Can Jewish Value Education Work?
An Anxious Time for American Jewry
To look at the broader social and intellectual context … Inherent to Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture is an abiding anxiety around Jewish sustainability. For understandable reasons, be they justified or not, identified Jews typically focus on two concerns: either anti-Semites will do Jews harm physically, or assimilation will do Jews in spiritually. Not for nothing did a leading Jewish thinker (Simon Rawidowicz, 1986) entitle a seminal essay on Jews, “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.”
In the mid and latter part of the 20th century, the Shoah and Israel’s many wars and conflicts have served to reinforce and deepen fears for Jews’ physical survival. In the latter part of the 20th century, recognition of the advance of intermarriage along with numerous reports of declining Jewish numbers in a variety of institutional contexts, have heightened pre-existing fears that Jews will diminish numerically if not qualitatively as well. Particularly since the early 1990s, Jewish communal leaders have become even more focused upon the instruments of Jewish education and socialization, hoping to “stem the tide of assimilation,” by producing more committed and connected younger Jews who will, in their own way, sustain the Jewish future.
In this context, Jewish communal leaders and observers inevitably wonder whether their hopes for Jewish education will be realized. Will day schools, camps, Hillels, Israel travel and a variety of related activities actually make a difference? Is it even possible for the various instrumentalities of Jewish education and socialization to overcome powerful social and cultural forces and produce Jewish youngsters and adults with a life-long Jewish engagement? More broadly, in an open society – one which is not so favorably disposed either to ethnic identity or religious commitment that is non-fundamentalist – can value education even hope to succeed?
Over the last two decades a growing body of literature has documented that certain experiences in adolescence and childhood do, in fact, exert several sorts of long-term impact upon Jewish engagement in adulthood.
While the literature often points to generalized impact, just a few studies have demonstrated more focused impact, in accord with the ideological perspectives of the particular form of education under investigation. In other words, we do know that a variety of educational experiences tend to leave a lasting imprint on their alumni’s Jewish engagement generally conceived; but we have little evidence that the specific educational aims of ideologically driven Jewish education are achieved.
In this context, we turn to the study of Habonim Dror, asking whether the Habonim Dror experience has made any difference in the lives of former “Habos”, and, if so, whether that impact comports with the highly value-driven philosophy that guides the Habonim Dror experience.
We do so here by way of a survey of almost 2,000 Habonim Dror alumni, age 18 to 83, who as long as 60+ years ago participated in some aspect of the Habonim Dror program in North America. Before turning to the survey itself, we provide some background information on Habonim Dror.
The following sections on "An Anxious Time for American Jews " and "Can Jewish Value Education Work" are excerpted from the body of the Cohen Study.