"Not on the same page: When parents disagree about Jewish education" at the Annual Conference of the AJS

Monday, January 11, 2016

Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Ilana Horwitz attended the 47th annual conference of the Association for Jewihs Studies in Boston, MA. As part of a panel about the role of parents and grandparents in Jewish education, she presented her paper on  "Not on the same page: When parents disagree about Jewish education."

The idea for this paper came to me as I sat in the living room of a lovely Bay area home watching two parents argue about the value of sending their seventh grade daughter to Hebrew school. A few months earlier, I had interviewed these parents separately and it was clear that they had different views on Judaism and Jewish education. But when I followed up and interviewed them together, it became clear that not only were their views different, but conflicting. Hebrew school was clearly a source of serious tension for this family. As I watched them exchange a few passive aggressive comments about whose Jewish upbringing was more authentic, I realized that I had little insight into how families, especially those with two Jewish parents operate and make choices about their children’s Jewish education.

In this paper, I examine variations in parental opinions within the family unit. Specifically, what does it look like for two Jewish parents to disagree about Jewish education? The data come from an in-depth qualitative study of three families in the bay area. By shining the light on two parents simultaneously, I highlight how parents aren’t necessarily in alignment about Jewish education. If I had just spoken with the mom, I would have assumed this was a family that was motivated to send their child to Hebrew school. I would have understood this family as one in which Jewish education was a high priority. But if I had just spoken with the dad, I would have reached completely opposite conclusions: I would have described this family as being unengaged in Jewish life and apathetic towards Jewish education. By having both accounts, I see that the story is not one or the other, but a messy and incongruent merger of the two.

Furthermore, negotiating Jewish education decisions is not an innocuous process. When we think about families in the abstract, it’s easy to say that families should just encourage their children to go to Hebrew school, or that parents should walk the walk and not just talk. But when we spend time with real families, we can see the baggage, the emotions, and the desires they bring to the table when negotiating about their child’s Jewish education.

It may be obvious that some parents disagree about Jewish education. Yet a Rabbi recently told me that it hadn’t occurred to him to counsel families with two Jewish parents. When congregants join his synagogue, he asks them to fill out a questionnaire to learn about whether parents have different religious backgrounds. He, like so many scholars, is concerned with kids from inter-married families. But what about children from intra-married families? It seems they don’t always have it so easy either. As scholars, we should be mindful that families are made up of two parents, who, although both Jewish, might have very different views on Jewish education. If we treat them as one unit, we miss a great deal of the story.