This article reports on a research project that took place in one Australian pluralistic Jewish day school. The project investigated students’ and faculty members’ perceptions and experience of the implementation of the school’s faith-based educational mission. That mission sets out to nurture students’ Jewish identity within a broader social and cultural world. The project identified five key features that contributed, mainly positively, to students’ exploration of a broader Jewish, Australian, and global identity. It found that a pluralistic approach to teaching and learning of Jewish values, customs, and knowledge fosters a close alignment between students’ and faculty’s experience. Based on these findings, this article argues that stakeholder alignment and shared vision is paramount in realizing the success of Jewish day school education in Australia and abroad.
The author’s research question was: “how students and faculty members experience the implementation of their school’s educational mission of nurturing students’ exploration of a broader Jewish, Australian, and global identity formation”.
The author aimed to focus on how students and teachers view their experience in this pluralistic Jewish day school; especially regarding the School’s endeavors at nurturing students’ exploration of a broader Jewish, Australian, and global identity formation.
The data-gathering phase included analysis of the School’s online information; a year-long observation of, some of, the School’s formal education and informal activities; semistructured group interviews with students; and individual semistructured interviews with faculty members.
The interviews were recorded, with the device placed in full view of the participants, with interviewees asked to choose a pseudonym. The questions the author asked were deliberately neutral, as their purpose was to serve only as opening cues, for example: What does the school do, if anything, to shape your identity as Jewish, Australian and global citizen? What was the most powerful experience you had at school? Can you please tell me IF you think the school’s published statements truly reflect what the situation on the ground, and if so, in WHAT ways? Moreover, the author always ended the interviews by inviting participants to raise any other issues you think are relevant to this topic which we have not discussed?
This research project’s findings demonstrate the importance of engaging with students and faculty, listening to their voice, and considering their perspectives, as a means of gaining a clearer understanding of the ways they experience the implementation of their school’s educational mission. Such an understanding is important not only to the School at the center of this study, but also to other Australian Jewish day schools and the wider Australian Jewish community that supports them financially (https://www.jca.org.au/member-organisations/ ; https://ajf.org.au/ retrieved January 9, 2019), as well as to Jewish day schools worldwide. Firsthand knowledge of students’ (and faculty’s) own experience of their school’s educational mission to foster students’ Jewish and global identity, as well as to enculturate and socialize them into the Jewish and the wider world, would benefit educators and schools in better aligning their goals and policies with actual outcomes.
Thus, the findings emerging from this project provide the following contributions. First, with regard to Jewish education, the findings point to the fact that the implementation of an inclusive and supportive educational environment empowers students to develop views and identity choices that are conducive to their identity exploration and formation. Moreover, educators who engage in pedagogy that facilitates and guides students, and who take on the role of “Jewish identity-work navigators” (Zelkowicz, 2019, p. 159), contribute positively to students’ identity development at that stage in their life. Such an educational milieu is especially important at a time when Jewish education, in Australia and abroad, is engaged in a constant balancing act between individuation, enculturation, and socialization.
Second, with regard to incorporating students’ voice into classroom instruction, the findings show that students’ views and experiences of classroom discussions can diverge significantly from teachers’ viewpoints. While teachers might believe that they present a topic in a holistic and objective/ nonbiased manner, students can perceive such teachings as being subjective, portraying the situation or topic either more positively or more negatively. Thus, schools and individual teachers should pay greater attention to students’ experience of classroom discussions, incorporating students’ views and opinions into their pedagogical practices as a way of enhancing classroom dynamics.
Third, with regard to the recognition that identity formation is a dynamic, developmental, and changing process, which is also shaped by one’s family and community ethnic-, cultural-, and faith-based surroundings, the study’s findings help to understand the dynamics of this developmental process. As observed, the Year 5 students had a more inward and personal view of gender equality and disadvantage, while the Year 11 students had developed a more nuanced and outward understanding of issues relating to equality, diversity, and inclusivity.
Fourth, with regard to schooling’s impact on students’ identity formation, the responses of the students in this study indicate that it is difficult to come to definitive conclusions regarding the impact of home and schooling on identity development, a subject of much academic debate. The students’ thoughtful views on this issue indicate a variety of responses that highlight the complexity of the interaction of factors contributing to student identity exploration and formation.
Zelkowicz, T. (2019). Jewish educators don’t make Jews: A sociological reality check about Jewish identity work. In J. A. Levisohn & A. Y. Kelman (Eds.), Beyond Jewish identity: Rethinking concepts and imagining alternatives (pp. 144–166). Boston: Academic Studies Press.