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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

  1. Recent research builds upon the groundbreaking work of earlier researchers on Jewish education and its impact on Jewish identity. From the first systematic examinations of the impact of Jewish education in the 1950s and 1960s, American researchers have been influenced by theories and methodologies in the fields of anthropology and psychology as well as education and sociology. Greeley and Rossi‘s pioneering study, The Education of Catholic Americans in 1966, examined the effect of various types of childhood Catholic schooling on adult Catholics attitudes, affiliation, and behavior (Andrew Greeley and Peter Rossi, The Education of Catholic Americans (Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1966). This approach was adopted in Himmelfarb’s (Harold Himmelfarb, “Jewish Education for Naught: Educating the Culturally Deprived Jewish Child,” in Analysis (The Institute for Jewish Policy Planning and Research of the Synagogue Council of America), No. 51 (September, 1975) and Bock’s (Geoffrey E. Bock, Does Jewish Schooling Matter? (New York: Jewish Education and Jewish Identity Colloquium Papers of the American Jewish Committee, 1976) studies of the impact of elementary school Jewish education on adult behavior which created a formula: Bock said one thousand and Himmelfarb said three thousand hours of Jewish education produced “successful” indoctrination into Jewish identity and identification–clearly a goal only attainable in a Jewish Day School setting. Researchers working from limited samples like Ribner (Sol Ribner, “The Effects of Intensive Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Lifestyles,” in Jewish Education (Spring, 1987): 6-12), or from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) like Fishman and Goldstein (Sylvia Barack Fishman and Alice Goldstein, When They Are Grown They Will Not Depart: Jewish Education and the Jewish Behavior of American Adults (Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and JESNA: Research Report 8, March 1993); and Alice Goldstein and Sylvia Barack Fishman, Teach Your Children When They Are Young: Contemporary Jewish Education in the United States (Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and JESNA: Research Report 10, March 1993) compared childhood and teen education to adult behavior, as did a team of Israeli scholars for the Guttman Institute Mordechai Rimor and Elihu Katz, Jewish Involvement of the Baby Boom Generation: Interrogating the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (Jerusalem: Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Research, Publication No MR/1185B/E, 1993). Cohen (Steven M. Cohen, “The Impact of Varieties of Jewish Education Upon Jewish Identity: An Inter-Generational Perspective,” Contemporary Jewry 16 (1995): 1-29) and then Cohen and Kotler-Berkowitz in (Steven M. Cohen and Laurence A. Kotler-Berkowitz, ―The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults‘ Jewish Identity: Schooling, Israel Travel, Camping and Youth Groups.” United Jewish Communities, 2004. Accessed online 17 June 2011 < details.cfm?PublicationID=2814>) made a point of seriously exploring the effects of informal education–such as Jewish camping and youth groups–as well as formal education, and reinforced their analysis with sophisticated statistical controls. These and subsequent statistical studies of Jewish education reinforced the dictum of “the more, the more, measuring “success” by transmission to the next generation, measured by whether adults replicated patterns by providing their own children with Jewish education. See, for example: Ariela Keysar, Barry A. Kosmin, Nava Lerer, and Egon Mayer, ―Exogamy in First Marriages and Remarriages: An Analysis of Mate Selection in First and Second Marriages among American Jews in the 1990s, and Theoretical Implications,” Contemporary Jewry 12 (1991): 45-66, in their respective analyses of NJPS 1990 data, drew similar conclusions. Other researchers found Jewish education‘s effects inconsistent, although the consensus is that long duration is most effective, including Peter Y. Medding, Gary A. Tobin, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Mordecai Rimor, ―Jewish Identity in Conversionary and Mixed Marriages,” 3-76 in American Jewish Year Book 1992 (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1992); and Bruce Phillips, Re-examining Intermarriage: Trends, Textures and Strategies (Boston: Susan and David Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies and American Jewish Committee, 1997). Studies finding minimal effect either failed to control for type of education, such as Yisrael Ellman, ―Intermarriage in the United States: A Comparative Study of Jews and Other Ethnic and Religious Groups,” Jewish Social Studies 49 (1987): 1-26; or duration, such as Barry A. Kosmin, Nava Lerer, and Egon Mayer, Intermarriage, Divorce, and Remarriage among American Jews (New York: North American Jewish Data Bank, 1989)” (208); Arnold Dashevsky and Cory Lebson. 2002. ―Does Jewish Schooling Matter? A Review of the Empirical Literature on the Relationship Between Jewish Education and Dimensions of Jewish Identity.” Contemporary Jewry 23(1):96-131.
  2. Among other social scientists who have stressed the impact of the group on the individual, anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggested that human beings naturally seek out symbols ―of some transcendent truths” in social contexts: It is not only that ―man depends upon symbols and symbol systems with a dependence so great as to be decisive for his creatural viability,” but that human beings look to social contexts—families, communities, and religious groups—to create these symbolic systems and to give life order and meaning. Society alone, has the power to imbue ―a certain specific complex of symbols” with metaphysical meaning. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books/ Perseus Books Group, 2000; rpt. 1973), ―Religion as a Cultural System,” pp. 87-125, pp. 98, 112. Sociologist of religion Peter Berger says people yearn for ethnoreligious contexts because of mortality itself: aware of one‘s own ephemerality, individuals seek out religious groups and beliefs in order to feel that they are connected to an order that is larger and more permanent than themselves. In words that effectively prophesy the language of today‘s younger Jewish adults, Berger writes that the ―human craving for meaning” brings people to ―socially defined” religious groups. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. 22-23.
  3. Emil Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; rpt. 1912), p.258 .
  4. James S. Coleman, 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990), one of the primary proponents of this approach, summarizes the development of social capital theories: “Loury (1977; 1987) introduced the term ‘social capital‘…In Loury‘s usage social capital is the set of resources that inhere in family relations and in community social organization and that are useful for the cognitive or social development of a child or young person.” (300) “Just as physical capital is created by making changes in materials so as to form tools that facilitate production, human capital is created by changing persons so as to give them skills and capabilities that make them able to act in new ways. Social capital, in turn, is created when the relations among persons change in ways that facilitate action.” (304) Social capital can benefit the individual, but more broadly, social capital and the maintenance of social structures and norms benefits everyone invested in the social structure. (316) See also: Gary S. Becker, Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1964); Lawrence R. Iannaccone, “Religious Practice: A Human Capital Approach,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29:297-314
  5. Jack Wertheimer, ed. The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape (University Press of New England/ Brandeis University Press, Forthcoming, 2011), especially chapters by Steven M. Cohen, “From Jewish People to Jewish Purpose: Establishment Leaders and Their Nonestablishment Successors,” (pp. 45-83); Steven M. Cohen, “Expressive, Progressive, and Protective: Three Impulses for Nonestablishment Organizing among Young Jews Today,” (pp. 84-111) and Sylvia Barack Fishman, with Rachel S. Bernstein and Emily Sigalow, “Reimagining Jewishness: Younger American Jewish Leaders, Entrepreneurs, and Artists in Cultural Contexts” (pp. 159-213).
  6. Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
  7. Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), 157.
  8. Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 10-11.
  9. Mary C. Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
  10. Data on children in diverse types of Jewish families according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) analyzed in Ariella Keysar, Barry A. Kosmin, and Jeffrey Scheckner, The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000); Data from the 2000-01 NJPS, conducted by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) in Sylvia Barack Fishman, Double Or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage (Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 2004). See also, Steven M. Cohen, A Tale of Two Jewries: end citation.
  11. Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, Matrilineal Ascent/ Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life (Waltham, MA: Hadassah Brandeis Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2008), working from NJPS 2000-01 data.
  12. The P.J. Library project, funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, sends free children’s books to families of Jewish background beginning when the child is 6 months old.
  13. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, The Impact of the Day-Care Experience on Parental Jewish Identity (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1987).
  14. Pearl Beck, ―Jewish Preschools as Gateways to Jewish Life.” Contact 5:1 (2002): 6-7. Accessed online <;
  15. Shaul Kelner, “Who Is Being Taught? Early Childhood Education’s Adult-Centered Approach,” in Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2007), pp. 59-79, p 72. However, early childhood education does not “teach”–convey much actual information to–parents. Moreover, the two kinds of parents who benefit most are (1) those who themselves already have impressive Jewish social capital, gained through a positive, substantive basis of Jewish education, and (2) those who come into the experience “Jewishly willing and able” to upgrade their family’s Jewish connections. Thus, Kelner cautions, while Jewish early childhood education often successfully provides Jewish community and can provide a receptive matrix for further education, it is “less successful in engaging parents as Jewish learners,” and should not be considered a form of family education.
  16. Fishman, Jewish Life and American Culture, p. 70, adapted from Goldstein and Fishman, Teach Your Children, and using NJPS 1990 data.
  17. Steven M. Cohen, ―The Differential Impact of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Identity,” in Family Matters, op. cit., pp. 34-56, p. 42.
  18. Goldstein and Fishman, found that of the one in five children attending Jewish summer camps about 40 percent were currently enrolled in Jewish day school, and another 28 percent attended supplementary or Sunday schools. See discussion in Fishman, Jewish Life and American Culture, pp. 63-64, 72.
  19. Steven M. Cohen, Ron Miller, Ira M. Sheskin, and Berna Torr, ―Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp,” p. 14 (Foundation for Jewish Camp, 2011). Accessed online <;
  20. The concept of the broker, who creates a connection between two sets of people and two sets of value systems and behaviors, is drawn from social network theory. See Kadushin, op. cit.
  21. Cohen,―Impact of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Identity,” p. 43.
  22. Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe, How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps As Jewish Socializing Experiences (Waltham, MA.: UPNE/ Brandeis University Press, 2004), provide a particularly “thick” and useful description of the vivid camping “bubble” of Jewish experience–and how easily that bubble can be burst by the bland, boring synagogues students find when they return home.
  23. Cohen,―Impact of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Identity,” pp. 36-38.
  24. Charles Kaddushin, “Social Networks and Jews.” Contemporary Jewry 31 (2011): 55-73..
  25. Fishman, “Generating Jewish Connections,” op. cit., pp. 191-192.
  26. Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th Edition (New York and London: The Guildford Press, 2009), reporting on the research of Elizabeth Ozorak, “Influences on Religious Beliefs and Commitment in Adolescence,” 1989, pp. 112-113.
  27. Deborah Meyer, ―Teens, Gender, and Identity.” Sh’ma . February 2009. Accessed online 22 June 2011 <;
  28. Hood, et. al,The Psychology of Religion, pp. 120-123.
  29. Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe, ―Engaging the Intellect: Jewish Studies on the College Campus.” Contact. (Winter 2005): 5-6. Accessed online< _2005_Engaging%20the%20Intelect.pdf?sequence=1>
  30. Leonard Saxe and Barry Chazan, Ten Days of Birthright Israel (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2008); Leonard Saxe, Benjamin Phillips, Theodore Sasson, et. al., Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices (Waltham, MA.: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, 2009); Erik H.Cohen, ―Particularistic Education, Endogamy, and Educational Tourism to Homeland: An Exploratory Multi-dimensional Analysis of Jewish Diaspora Social Indicators.” Contemporary Jewry 29:2 (2009): 169-189; Steven M. Cohen and Judith Schor, ―The Alumni of Five Israel Experience Programs and Their Distinctive Jewish Identity Profiles.” Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center (2004). Accessed online <;
  31. Shaul Kelner, Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism (New York: New York University Press, 2010). Israel and various sites in Israel are sacralized, and tour professionals structure and frame the sightseeing, leisure activities, lectures, experiences and shopping with the goal that attachments to Israel and Jewish social capital will both be enhanced. Kelner explains: “To the extent that they are successful, these diaspora-building projects foster a symbolic identification with Israel as a foundation on which pro-ethnic actions and relationships can then be built.” Indeed, Kelner says, these round-trip tours enhance the “aesthetic engagement” and enjoyment of young diaspora Jews, asking nothing of them, and downplaying the contrast between the values of their home communities and those of Israeli societies, making them less critical of Israeli society and of their own diasporic communities. Israel and the diaspora are lifestyle choices. The tours are structured to help participants own the Zionist narrative, especially “Israel’s ashes to redemption story,” marketing a range of Israel experiences and aspects of Israeli culture in vivid ways.
  32. Robin Marantz Henig, “The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” New York Times Magazine (August 22, 2010).
  33. See: Jennifer Sinclair and David Milner, ―On Being Jewish: A Qualitative Study of Identity Among British Jews in Emerging Adulthood.” Journal of Adolescent Research 20:1 (2005):91-117; Laura B. Koenig, Matt McGue, and William G. Iacono, ―Stability and Change in Religiousness During Emerging Adulthood.” Developmental Psychology 44:2 (2008):532-543; Miri Scharf, Ofra Mayseless, and Inbal Kivenson-Baron, ―Adolescents‘ Attachment Representations and Developmental Tasks in Emerging Adulthood.” Developmental Psychology 40:3 (2004):430-444; Shmuel Shulman, Benni Feldman, Sidney J. Blatt, Omri Cohen, and Amalya Mahler, ―Emerging Adulthood: Age-Related Tasks and Underlying Self Processes.” Journal of Adolescent Research 20:5 (2005): 577-603.
  34. Unless otherwise cited, discussions of the attitudes of young adult American Jews and quotes illustrating those attitudes are drawn from interviews that were conducted by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Rachel Shaina Bernstein, MA, and Emily Sigalow, MA, in 2009-2010 for an Avi Chai Foundation-funded research project directed by Prof. Jack Wertheimer, studying young American Jewish leaders. A fuller analysis appears in Fishman et. al., “Reimagining Jewishness: Younger American Jewish Leaders, Entrepreneurs, and Artists in Cultural Contexts,” in Wertheimer, ed. The New Jewish Leaders, op. cit. (pp. 159-213).
  35. Bethamie Horowitz, ―New Frontiers: ‗Milieu‘ and the Sociology of American Jewish Education.” Journal of Jewish Education 74:s1 (2008):68-81.
  36. See also, Lisa D. Grant, et al, A Journey of Heart and Mind: Transformative Jewish Learning in Adulthood. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2004).
  37. Diane Tickton Schuster,― Adult Jewish Learners: Entering the Conversation.” Journal of Jewish Education 71(2), 2005: 245-247. In her studies of adult Jewish education, Schuster found that students are excited to master Jewish content, but such education does not change behavior (246). Schuster cites Cohen and Eisen 2001 defining adults as ―explorers in Judaism, people in perpetual quest of Jewish meaning” (245). She highlights meaning making and empowerment as key aspects of adult Jewish education: ―Many of my interviewees describe their learning experiences as ‗transformative,‘ meaning that, more than just acquiring information, they find themselves thinking about Judaism and themselves as Jews in new ways” (246). She also cites Menachem Brinker 2003 and his theory of ―‘educating to freedom,‘” which for her means teachers who ―‘pull back‘” and are ―‘empowering‘” and ―help their students…to move beyond a conformist or compliant stance to a position of confidence and ease in the larger world” (246-247).
  38. Stuart Charme, Bethamie Horowitz, Tali Hyman, and Jeffrey S. Kress, ―Jewish Identities in Action: An Exploration of Models, Metaphors, and Methods.” Journal of Jewish Education 74:2(2008): 115-143. Charme and Horowitz satirize what they call the “drink your milk” model of studying Jewish education and Jewish identity, which assumes that the childhood consumption of adequate types and quantities of Jewish education–“a healthy diet of Jewish experiences and education”–is the formula for producing “a strong Jewish identity.” Thus fortified, the well-educated adult Jew can resist the triad of evils: “assimilation, intermarriage, antisemitism.” This interpretive framework is not only simplistic but actually misleading, the authors charge, because it “flattens” the realities of lived Jewish identity both vertically and horizontally, obliterating the fluidity of individual lives and the effect of shifting relationships between individuals. Horowitz champions the concept of Jewish identity as a life journey, rather than as a destination that once arrived at is fixed for all time. Working with qualitative and quantitative data on New York Jews, she shows Jews moving in and out of various kinds of engagement. Cubbyholing them as “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reform”–or “Core” or “marginal”–doesn’t really capture the reality of this fluid relationship. She divides her group into “Orthodox” and “Non-Orthodox,” with a typology of “Intensively Engaged,” “Mixed Engagement,” and “Otherwise Engaged.”
  39. Charme, op. cit., p. 119.
  40. Bruce A. Phillips, Re-examining Intermarriage: Trends, Textures, Strategies. (New York: American Jewish Committee and Susan and David Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, 1997).
  41. Kaddushin, op. cit.. Kadushin discusses “social circles” which “serve to integrate apparently disconnected entities such as Jews into larger societies,” as defined by Simmel. (The easiest way to understand the impact of such “social circles” is to think of the “Jewish geography” phenomenon which by apparent “coincidence” brings Jews who have much in common into interaction with each other.)
  42. Ibid., p. 61.
  43. Shaul Kelner, “School friends and camp friends: The social networks of Jewish teenagers,” in Annual Meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (Los Angeles: 2002), p. 14.
  44. Arnold Dashefsky, ―What We Know About…The Effects of Jewish Education on Jewish Identification.” In What We Know About Jewish Education. (Eds.) Roberta Louis Goodman, Paul Z. Flexner, and Linda Dale Bloomberg (City:Torah Aura Productions, 1992) pp. 103-114, p. 109.
  45. Fishman, et. al., “Reimagining Jewishness,” pp. 165-166.
  46. Elliott Malamet, ―The Disenchanted Student; Reconstructing Jewish Identity in a Modern Context.” Jewish Educational Leadership 7:2 (2009):11-14.
  47. Lee S. Shulman, “Pedagogies of Interpretation, Argumentation, and Formation: From Understanding to Identity in Jewish Education,” in Journal of Jewish Education 74 (2008): 5-15.