of afternoon schools can stand out as distinctive, not lesser than, day schools. He questions the Jewish institutional commitment for the large cohort of American Jewry who fully embrace both their Jewish and American identities by many of the very educational and rabbinical leaders of these congregational schools. Finally, he praises and challenges Jewish educational researchers to explore more broadly and critically.
Implications for Practice:
- The Jewish afternoon school can serve to actively help young Jews embrace the fullness of their Jewish lives within the context of America's pluralism. To build strong Jewish identities, Jewish schools could guide and mentor Jewish youth how to effectively live integrated, vibrant lives embracing their identity as both Jewish and American.
- The Jewish afternoon school has an opportunity to respond effectively to the need for relational identity and community. Schools must be and act less bureaucratic, less formal, less distant, and impersonal. They may want to look to the philosophy of the small school movement, with learning communities, close partnership with families, and attention to building lasting friendships among children and between children and their adult mentors/teachers.
- Jewish youth need real-time, lived opportunities to practice and participate in Jewish life and in the Jewish community. They need to see a community in action and they need to see their Jewish identity realized meaningfully in religious settings, in cultural settings, and in secular settings. My point, by no means, is that Jewish textual study be diminished in its importance, but for the target age group of the afternoon school, the study of text needs to be applied and interpreted to give meaning to the lives of youth. Jewish youth want to understand how the texts add meaning to living fully as Jews in America today, rather than simply exalting Jewish life in historical times or in Israel as the only authentic sites of Jewish living at the expense of their own Jewish lives today in America.
- Where does the topic of social identity fit in the curriculum of the Jewish afternoon school? If the afternoon Jewish school were to re-conceptualize itself as a setting to support Jewish living in a pluralistic America, then for our Jewish youth, religious, racial, ethnic, class, and gender identity certainly must be topics to be explored, examined, understood, and engaged.
- With regard to the four points above, afternoon schools might re-conceptualize how they think about school “hours” in their educational context to extend their commitment beyond school hours, just as day school engagement encompasses more than the school hour day. Yes, there is a place for classroom time for the afternoon school student, but there might also be consideration for required participation in interfaith and intergroup dialogues and engagement, service and sustainability projects, Jewish communal activities, retreats and Shabbatonim, mentoring and outreach to students in their secular schools and in their secular school-related activities, and engagement in their pluralistically integrated Jewish American lives.
- The Jewish afternoon school has the potential to be a primary stakeholder for the numerical majority of the Jewish community who feel disengaged from the organized Jewish community. It can provide a foundation for meaning, relational community, and a thick Jewish identity to Jews who are committed to living in both their Jewish and American worlds. What is needed, however, are (a) Jewish researchers to begin to investigate these questions, (b) existing Jewish leadership to closely and critically examine and make choices about their commitment and behavior toward the Jewish families and children in their afternoon schools (and congregations), (c) new Jewish educational leadership from engaged and committed Jews who fully embrace and embody an integrated Jewish and American identity to step forward, and (d) Jewish afternoon schools to rediscover the foundational principles of these educational institutions and apply them to the 21st century Jewish community.
- The Jewish educational research community should challenge itself to push its boundaries, ask a broader set of questions, and to take more intellectual risks to get at some of the big questions as part of its research agenda.