Jewish Literacy Versus Jewish Identity: Teachers’ Reflections

Spring 2016

Source: Hayidion Spring 2016


As part of a recent study, I met individually with Jewish studies teachers at pluralistic day schools, asking them questions about their goals as teachers and what they hoped to impart to their students. Our discussions included the topics of both Jewish identity and Jewish literacy, but while all teachers interviewed emphasized the importance of cultivating in students a strong Jewish identity, only about half of them described Jewish literacy as a pathway to the development of Jewish identity.

The following conclusions can be drawn regarding the connections teachers make between Jewish literacy and Jewish identity.

Jewish identity and Jewish literacy are inherently connected. Although many day school teachers do not include Jewish literacy among their stated priorities or goals, they do see Jewish literacy as the main way to instill Jewish identity in their students. Literacy seems to be an often unspoken yet highly prioritized goal for teachers. As such, Jewish literacy should be infused throughout the school rather than relegated to the Jewish studies department. If one of the goals of the Jewish day school is to foster Jewish identity, and Jewish literacy is a favored path through which to accomplish this goal, the goal of Jewish literacy (as it connects to Jewish identity) should be prioritized by the school as a whole.

Jewish identity is the primary goal, with Jewish literacy used as the vehicle to accomplish that goal. While only about half of the teacher participants discussed Jewish literacy as a goal, all of the teacher participants mentioned Jewish identity as a goal. Even those who listed literacy as a goal, when probed regarding their reasons, connected literacy to identity. Jewish literacy, then, is seen by teachers as a tool with which to foster and strengthen Jewish identity. With this in mind, the curriculum of the school should reflect the interests and needs of the students, allowing them the space and Jewish resources to grapple with the issues they are facing.

Just as Jewish identity is difficult to define and assess, so too is the concept of Jewish literacy. Among the teachers who listed Jewish literacy as a goal for their students, definitions of “Jewish literacy” differed from teacher to teacher. Teachers seemed to define Jewish literacy based on factors from their own education or history and what they had found to be most interesting to students or most successful in engaging students. Therefore, rather than working with a preset corpus of texts, teachers should be encouraged to determine for themselves which elements of the Jewish canon they would like to incorporate into their classes, choosing sources or elements with which they deeply connect and can most successfully use to engage students.

Based on this research, Jewish day school teachers aim for their students, through studying the Mishnah and Rashi, to be able to place themselves in the chain of textual interpretation. They aim for their students, through the study of Hebrew and review of Jewish history, to understand the greater struggle that has faced Israel over the last many decades, making their first trips to the land that much more meaningful. Most importantly, they aim for their students, by studying Tanakh, Talmud and Halakhah, to understand what being Jewish means, beyond eating latkes on Chanukah and dressing up on Purim. All of this requires the intersection, not the separation, of Jewish literacy and Jewish identity.

Read the entire article at Hayidion.

Updated: Mar. 23, 2016