Developing and Transmitting Religious Identity: Curriculum and Pedagogy in Modern Orthodox Jewish Schools

From Section:
Formal Education
Feb. 03, 2017

Source: Contemporary Jewry 


This paper argues that American modern Orthodoxy is facing a crisis caused at least in part by problems of student identity formation. A range of ethnographic research conducted over the last decade suggests that modern Orthodox students feel increasingly disengaged from religious studies classes—and that this disconnection is a factor in the movement’s decline. I argue that student disengagement may be a result of these schools’ inability to accommodate students’ own epistemological commitments to religious pluralism and autonomy, as well as the mainly secular American concerns central to their developing personal identities.

Using data from fieldwork in an American modern Orthodox school that has implemented an entirely Problem Based Learning (PBL) centered curriculum, as well as from interviews and discussions with teachers participating in a PBL community of practice, I suggest that PBL may be uniquely suited to address these problems, offering a means by which modern Orthodox students can work autonomously to construct more integrated religious identities in the classroom.

In the modern Orthodox context, PBL allows for a form of identity formation within school that is partly student-driven. For these students, secular American culture is real, dominant, and ever-present. This is the reality in which they live, and the school structure is set up with the intention of allowing them to live Jewish lives within this context. In practice this means that one aim of school is to provide students with resources to draw on in shaping an integrated identity. These resources include religious textual skills, content knowledge about Judaism, instruction about how to live a religiously observant life, and the social norms and expectations held by someone who leads such a life. However, they also include a deep connection to secular culture and society—both through the belief that secular subject matter such as math and science is inherently meaningful, and through personal connection to a non-religious society that is also a source of meaning to the students—to Starbucks, fashion, the First Amendment, sports, and the military (all the subjects of projects I observed). The curriculum takes these connections as givens and attempts to provide students with resources that allow them to build personal identities out of these disparate cultural domains, with an end goal of developing their identities as observant Jews who live ‘‘Jewishly’’ in the world.

Traditional modern Orthodox schools have valued synthesis, but it has been hard to implement in practical terms. Modern Orthodox schools have found it difficult to teach two epistemologically distinct domains alongside each other, and student engagement in religious studies has been acknowledged by researchers, as well as school stakeholders, to be very low.

This is not surprising. Given the degree to which secular culture and society is dominant and all encompassing, communities that pledge to actively embrace American society will have a hard time transmitting an internal religious reality separate from that society. In modern Orthodox schools the result has been curricula often seen by students as external and artificially imposed over their real lives, rather than the substance of their lives. The ultra-Orthodox response has been to attempt a reversal in which religious life is all-encompassing (and it has done so successfully), yet that requires a denial of the validity of much that the Western world has to offer, something that is anathema to modern Orthodox Jews.

PBL curricula allow modern Orthodox schools to adopt many of the same learning features of the beit midrash that have proven successful in ultra-Orthodox contexts. Perhaps more importantly, however, they may allow Jewish learning activities in modern Orthodox schools to take on greater religious and cultural meaning for students. Instead of seeing their religious studies as a Sisyphean task, a meaningless exertion to no end, PBL allows student to shape and sculpt something meaningful out of their school experiences. This approach offers one means for students to develop the integrated identities central to modern Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on secular-religious synthesis, while remaining embedded within an American cultural milieu that champions individual choice and personal meaning.

The question remains whether this approach will then translate to an integrated identity in the real world, once high school is in the distant past. Will the modern Orthodox students I observed eventually be able to take agency over their Jewish identity in a society where Judaism is not the dominant culture? The ultra-Orthodox model has had many years to demonstrate that its educational approach is a viable means of sustaining its identity in America; we will have to wait and see whether PBL may offer modern Orthodoxy a mode of education that does the same.

Updated: Nov. 27, 2017
Curriculum | Day schools | Jewish identity | PBL | Pedagogy | Research