The Grammar of Congregational Schooling: Looking Beyond the Synagogue at an Institutional Template

Jan. 10, 2011

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 77, Issue 1 , pages 22 - 41


This article focuses on one aspect of a case study of three congregations (Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant): the structure of the religious education programs. The three institutions were structured in much the same way, and the way they were structured looked like public school. If we have more in common with our neighborhood churches and public schools than we may have thought, the implication for scholarship and policy work in Jewish education is that we would benefit from more comparative work as we seek to produce more comprehensive scholarship, better informed policies, and more satisfying experiences in synagogue-based education.


This article offers an analysis of congregational education that focuses on its structural elements, arguing that our reflexive acceptance of “school” as the default structure for congregational education represents a decoupling—or mismatch—of structure and goals, perhaps contributing to the elusiveness of the changes so many desire. In the article, the author uses data from ethnographic research in churches as well as a synagogue to illustrate what she calls “the grammar of congregational schooling,” the norms and unstated rules which seem to govern choices about how to go about the religious education of children in congregations, regardless of institution-specific goals or even religious tradition.


This article is a first step in what the author hopes will become a larger project in the field: using a comparative research model to re-orient the study of synagogue-based education, moving away from viewing it primarily as one type of Jewish communal activity, in favor of contextualizing it as both one type of educational setting and one type of congregational activity. In 2006, She conducted a comparative, ethnographic case study of the part-time education programs in three congregations in a large city in the northeastern United States: one Reform synagogue, one Catholic (Jesuit) parish, and one Presbyterian church. (In this article, she refers to the congregations by the pseudonyms B'nai Tzedek, St. Joseph's, and City Presbyterian). Each of these congregations is a large institution, abundant in human and financial resources, and located on the moderate to liberal end of its own religious spectrum. The author conducted multiple site visits of the education programs and worship events, reviewed congregational publications and other written materials; and interviewed clergy, directors of education, and teachers in each setting.

Updated: Mar. 30, 2011