Examining a Friction Point in Jewish Life

By on October 14th, 2013

By Matt Williams

The aim of most Jewish education is to empower individuals to lead a more engaged, more fulfilled Jewish life. The problem, though, is that giving shape to that Jewish life is a very complex and fraught prospect. Do we define Jewish life through the lens of post modern identity? Do we measure it by assessing the performance of traditional outcomes? Or, do we pretend that a Jewish life is an apolitical assertion, that being open to most if not all outcomes is a neutral position?  As a doctoral student in Stanford University’s Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies I study the ways in which that difficult prospect is prescribed and authenticated as Jewish.

For my research, I’ve decided to investigate an unabashed friction point, whose sparks illuminate the very complicated contours of the proposition of educating one toward an authentic Jewish life - kiruv. Orthodox outreach programs have been around since the early 1950s in the United States and yet, so far, have escaped sustained scholarly attention. With Orthodox demographics on the rise, with kiruv workers now outnumbering the clergy of the Reform and Conservative movements combined, and with tremendously sophisticated national curricula and experiential programs (from daf yomi to the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project), it’s now difficult not to call this a significant movement of Jewish education.

That said, what I’m attracted to is the same thing that makes kiruv an uncomfortable topic for many in the Jewish community today, namely the blatant assertion of a non-pluralistic, authentic Jewish heritage, Jewish practice, and Jewish life. How did this vision of a specific Jewish life originate and develop? How does it organize, infuse, and permeate educational programming? How does it motivate those who decide to devote their lives and resources to kiruv? Those are my questions.

Part quantitative (a healthy dive into a vast sea of financial data), part qualitative (a planned, in-depth ethnography into a kiruv organization), and part historical (a journey into the dusty archives), I aim to take seriously kiruv - from Chabad to Aish HaTorah - as a system of education, complete with its own goals, agents, failures and successes. Beyond that, I’m after the operating system that underpins this very particular, though fluid understanding of a Jewish life, one, at times, at odds with American culture, and, at times, completely compatible with it.

Silicon Valley, which I can see from my truly wonderful place at Stanford University, is a peninsula filled with its own dreams of an American utopia built not on religion but on advanced technology. It is the perfect place to study kiruv. Sure, in New York or Israel I might have had access to more archives. But, Silicon Valley offers a vision of the future, an ethos that both parallels and contrasts with kiruv in exciting and insightful ways. As a fresh second year graduate student I don’t know if I can predict, at this time, where I’ll end up but, now, I feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity to study this important topic at such a supportive and challenging institution.

Matt Williams is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and Davidson Scholar pursuing a Ph.D in History and Education at Stanford University. He writes about Orthodox Outreach programs in particular, Jewish education generally, and advises a number of philanthropic and educational organizations throughout North America. This is part of a Guest Blog series by doctoral students in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University and NYU.


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