Book Review: Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education. Authors: Barry Chazan, Robert Chazan, Benjamin Jacobs

Oct. 05, 2017

Source: Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora – Bar-Ilan University


Behind a dry title, the slim Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education offers the reader an excellent concise review of Jewish history from the Bible to the present. The authors draw on their respective areas of expertise to situate Jewish educational models over time within broader patterns of Jewish society and close with a surprising indictment of 20th century American Jewish education along with an optimistic educational proposal for the uncertain Jewish future of those “most engaged with modernity and its challenges” (p. xxii).

Following educational theorist Jerome Bruner and historian Lawrence Cremin, the authors Barry Chazan, Robert Chazan, and Benjamin M. Jacobs, prominent Jewish academics and thought leaders (disclosure: I graduated from NYU’s Education & Jewish Studies doctoral program, founded by this group) maintain that education is not exclusively-- or even primarily-- about schooling. Education is comprehensive, relational, and occurs in all settings in day-to-day life. It is the cultural linchpin, what holds societies together, and what animates lives with meaning. The authors use and return to the term paideia as shorthand for this overarching vision of the relationship between education and society. In short, a history of Jewish education can only be a history of Jewish societies and communities.

The book concludes with an unexpected epilogue. The authors posit that twentieth-century Jewish education, facing an immigrant population seeking upward mobility, built edifices and organizations, but had no overarching mission or vision. In addressing the “what” but not the “why” of Jewish education, it lacked meaning, relevance, and significance, often seeming like a “hollow vessel bobbing at sea” (p. 143). It had no paideia. Millennials, concerned with meaning-making, ask the core questions about Jewish life and the human condition their parents and grandparents could not afford to ask. They demand a new paideia, which has not yet been provided by the rabbis, educational leaders, lay leaders, and field-guiding nonprofit leaders, who lack either authority or educational expertise. Inchoate as it is, the twenty-first century paideia can yet emerge from a nascent network of outstanding academic scholars, Jewish curriculum specialists, foundation professionals, and reflective practitioners.

All interested in developing richer language and more robust analytic tools for considering the challenges of contemporary Jewish education will benefit from reading this slim book. The authors’ compelling analysis situates twenty-first century American Jewish societal shifts as natural outgrowths of the 19th century erosion of European Jewish communal and religious authority, and the they consistently draw out key motifs from the vast story of the Jewish people with specificity, insight, and economy. On the occasion that in the interest of brevity (the book is under 160 pages, index, footnotes, and bibliographies included) a section attenuates or veers into a shorthand “greatest hits” mode, the reader seeking a deeper cut can head to the bibliography that accompanies each chapter to learn more--a neat touch.

Read the entire review at Lookstein’s Bookjed Digest.

Updated: Oct. 25, 2017