Survey of Research in Jewish Education
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT HOW
ORTHODOX STUDENTS EXPERIENCE JUDAISM?
Director of Research and Projects, ATID
Strangely enough not too much is known about how young children
themselves look upon their school experience. This fact is
particularly surprising in a day when it has become almost a national
pastime to find out how people feel about things.
Where available, surveyed research is linked in the endnotes.
In a recent book, Denise Clark Pope laments a significant lacuna in
educational research. "As I reviewed the literature on adolescents
and secondary schools, I noticed a particular gap in the research in
this area. I found a wide range of studies on adolescent behavior in
schools, studies that addressed academic achievement, study habits,
classroom discipline, peer culture, and youth dropout rates.
However, I did not find many studies that addressed the educational
experiences in school from the adolescents' point of view."2 In response, Pope spent much of a
year interviewing students, sitting in on classes, meeting students
in their homes and workplaces, and hanging out with them and their
peers. Her book presents portraits of the educational inner-lives of
six overachieving students in a quality public high school. While
their teachers perceive them as model students, their own experiences
reveal something much more complex, stormy, and tension-filled.
Good teachers learn to trust their intuitions about students and
their experiences but teachers may in fact know less about their
students than they imagine.
Good teachers learn to trust their intuitions about students and
their experiences, and they build on those intuitions to facilitate
educational experiences that can have an impact on students. These
intuitions are the basic tools-in-trade of so many excellent
educators, administrators, and leaders. But – as Phillip Jackson
argues by comparing teachers’ predictions of what their students
think about school to actual student responses – teachers may in
fact know less about their students than they
Serious study of the students, and the ways in which they react to,
experience, and reflect on school, could only benefit educators.
If such a line of inquiry is valuable in educational research as a
whole, it is doubly true of Orthodox Jewish education. As religious
educators, we put a premium on educating the whole student, on
influencing his or her personality and worldview, on the affective
aspects of Torah education. We want our charges to emerge from their
educational experiences as benei Torah, as yarei
shamayim, and as lovers of Torah. Clearly, how the
students experience the Torah education we provide is critical to our
successes or failures. Every time we administer a test or ask a
question in class, we get information about what our students know.
When we examine our students' behavior in school, we get information
about whether they follow school rules and observe mitzvot.
Yet, what we see in surface knowledge and behavior may mask a more
complicated inner reality. It behooves us, therefore, to ask basic
questions about how our students live their religious (and
non-religious) lives, how they experience schools in general and
Torah education in particular, and what they think about all of that.
In Israel, there have been relatively systematic attempts to survey
the values, attitudes, and out-of-school behaviors of students in and
alumnae of the religious school
Regarding the American Orthodox school system, there is considerably
less by way of quantitative data. Dr. Scott Goldberg, a researcher
at Yeshiva University's Azrieli School of Education, has taken on a
wide-ranging and potentially transformative research project.
Distributing questionnaires to hundreds of Orthodox students asking
about their religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices, Goldberg
hopes to paint a more nuanced portrait of our students and their
religious lives. While results of his research are not yet available,
his conclusions are sure to be invaluable to anyone who has an
interest in understanding what Judaism means, in theory and practice,
to Orthodox youth. Similar studies could be undertaken to examine
students’ attitudes and behaviors regarding school, their teachers,
Jewish and general studies, and use of leisure time.
Several other examples of quantitative research touch on more narrow
aspects of these issues. Rabbi Shalom Berger's doctoral
dissertation, for example, surveyed graduates of one-year-program
yeshivot and seminaries in Israel, asking them about the way
their experiences in these programs have influenced their religious
He discovered that the year in Israel had a significant positive
impact on students’ performance of religious rituals, their attitudes
toward Zionism, and their knowledge and appreciation of the Hebrew
language, and that these increases were not present among yeshiva
high school graduates who did not attend a yeshiva program in
Israel. (Interestingly, though, Berger found little or no change in
yeshiva students regarding attitudes toward ethical behavior and
their understanding and adoption of specific doctrines of
religious-Zionist ideology). Further, while there was some drop off
in some of these areas a year after returning from Israel, the
overall trend was toward maintaining more strict religious belief and
Yael Ziegler, as part of an ATID fellowship, surveyed a group of
young women in Israel programs about their consumption of popular
culture. Based on these data, she determined that students –
even those who are overwhelmingly committed to Orthodox practice and
belief – consume large quantities of popular culture. Indeed,
they are often unaware of the potential tensions between the values
and concerns of contemporary popular culture and Orthodox
While surveys can tell us how many and in what proportion, they are
not capable of offering the subtle interactions and concerns that
make each person into an individual and each educational experience
As important as these surveys are – and I reiterate, the
quantitative research on these issues is in its absolute infancy
– it is important to flesh out the information provided by
surveys with qualitative observations and analysis. While surveys
can tell us how many and in what proportion, they are not capable of
offering the subtle interactions and concerns that make each person
into an individual and each educational experience unique. Research
based on ethnographic observations and interviews can be equally
critical in providing educators and religious leaders with a more
refined understanding of the contexts in which we work and teach, and
how students understand themselves and their interactions with us.
For his doctoral dissertation, Daniel Jacobson conducted lengthy
interviews with eighteen graduates of one-year yeshivas in Israel,
individuals who exemplified significant religious change during the
course of that year. Jacobson wanted to understand, from the
students' own perspectives, what prompted these religious changes,
who and what influenced them, how their behavior and attitudes had
changed, and how those changes had influenced them a few years
Israeli anthropologist Tamar El-Or adopted a more holistic
methodology.8 Her study
is particularly important for its methodological contribution, even
if she is writing in a specifically Israeli context. Spending more
than a year studying in and interviewing students at Bar Ilan
University's program for advanced Torah study for women, El-Or was
interested in the ways in which these young women understood their
own literacy, and the importance of text study and learning for their
religious lives. She discovered that these students were careful and
cautious consumers of education. Even as they largely identified
with Orthodoxy and the values of religious Zionism, they were in a
complicated process of questioning and challenging the educational
messages they heard. El-Or's study was conducted in Israel, and her
agenda derives more from the concerns of feminist-inspired
anthropology than from the perspective of educators. Still a similar
method adapted to different age groups and educational settings, and
conducted with an eye more focused on improving education, would
undoubtedly contribute a great deal to our ability to understand and
therefore address the concerns most central to our students.
A similar approach was adopted by Lois Ballen Safer, though without
the subtlety of El-Or’s analysis, in her dissertation examining the
interaction between 6th and 7th grade students
and their teacher in an outreach-oriented school in central New
students and teachers, and observing the religious studies class for
most of a year, Safer examined the ways in which the teacher
constructed meaning through the teaching of Torah texts, and the ways
the students came to understand themselves and Judaism through the
reading of texts. Particularly insightful is her study of the ways
in which the students’ questions about the material came to conform
to the teacher’s approach to how to live Jewishly, think religiously,
and learn Jewish texts.
Despite this recent research, we still know almost nothing systematic
about our students and how they experience Judaism, learning, school
and life. I would encourage those with an interest in improving
Jewish education to continue this trend by conducting further studies
along these lines.
1 Phillip W. Jackson,
Life in Classrooms
(Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1968), p. 46.
2 Denise Clark Pope,
How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic,
and Miseducated Students
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. xiii.
3 Jackson, pp. 62ff.
4 In general, the state of the
research into these matters is much more developed in Israel than in
North America. In Israel, the ministry of education and several
university education departments focus much energy on research into
religious education. For examples of quantitative studies, see Peri
Kedem-Friedrikh, "Changes in the Religious Identity of Religious
Zionist Youth: The Impact of Psychological, Sociological and
Educational Factors on Processes of Consolidation of Identity,"
[Hebrew] Iyyunim BeHinukh 2:1 (1996), pp. 201-220; Avraham
Laslau and Mordekhai Bar Lev, The Religious World of Alumnae of
the National Religious Education [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar
Ilan University, 1993); and the more outdated Mordekhai Bar Lev,
"Alumnae of Yeshiva High Schools in the Land of Israel: Between
Tradition and Novelty" [Hebrew], Ph.D. dissertation, Bar Ilan
Univeristy, 1977. Also see Shraga Fisherman, No’ar HaKipot
HaZerukot (Elkanah, Israel: Orot Yisrael, 1998), which analyzes
interviews with tens of yeshiva high school alumna who later
5 Shalom Berger,
"A Year of Study in an Israeli Yeshiva Program: Before and After,"
D.Ed. dissertation, Yeshiva University, 1997. A much shortened
version of this dissertation appeared in Ten Da’at 12 (1999),
"The Unconscious Conflict: The Collision of the Values of Popular Culture and Judaism in the Lives of the Contemporary Orthodox Teenager"
7 Daniel B. Jacobson,
"Psychological and Religious Change of Orthodox Jewish Boys During a Post-High School Year of Study in an Israeli Yeshiva,"
Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 2004.
8 Tamar El-Or,
Next Year I Will Know More: Literacy and Identity Among Young Orthodox Women in Israel
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).
9 Lois Ballen Safer,
"The Construction of Identity Through Text: Sixth and Seventh Grade Girls in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Day School,"
Ed.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2003.