Accentuate the Positive: The Influence of Kurt Lewin’s ‘Bringing Up the Jewish Child’ on Postwar American Jewish Life

Oct. 07, 2016

Source: Contemporary Jewry 2016


This article contributes new insights into German-Jewish psychologist Kurt Lewin’s work and its considerable influence on American Jewish educational theory and practice since the 1940s. Though he died in 1947, Lewin’s theories about the emotional needs of the Jewish child and the principles of effective Jewish education continued to influence American Jewish pedagogy long after his passing. Lewin, a social psychologist who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and eventually landed at MIT, argued for the importance of inculcating a notion of “group belongingness,” or attachment to the Jewish social group, in the Jewish child as a critical factor in his or her healthy emotional development.

According to Lewin, positive and joyous childhood experiences with Jewish culture would shield Jewish children from debilitating feelings of inferiority and self-loathing. Rabbis and educators across the ideological spectrum relied on Lewin’s work to explain to parents how a Jewish education could help nurture happy, well-integrated American Jewish children. For American Jews in search of both acceptance and ethnic preservation, Lewin offered appealing scientific evidence of the psychic benefits of Jewish education and the potential of positive Jewish experiences to produce both proud, committed Jews and loyal American citizens. The impact of Lewin’s work on American Jewish life and thought is evident in the 2013 Pew Study, in which 94% of American Jews reported that they are proud to be Jewish.

Updated: Nov. 09, 2016