The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, (reviewed by Melissa Klapper), is a collection of essays about important but woefully understudied and underappreciated women outstanding in the field of American Jewish education. As editor Carol K. Ingall explains in the introduction, the eleven women profiled in the book “planted the seeds of social reform and progressivism in the soil and soul of American Jewish education” during professional careers that spanned the twentieth century. Few of these women’s names are known to any but specialists today, despite the key role most of them played in religious education, a central feature of modern American Jewish life.
Examining American Jewish history through the lens of education has the potential to shed new light on old problems, such as acculturation, transmission of tradition, gender roles in the workplace, concepts of generation, technological and pedagogical change, and the structures of institutions. The distinguished group of historians and scholars and practitioners of Jewish education who contributed to this volume do indeed offer a fuller picture of the history of American Jewish education, as well as a valuable feminist biographical reclamation of the lives of notable American Jewish women. That the anthology overall does not provide anything like a gender analysis of American Jewish education and misses multiple opportunities to embed its subjects in the most up-to-date American Jewish women’s history is perhaps a failure of form rather than intent.
The greatest strength of this book is the fluid definition of Jewish education it employs. Far from being confined to the classroom, American Jewish education has encompassed settlement houses, camps, children’s literature, adult education, and the arts. The essays collectively demonstrate the vital part women played, not only as teachers but also as conceivers, developers, and refiners of a wide-ranging approach to Jewish education that reached far more learners than most traditionally defined Jewish schools ever did.
Despite some significant issues, there remains a great deal to learn from The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education. It may provide primarily, though not exclusively, contribution history, but the book nonetheless performs valuable service in recalling to life the central role women played in the development of American Jewish education in all its variety. Each essay makes a compelling case for the importance of an individual woman who, regardless of obstacles, offered her skills, talents, and ideas to a field where she could achieve success both for herself and her community.