Antisemitism and Jewish identity in education

Bonnie K. Goodman
12 min readFeb 28, 2023
Source: ABC News

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

We are experiencing a rejuvenation of antisemitism; far-right groups called for the last Shabbat in February, a “national day of hate.” As the Times of Israel reported, “Extremists including neo-Nazis planned to hold rallies, and distribute anti-Jewish messaging,” however, there were “no known violent threats or specific targets.” [1] Their statement full of age-old antisemitic tropes called on to “Make your voices heard loud and clear, that the one true enemy of the American people is the Jew.” They are using old ways primary print propaganda. The events occurred after a week of antisemitic activity around the United States. Last Shabbat, two worshippers in Los Angeles were shot while leaving services. Neo-Nazis held a rally in New York and “harassed Jews in Florida.” Still, with recent attacks occurring on Shabbat, the declaration has alerted the Jewish community, upping their security as they gather for prayers. History has proven that their favorite location to attack is the symbol of Jewish identity in America, the synagogue.

The protests in New York were in front of the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre, where they are putting on the revival of the 1988 play, “Parade.” Jewish actor Ben Platt is playing the symbol of American Jewish history’s symbol of antisemitism, pencil factory manager Leo Frank. Frank, a Northern Jew, moved south to Georgia, was wrongfully accused, and found guilty of brutally raping an employee, thirteen Mary Phagan, and then lynched. The moment was pivotal in the south’s and American views of Jews. A turning point, which I indicated in my thesis, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Jews, Whiteness, and Anti-Semitism in the Civil War South, 1840–1913.” [2] Historian Leonard Dinnerstein indicated, “The two most brutal outbursts of Southern anti-Semitism — the lynching of Leo Frank and the castrating of Joseph Needleman in North Carolina in 1925 — both involved alleged attacks on women.” [3] The protests invoked Frank and represent the worst hatred against Jews in American history, only proving how dire the situation is becoming.

In Canada, Jews were the minority group that experienced the most incidents of violence and harassment. B’nai Brith’s annual survey for 2021 showed a different, more frightening story; there were 2,799 anti-Jewish hate crimes. Antisemitic incidents were up seven percent from 2021. However, they are becoming more violent, with violence against Jews up 700 percent and 75 incidents. [4] In comparison, in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League found in 2021, there were 2,717 incidents in the US, up 34 percent, averaging seven incidents a day. ADL has been gathering the statistics for forty years, and 2021 was the worst year in record keeping.[5]

At the same time, we are experiencing a crisis of Jewish identity in our youth; recent surveys show their disconnect from Judaism, with a growing number being referred to as Jews of no religion, and their distancing from supporting Israel. The biggest skeptics to the Jewish observance remain the American Jewish youth with loose attachment to Judaism and Israel; with anti-Semitism mostly a non-issue, assimilation is appealing and most opportune. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey “Jewish Americans in 2020,” young Jews under 50 years old are the most likely not to identify religiously, with 40 percent of Jews aged 18–29 and 33 percent of Jews between the ages of 30–49 viewing themselves as Jews of no religion. The shift is from religion to secularism, a Judaism that finds importance in cultural activities, such as Jewish food, movies, news, and humor taking precedence over Jewish religious observance.[6]

In his Shabbat sermon on February 25, 2023, Rabbi Neil Zuckerman of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City indicated that as Jews, we have millennia of baggage and “Neurosis” that makes us shy away from a proud and outward Jewish identity because we fear the antisemitic repercussions. Rabbi Zuckerman spoke of those going through the conversion process being proud of their Jewish journey. Their Jewish identity differs from born Jews because they “don’t carry the baggage of history, the impulse we have cultivated over thousands of years to blend in and walk cautiously through the world as a Jew,” and “the traumas of Jewish history.” Rabbi Zuckerman asked, “How do we fight this spiritual condition of antisemitism? How do we respond as Jews to the knowledge that many people continue to look at us as the other, who traffic in some of the ugliest forms of prejudice and stereotyping, who want to deny us the self, the right of self-determination in the land of Israel?”

The solution is developing and teaching the youth a solid Jewish identity. [7] Part of the mission of Jewish schools is to provide to instill this identity in their students. However, according to Michael Berger, professor of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, “Nowadays, Jewishness is, for most younger Americans (and many older ones), a decision, a choice, and, moreover, an identity whose contents one can in essence construct regardless of what’s found in the tradition.” Berger calls “this new era of self-constructed, fluid Jewish identity, it’s hard to rally large numbers of people to one particular vision. To the contrary, as soon as you (feel you) have “enough” people, the temptation to split off from another school and start one’s own is overwhelming.” [8]

In December 2022, Prizmah, the Center for Jewish Day Schools, released a survey of 136-day schools in the US and Canada. They found that 65 percent saw a growth in enrollment across denominations, with 34 seeing decreases. The increases in enrollment in Jewish preschools and day schools mostly stuck. Since then, K-12 day schools have retained three-quarters of their new enrollment, while preschools have seen a five percent bump in the last year. Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah, explains in the report’s summary, “From strengthening Jewish identity to offering personalized learning and extra support where needed, day schools are uniquely positioned to meet families’ needs today.” Parents chose Jewish schools for more than teaching Jewish identity, with school reputation, academics, student support services, and location being more important than the Jewish mission in choosing a school. [9]

North America has over 1000 Jewish day schools, up a third from twenty years ago. Israel Advocate and Journalist Irit Tratt believes that “US Jewish schools must emphasize strengthening traits integral to Jewishi dentity” to step up against anti-Semitism. What all the schools had in common, crossing denominations, was the mission of teaching “menschlichkeit (humanity) among students… Fostering the values of decency, kindness and empathy are integral values to Jewish identity. It is also an ideal that applies to all Jews, regardless of denomination, rendering it a far more palatable point of discussion among administrators, than the potentially contentious issues surrounding hashkafa (worldview and guiding philosophy) and academic instruction.” [10]

Tratt finds most of the modern Orthodox schools and the more liberal denominations or non-denominational schools are trying to appeal their mission to all Jewish families leading to a water-downed emphasis on how they teach about Jewish identity. Tratt explains, “Teaching friendliness in the absence of fearlessness is leaving the US orthodox community increasingly vulnerable. Jewish schools must advance the values of goodwill and tolerance for US Jewry with the same fervency they do for others. Rather than inverting menschlichkeit and universalizing its appeal from which committed and kind Jews may emerge, schools must first emphasize Judaism’s particularist part in strengthening traits integral to our identity.” [11]

Maybe the schools should pay more attention to what their students think. Recent day school graduate Rose Clubok wrote in the Jewish Women’s Archive blog with the catchy title, “Jewish Schools Aren’t Making the Grade,” about the deficits in instilling a strong Jewish identity the schools are teaching. Clubok points out, “Instead of engaging young Jews, it seemed that it had been designed to distance them from Judaism and to foster misunderstandings within our community. One major problem with American Jewish education is its overemphasis on religious teaching, which likely stems from the primary goal of Jewish day schools: preparing kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs.” [12]

Jewish formal education in Clubok’s opinion focuses too much on not offending the Orthodoxy, that it fails in inclusivity the experiences of Jews of color and women. She also indicates the failure in Israel education, and “The lack of representation and inclusivity in Jewish schools often manifests in dangerously simplistic conversations about Israel.” She thinks that just teaching about Jews’ “deep connection to the land of Israel” avoids the realities, complexities and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she thinks that miseducation leads Jewish youth in university to disconnect from Israel and even contribute to anti-Zionist activity, we see on university campuses. [13]

Pointing to the Pew reports, Clubok notes that fostering Jewish identity through religion has been the major problem of day and congregational schools. She thinks “a sense of peoplehood, spirituality, language, culture, and history” are better ways to instilling Jewish identity, her recommendations mirror Pew as to where youth’s interest in Judaism lay. In contrast, she thinks experiential education helps had better instill a Jewish identity, pointing primarily to Jewish summer camp and a 2011 study from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Camp Works found, summer camp attendance as “the best predictor of whether a person will continue to identify as Jewish into adulthood.” [14]

In the Jewish education field, the terms have changed from informal to experiential education to describe education outside a “formal” classroom, summer camps, youth groups, and Israel trips as an education method. In 2014, David Bryfman edited “Experience & Jewish Education,” a volume entirely devoted to experiential education. In the introduction, Bryfman explains, “On this issue of the language itself, the transition from informal Jewish education to experienced Jewish education has been a very deliberate one. By calling it “informal” we are defining something by what it is not, and when the “not” (i.e., formal education) is a vague term this becomes even more problematic…. Furthermore, despite the difference between various settings in which so-called informal Jewish education is taking place, there is enough in common in these domains that the term “experiential education” makes the most sense.” [15]

However, before the change in terms, in his 2003 book, “The Philosophy of Jewish Education,” educator Barry Chazan defined informal or experiential education’s purpose.” Chazan explains, “Informal education is aimed at the personal growth of Jews of all ages. It happens through the individual’s actively experiencing a diversity of Jewish moments and values that are regarded as worthwhile. It works by creating venues, by developing a total educational culture and by coopting the social context. It is based on a curriculum of Jewish values and experiences that is presented in a dynamic and flexible manner. It evokes fun in the present, pleasurable feelings and warm memories.” [16]

Recent research proves that Jewish youth that attend overnight Jewish summer camps have a stronger Jewish identity and are more involved in Jewish life by in marrying and becoming Jewish professionals. Leonard Saxe’s 2002 Avi Chai Foundation study, “Limud by the Lake” described the overnight summer camp as “an ideal venue for informal Jewish education that gives children the experience of life in a Jewish community and teaches them about Judaism.” [17] Historian Jack Wertheimer 2010 study found 71 percent of “young American Jewish leaders” had attended a Jewish overnight summer camp. Although ten years old the “Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp” study found camp alumni have a stronger Jewish identity in every way, including attachment to Israel, in-marriage, religious observance, synagogue attendance, and “feeling being Jewish is very important.”[18]

Essentially, learning through fun activity engages Jewish youth more than formal school education, which explains the success of Birthright Israel. Birthright’s success has been phenomenal and contributed to the importance of experiential education in Jewish identity. In the last twenty years, over 800,000 youth have participated, from 68 different countries, including 20 percent from the US; the youth come from 1,000 “different North American colleges and universities.” A majority of the youth that participated experienced a greater connection to Israel; with 85 percent of “alumni feeling that the trip was a life-changing experience, 85 percent saying they were “more likely to somewhat/very attached to Israel,” with 22 percent returning to Israel at once more after their Birthright trip.

The trip has positively impacted participants’ Jewish identity with 54 percent claiming, they are “more likely to a feel a ‘great deal’ of belonging to the Jewish people.” In the long-run the trip affects alumni’s lives and identity, with 160 percent “more likely to have a spouse who is Jewish,” 84 percent “raise their children Jewish,” and 53 percent have “donated to a Jewish charity.” [19] Birthright and a new study by Brandeis University, “The Reach and Impact of Birthright Israel: What We Can Learn from Pew’s “Jewish Americans in 2020” determined the program’s success specifically looking at marriage rates, which according to the Forward makes the study controversial. Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says the results, “As a piece of social science, that’s an extraordinary outcome.” However, Saxe says marriage is something quantifiable, “It doesn’t surprise me that for people who go on Birthright and come back feeling that being Jewish is neat, being part of something larger than myself is neat, sometimes the easiest way to do it is find somebody who shares that view.” [20]

The study based on early participants until 2009, taken from data released before Pews new survey found “that 55% of Birthright participants chose Jewish spouses, compared with 39% of applicant nonparticipants.” Mostly affecting younger Jews who got married, “for those who got married between 26 and 28, 61% of Birthright participants married Jews, compared with 32% of nonparticipants. Of those who married between ages 29 and 32, 55% of participants married Jews, compared with 36% of nonparticipants.” [21]

[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-jews-on-alert-as-white-supremacists-plan-antisemitic-day-of-hate-saturday/

[2] https://www.algemeiner.com/2023/02/22/actor-ben-platt-calls-out-evil-antisemitic-protesters-outside-debut-of-his-broadway-play-about-lynched-jewish-man-leo-frank/

[3] Rogoff, Leonard. “Is the Jew White?: The Racial Place of the Southern Jew,” American Jewish History, vol. 85, no. 3, 1997, pp. 195–230. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23885563

[4] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-antisemitism-violence-report-1.6430495

[5] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/antisemitic-incidents-hit-a-record-high-in-2021-whats-behind-the-rise-in-hate

[6] https://bonniekgoodman.medium.com/cultural-judaism-or-civil-religion-4c5642c82898

[7] Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Shabbat Sermon, Park Avenue Synagogue, February 25, 2023.

[8] https://avichai.org/2011/03/jewish-identity-today/

[9] https://www.jns.org/report-jewish-day-schools-build-on-pandemic-enrollment-growth/

[10] https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/article-726904

[11] https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/article-726904

[12] https://jwa.org/blog/failure-jewish-education-0

[13] https://jwa.org/blog/failure-jewish-education-0

[14] https://jwa.org/blog/failure-jewish-education-0

[15] David Bryfman, ed., Experience and Jewish Education, Torah Aura Productions, 2014, 190–191.

[16] Ibid., David Bryfman, ed., Experience and Jewish Education, Torah Aura Productions, 2014, 197–198.

[17] Steven M. Cohen, Ira M. Sheskin, Berna Torr, Ron. Miller. “CAMP WORKS: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, Foundation for Jewish Camp,” 2011; Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe, “Limud by the Lake: Fulfilling the Educational Potential of Jewish Summer Camps,” Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, October 2002.

[18] Steven M. Cohen, Ira M. Sheskin, Berna Torr, Ron. Miller. “CAMP WORKS: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp,” Foundation for Jewish Camp, 2011.

[19] https://birthrightisrael.foundation/success/

[20] https://forward.com/news/459286/birthright-israel-study-data/

[21] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12397-022-09467-6

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History, and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on the “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

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Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a historian, librarian, and journalist. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.