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Beyond The Jewish Bubble: Finding Meaning in Jewish Education

April 27, 2014 – 10:29 am8 Comments

By Dr Melanie Landau

bubble1From “A nation that dwells apart” to “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have ‘exiled’ you”

We’re a post-Holocaust community…people shouldn’t want to be Jewish because they don’t want to break the chain, they should want to be Jewish because it’s awesome to be Jewish..that message doesn’t come out strong enough in the community…it’s [often] all about breaking the chain…posthumous victory to Hitler…[we need to move] from negative to positive…

Young Jews who care about their Jewishness have non-Jewish partners and may marry them. Young Jews who went to day-schools report living in a ‘Jewish bubble’ and finding it hard to relate to non-Jews when they leave school. Young Jews who feel that the community representatives don’t speak for them. Parents of young Jews who send their children to day schools, but are unhappy if they adopt more Jewish practice. Young Jews who feel a sense of connection to the state of Israel but feel deep dissonance about Israeli government policy.

The above observations represent a slice of a slice of what I have noticed listening to focus groups of Australian Jews. I’m in the process of writing a report on young Australian Jews as part of the Gen 08 series on the Jewish Community  @ Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University. The report complements the report on Jewish Continuity (in the same series), which used the quantitative data from the Gen 08 survey. However, my research is based on the data obtained from focus groups that were recorded for the Gen 08 project that were not specifically used in previous reports.

Jewish sociological research worldwide has predominantly shifted from using a normative construction of Jewish identity (including a tally of synagogue attendance; Jewish philanthropy; visits to Israel and other Jewish affiliations) to a more meaning-based constructivist approach. This means that Jewish identity isn’t quantified solely according to the amount of Jewish acts someone does, but in its place researchers try to start from people’s experience and understand where and how Judaism fits in. One of the unanswered questions for me is about dealing with the uncertainty that arises when communities open up, when certain taboos are no longer and when there is a desire to maintain and even re-generate a precious culture and tradition.

One of the starkest findings in my research has been the sense of isolation from other Australians that Jews who went to Jewish day schools reported. They report not feeling at home, feeling that what happens in Australia isn’t as important as what happens in Israel, not being able to fit in with other non-Jewish students when they go to university, and that they are surprised to find that their education has not prepared them to be part of the broader Australian community. This is well demonstrated by the following quote:

So as soon as I got out of high school I really tried to move away from the Jewish bubble and try and have some more non-Jewish friends and try to have some more cultural diversity in my life and not just be around Jewish people.  And I really struggled with it.  I’m still struggling.  I find that because I’ve been in that Jewish bubble my whole life, I can’t relate to non-Jews the same as someone who didn’t go to a Jewish school. And I find myself very intimidated by the process of trying to find non-Jewish friends.  Even at university I’m scared.  I’m happy, I’m proud to say that I’m Jewish, I’m proud to say that I spent a year in Israel and I go to a predominantly non-Jewish university and there are a lot of Muslim and Christian people there.  And I get quite intimidated by the fact that I have to try and relate to people who have no idea about where I’m from or what I do.  Or trying to explain to them that I’m the head of a Jewish organisation who runs camps for youth for free and, you know, that we have to put in all this effort.  It’s just easier and more convenient to try and stick in my bubble, and that’s quite an upsetting fact for me.

This person uses the expression “Jewish bubble” to describe the experience of being in a Jewish day school and feeling cut off from the rest of Australian society, which came to the fore upon entering university. Not only the important financial accessibility and equity questions raised by private schooling needs to be addressed. In addition, the question of balancing inculcation of Jewish culture and tradition and connection with other Jews, with cultivating belonging to Australia and Australians is a challenge that requires creative and flexible thinking and solutions. Personally, I have experienced the challenges of trying to educate my children outside of the Jewish day school system and have no illusions about the challenges it presents even when rich Jewish life with Jewishly engaged parents are provided for at home.

The challenge at hand is the development of multiple, robust and creative models of Jewish education that enable generative engagement in Australian life.

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8 Comments »

  • Whatever Was says:

    Brilliant article.
    Although it is a bit sad that an idea as central as this generates no discussion and becomes a ho-hum article, while the latest chapter in the saga that is the Manny Waks circus generates so much discussion.
    Let me be clear here – I am not pro child abuse, nor do I think that the institutions that oversaw the abuse should get away with what they did. But the Manny saga has completely overshadowed everything that is going on in the community. It is only another negative motivator to be Jewish. It is not a positive reason to stay Jewish.
    If this is the level at which we are willing to engage with these ideas and we could not be bothered to debate and build on these ideas we are doomed as a community. And we will deserve it.

  • Lifes Good says:

    As a parent of two children abused within a religious Jewish day school I thank G-d every day for Manny Waks.

    What ultimately turned me away from the cult like bubble that was this school was their air of entitlement and do no wrong attitude regardless of what their actions were.
    My children endured physical and emotional abuse but it was never reported, nor dealt with because there was always a torah or Rashi quote to excuse the behaviour.

    I interacted with many, many self proclaimed “religious” Jews who to this day are so judgemental over anyone who wont keep kashrut but go on extended holidays to eat non kosher whilst they lie to their children about where they are. Then there are those boys weeks in Vegas where religious men have random sex, get high and drink all the while their wives cover their heads and bodies to be “modest”
    .

    Then there is the one who is currently molesting his staff in between shul services at the schools shul, or the other who is not paying work cover because he will “never be caught”

    I also cannot forget the swingers and the pot smokers or the many others who refused to report abuse by teachers in case someone found out it was them.

    What turned me away was meeting non Jews, Muslims and secular Jews who didn’t burn in hell, didn’t cheat lie or steal, didn’t have a problem reporting abuse and didn’t excuse their mistakes with religious excuses.

    As a family we have never felt more free. It was hard at first but once you stop judging everyone who doesn’t keep Shabbat and start understanding that all people are equal regardless of skirt length – the world will become a better one to live in.

    Having said that- not all Jewish schools are like the one I was at. For many in the less religious and indoctrinating ones I know it is easier.

  • Lifes Good says:

    Apologies for a another comment- I also wanted to say before I am accused of doing nothing that in fact we have absolutely taken action and will continue to do so against the school. It takes time but this is not ever going away no matter how hard they try

  • radiant leon says:

    Yep, good article.
    But, long term, private Jewish schooling is dead. At 30k per kid, it is now for the rich only and is morally bankrupt. We need a totally new way of thinking this. For mine, private schooling should be outlawed. Think, two teachers cant afford to send their 2 or 3 kids to Jewish school.
    Viva la revolution!

  • TheSadducee says:

    @radiantleon

    Perhaps the solution is that wealthy members of the community, instead of spending money on trips to Israel, or extravagant acts of public tzedekah etc actually pay for a student to attend a school?

    The other issue is that high quality educators not unreasonably expect to be remunerated adequately and this is why private schooling is expensive – they need to pay the teacher’s good wages to retain talent/quality. Unless they the schools are subsidised in some way, I can’t see how they will be able to afford quality educators?
    Perhaps the wealthy can make donations direct to schools for teaching purposes only?

    Alternatively, the significant numbers of highly educated religious rabbis running around could step up and teach at schools as part of their community duties?

  • letters in the age says:

    In this era of a very conservative government those private schools will flourish at tax payers expense.

    That’s a freedom parents have a right to choose.

    I agree that students who didn’t go to a non-jewish school are much more well rounded individuals and less status driven and obsessed with power and money etc

    (Ducks for cover)

    That’s morally being bankrupt to some degree and those parents are indeed selfish.

    Lovely to see a sociological analysis on this issue.

    Education is a right not a privilege .

  • R B says:

    I fully agree with TheSadducee.

    Australian Jews donate 20 million dollars a year to Israel, a country which has a GDP per capita of about 31,000$, and is ranked #8 in the world (higher than Australia!) in the number of millionaires per capita.

    Our sages said “The poor people of your own town should take priority over the poor people of another town”. Time has come to apply that rule to Jewish Australian fundraising, and divert these donations to the becoming-so-inaffordable Jewish education system. This is definitely true when the people of the other town are, as I mentioned before, not so poor as they are thought to be.

  • Jonny says:

    Great article Mel…

    The Gen 08 data is now quite dated. Is a Gen 15 planned?

    Keep up the good work!

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