Foregrounding the Family: An Ethnography of How Families Make Decisions About Hebrew School


Source: Contemporary Jewry 


Families play a critical role in shaping children’s orientation to Judaism, and decisions about Jewish education are made within the family unit. However, in most studies of Jewish education, individual students or parents serve as the unit of analysis, with families being omitted or relegated to the background. In this paper, I foreground the family through an ethnographic study to illustrate the complex negotiations that occur between family members about involvement in Hebrew school post b’nai mitzvah.

By illustrating the dynamic interplay between family members, I show the internal and external struggles that family members experience as they negotiate their Jewish commitments, and the potential unintended consequences that might arise from such negotiations. I describe how negotiations about Jewish education can have potentially deleterious effects on family members’ relationships, and how parenting philosophy and parenting style may shape negotiations about Hebrew school. My central goal in this paper is to advance a methodological argument about the value of taking a family systems perspective and using an ethnographic approach to understand families’ decisions about Hebrew school and Jewish commitments more broadly.

Until now, we have known little about whether there is negotiation between the parents, and between the parents and the child, and what that negotiation might look like when it comes to a child’s Jewish education and commitments. Prior studies have often considered the role of individuals in making these decisions and have suggested that parents who care about Jewish education can simply encourage or force their child to attend Hebrew school. This study clarifies that the choice to engage in Jewish educational opportunities is much more complex. These three families complicate the existing narrative by showcasing the inner and external struggles that come with negotiating about Hebrew school with one another. Taking a family systems perspective, we can see that negotiations create conflict between the parents and between the parents and children, and that these negotiations may result in unintended consequences. This may include strained marital and parent-child relationships, as well as disenfranchisement from Jewish institutions altogether. Pomson and Schnoor (2018) write, “The home is where the plurality of Jews today experience Jewish life, and homes comprise more than just a collection of individuals… in systems, such as the family and the family home, the sum is greater than the total of the parts” (p. 156). In line with Pomson and Schnoor, I urge scholars to focus on the family as the unit of analysis rather than uncoupling individuals from the family system in which they are embedded. I argue that taking a family systems perspective and using an ethnographic approach can yield important insights about Jewish education and Jewish lives more broadly. This study is intended to be a starting point for scholars to consider how negotiations around Jewish education might carry unintended consequences, and how decisions around Jewish education might reflect parenting styles and family dynamics rather than the extent to which parents value Jewish education.

Updated: Mar. 27, 2019