Forging Jewish identity

A multi-year study shows how family involvement – separate from education – impacts Jewish development

AN INTERFAITH family light a hanukkia in their home in Florida – alongside their Christmas tree (photo credit: BARBARA CORBELLINI DUARTE/SUN SENTINEL/TNS)
AN INTERFAITH family light a hanukkia in their home in Florida – alongside their Christmas tree
How do children who attended the same Jewish day school wind up with completely different levels of Jewish observance and engagement?
The answer – or more correctly, answers – to this frequently asked question must take into account a variety of individual, educational, communal, cultural and familial factors. Research consultant Alex Pomson and sociologist Randal F. Schnoor focus on familial factors in Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home.
Their analysis is based on a long-term study of families that sent their kids, at least for a year, to the pluralistic (non-Orthodox) Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School (DJDS) in Toronto.
The first interviews with 28 families were conducted in 2003; follow-up interviews with nine sets of parents were done in 2005, and these findings formed the basis of the pair’s first book, Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews. A grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council led them to re-contact 16 of the original families in the study a decade later.
Pomson and Schnoor discovered that “those we had previously interviewed had moved on in remarkably diverse and often unexpected directions. Those changes called for exploration and explanation. We recognized that we were launching an inquiry that was no longer just about Jewish schooling but about Jewish family life and its complex dynamics.”
The authors mapped the Jewish social capital (family and friend networks) and cultural capital (knowledge and competence in Judaism) of interviewed families. Only seven of the families exhibited both high Jewish social and cultural capital. The five parents with low social and cultural capital were in interfaith relationships, though a sixth parent with a non-Jewish spouse rated high for both.
Despite liberal values and relatively low levels of traditional Jewish engagement, all 16 families “chose to pay more than $10,000 a year to send their child to an all-day private Jewish school” for some period of time, a choice that points to a “historical change” in liberal Jews’ openness to a parochial education, the authors write.
Pomson and Schnoor make no claim that this small “opportunity sample” is representative of North American Jewry, yet they suggest that the insights gleaned are significant for the broader Jewish community. “Precisely because of these peculiarities, many Jewish families in North America – both more liberal and more conservative – will see reflections of themselves in the lives we have described.”
Despite quite a bit of sociology-speak in this slim book, it’s highly readable for a lay person due to the fascinating window opened on the individuals involved in the study.
For example, “cultural Jews” Joe and Michelle Kleinman sent their daughter Sandy to DJDS for kindergarten to help her “form a Jewish identity,” but withdrew her before first grade and said they would shoulder that responsibility themselves.
However, the Kleinmans divorced shortly thereafter and, seemingly as a direct result, “Sandy never experienced any systematic Jewish education.... When we met her at the age of 16, her father had been living with a non-Jewish partner for more than five years. We were struck by how little Sandy said she knew about Jewish matters. (She seemed to have forgotten what a siddur or Haggada were, and she confused Rosh Hashanah with Passover.)”
Ray and Estelle Lombard had little Jewish education and were ideologically committed to public-school education. Yet Ray became a founding board member of DJDS, “and the school was pivotal in their intensifying Jewish engagement” to the extent of active synagogue membership. Estelle’s mother joined the board of DJDS, and Ray’s father is a fan of cantorial music. Both sets of grandparents “bring a continuous flow of Jewish capital” into the Lombard home.
Intriguingly, Pomson and Schnoor found that when there was only one Jewish parent in the home, the gender of the Jewish parent seemed to make a profound difference. In the families with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, “there was a discernible easing off in the intensity of the family’s Jewish engagement over the 10 years of the study,” while in the families with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, “Jewish engagement remained relatively stable and even intensified over time.”
Overall, the children themselves – when interviewed as teenagers – had little in common aside from “a broadly progressive orientation to Judaism and to society in general, characteristics that bear the mark of the same downtown values their parents generally exhibit.” But they were much more confident displaying their Jewishness in public than were their parents and, perhaps paradoxically, put little or no importance on marrying a Jewish spouse.
That the authors “cannot reliably conclude that Jewish day school attendance over many years is associated with consistent outcomes” should come as no surprise to any reader. Nevertheless, the frank responses recorded in interviews – and the implications of those responses – provide a worthwhile addition to our understanding of the family’s effect on Jewish identity.
AN INTERFAITH family light a hanukkia in their home in Florida – alongside their Christmas tree. (Barbara Corbellini Duarte/Sun Sentinel/TNS)