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Jew and American Within and Without: Discourses of Belonging in American Jewish Education

Tue, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua Salon C

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This session examines the ways in which different forms of Jewish education have historically been operationalized as a means of facilitating Jews’ integration in American society. With emphasis on both formal educational institutions such as Jewish schools and the informal form of education represented by large-scale pageantry and service learning, it demonstrates how Jews have developed learning environments appropriate to their specific objectives in dynamic historic contexts. In particular, it highlights the ways in which Jewish educational stakeholders have negotiated the traditional dilemma of balancing assimilation and ethno-religious identity. For instance, Rebecca Gratz’s first Hebrew Sunday school in the USA was conceived as a means of protecting Jewish children from Christian missionary influences even while presenting Judaism’s similarities with Christianity (Yares), and Meyer Weisgal’s theatrical productions sought to stimulate Jewish identification in the face of Nazi persecution while enabling Jews’ acculturation as Americans (Samson). Moreover, definitions of and perspectives toward integration have evolved alongside the wider social and educational context (Krasner), necessitating attention to important questions of citizenship-making and rights as Americans and as Jews. Concurrently, Jewish educators and communal leaders have used the language of “values” to position American Jews relative to the broader society, navigating on a continuum between universalism or particularism in response to political and social trends. Values rhetoric was also deemed an effective vehicle for presenting Judaism in the American public square. (Eleff).
The session also illustrates how both cultural production and reproduction have in different periods constituted a primary aim of Jewish education. Importantly, Jewish educational institutions have been central to definitions of Judaism and Jewishness, adapting to the changing place of Jews as well as the alternative forms of education available in American society. In addition, and reflecting historic debates regarding Judaism’s intertwining of religious, ethnic, racial and national components, the papers elucidate some of the ways in which Jewish educational leaders have sought to appeal to diverse Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Ultimately, through their fuzzy definitions and contested boundary-drawing processes, the papers demonstrate how Jews have reacted to educational challenges with agility as well as ambivalence.

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