Research focused on the link between Jewish education and Jewish identity was for decades occupied with pragmatic questions. In recent years, however, research horizons have broadened, partially in response to the existential challenges posed by researchers and by younger generations of American Jews. New research has begun to explore–but must further examine–basic questions: How can contemporary Jewish societies create norms, behaviors and values that support dynamic and sustainable Jewish life? How can adults in these societies transmit meaningful Jewish norms, behaviors and values to the next generation? What moments in the life cycle are particularly propitious for Jewish cultural transfers? What are the factors working for and against the effective transmission of Jewish culture and/or religion–and a sense of Jewish peoplehood and connection to Jews and Judaism?
Decades-long research and repeated studies demonstrate that various types of Jewish education contribute differentially to the social capital upon which Jewish identity is built. Research also makes it clear that there is no “silver bullet.” No one form of Jewish education can guarantee–or maintain–uniformly Jewishly identified adults. Each type of Jewish education makes contributions to the Jewish identity of particular segments of the population. Young Jewish leaders are disproportionately
day-school educated, and many have attended elite leadership programs. In contrast, young Jews who come from Jewishly impoverished backgrounds are often most affected by cultural venues or by interventions like Birthright Israel. In each of these scenarios, however, an often unappreciated role is played by social factors such as family and peer group influence, larger contexts such as school, work, political and cultural trends. Under the best of circumstances social networks such as family and peer group circles, and formal, and informal Jewish educational associations, settings, and activities reinforce each other–sometimes in unanticipated and serendipitous ways.
Jewish communal leadership faces a series of related challenges to dynamically sustain and develop Jewish educational enterprises in all their diversity. One challenge is to sponsor important new research efforts that will help us understand how Jewish educational enterprises can be improved, to seek out and support the serendipities, so that they are no longer left to chance, but become, instead, one of the primary strategies for promoting the future of Jewish life. Today’s American Jewish world consists of Jewish “haves” and “have nots”–and Jewish education must nurture both groups in different ways. New research can help us ensure that the future includes both dynamic leaders and a spectrum of diverse and connected laity.