Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools

Brandeis University Press  2013

 

This excellent book examines the educational, religious, and social experiences of girls and boys in Orthodox Jewish day schools in order to understand how children are taught about gender roles and how the lessons they learn expand or limit the children’s potential in their Jewish communities and beyond. Each chapter analyzes a different kind of learning experience—classroom instruction, books and curricula, single-sex and co-ed learning, modesty and dress codes, sex education, and Jewish rituals—while the final chapter addresses women’s position and advancement in school leadership. The research is impressive and timely, and the authors expertly draw on secular articles and studies to provide context and understand the Jewish day school experience in comparison to secular educational experiences.

The book’s survey results are especially useful for understanding the on-the-ground experiences of children. Broken down by gender, the data tables document specific experiences, such as participation in AP classes or after-school clubs, which demonstrate exactly which educational opportunities boy and girls experience in their schools. Generally speaking, it turns out about how one might expect, with boys more likely to be in opportunities related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and girls less likely to do so. Yet the details are fascinating and the consequences made more real through the authors’ analysis.

More interesting from a Jewish educational perspective are the results of the qualitative interviews with educators and students and the fieldwork, including observations that one of the authors conducted at seven schools. The authors present a range of anecdotes that demonstrate the many ways in which instructors—both women and men—marginalize girls in teaching Jewish rituals and values. These include but are not limited to calling on boys first to answer questions, assigning girls and boys specific roles in Jewish ritual, and explaining Jewish traditions and stories in terms that create mixed messages about the roles and responsibilities of Jewish boys and girls. It is particularly inspiring and a welcome change to see the authors articulate why the instructors’ actions are incorrect from an educational perspective, what the child learns from that experience, and what the implications are from that lesson, and what could be done better.

This book is appropriate reading for any Jewish educator, no matter the denomination or affiliation of the institution where s/he works and regardless of whether the institution is a day school or classes meet less frequently. Students from across the religious spectrum experience gender socialization in their Jewish and secular educations, and it is an educator’s responsibility to understand the implications—especially the negative implications—of such socialization for the students and to work to fix the school community so that every child, regardless of gender, has the opportunity to succeed.

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