Portraits of Jewish Learning, edited by Diane Tickton Schuster, is a collection of portraits drawn from across the wide field of Jewish education. Portraits of Jewish Learning (PoJL) joins a small, but important, literature of portraiture in Jewish education in the past decade, including Ingall’s (2006) Down the Up Staircase, Wertheimer’s (2009) Learning in Community, and Tauber’s (2015) Open Minds, Devoted Hearts. In PoJL, most of the participating writers were deeply involved in the learning processes they illuminate, an intimate vantage point that helps to produce rich and nuanced images of learning.
Reading Portraits of Jewish Learning offers us a chance to slow down and consider the experience of learning. Individually or as part of the whole, the essays offer an invaluable look at a facet of education that can be too easily reduced to test scores, or to “customer data” about satisfaction or continued enrollment. Learning, this book reminds us, is complex and interesting in equal measure.
Some portraits in this collection focus on a few individual learners while others provide a broader view of classrooms or programs. The learners themselves range from high school girls in a Modern Orthodox day school to young elementary students in a Reform afterschool program. The context for learning varies as well, with some portraits exploring established pedagogies and others examining the early phases of experimentation and design of curricula and programs.
In the final chapter, Sharon Feiman Nemser offers a thoughtful reading across the chapters, reflecting on what the reader can learn about the learning process and learning outcomes, and highlighting the particularly Jewish elements of the portraits, as well as the role of the educators in the learning experience, before considering further implications for the field.
The complexity on display in PoJL also makes it an important read for policymakers and leaders who strive to support “successful” learning. The complexity – and unevenness – of the learning processes, in newer innovations and also in long-standing pedagogies, provides a caution to those who would think that there are magic formulas or silver bullets for creating powerful learning.
One gift of these highly detailed portraits is that they open our eyes to the myriad learning stories we don’t yet know. Reflecting on his own portrait, Levisohn notes, “Rarely do I get the opportunity to gather the kind of data explored here … what else would I learn if I did?” (211). Scholars and practitioners of Jewish education inspired by these portraits can imagine – and hopefully begin to explore – other stories yet to be told.
Ingall, C. (2006). Up the down staircase: Tales of teaching in Jewish day schools. JTS Press. Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. Wiley and Sons.
Tauber, S. (2015). Open minds, devoted hearts: Portraits of adult religious educators. Wipf and Sons.
Wertheimer, J. (2009). Ed. Learning and community: Jewish supplementary schools in the 21st century. Brandeis University Press.