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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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