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Foregrounding the Family: An Ethnography of How Families Make Decisions About Hebrew School


Families play a critical role in shaping children’s orientation to Judaism, and decisions about Jewish education are made within the family unit. However, in most studies of Jewish education, individual students or parents serve as the unit of analysis, with families being omitted or relegated to the background. In this paper, I foreground the family through an ethnographic study to illustrate the complex negotiations that occur between family members about involvement in Hebrew school post b’nai mitzvah. By illustrating the dynamic interplay between family members, I show the internal and external struggles that family members experience as they negotiate their Jewish commitments, and the potential unintended consequences that might arise from such negotiations. I describe how negotiations about Jewish education can have potentially deleterious effects on family members’ relationships, and how parenting philosophy and parenting style may shape negotiations about Hebrew school. My central goal in this paper is to advance a methodological argument about the value of taking a family systems perspective and using an ethnographic approach to understand families’ decisions about Hebrew school and Jewish commitments more broadly.

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  1. Hebrew school refers to a synagogue-based program that occurs outside of formal school. Some refer to Hebrew school as religious school, congregational school, supplementary school, or complementary school. Most parents and children in this study used the term “religious school,” probably because that is what the synagogue used to refer to its program. However, in this paper, I tend to use the term Hebrew school since the term “religious school” connotes a formal school that is religious in nature. When the term “religious school” appears in a quote, I do not change it from its original usage by an interviewee.

  2. In the case of divorced parents, Prell only interviewed one parent.

  3. In slightly more than half of families, only one parent had agreed to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one or both parents were interviewed, Kress reported trends “for parents as a whole”.

  4. I also conducted photo elicitation interviews with two of the families, which uses visual images to elicit comments. The goal is to record how subjects respond to the images, attributing their social and personal meanings and values. I found that these photo elicitation interviews did not help me better understand the family’s experience at Hebrew school, so I did not continue with the third family. I also provided each family with an audio recorder and asked them to record any conversations they had about going to Hebrew school or preparing for the bar/bat mitzvah. However, the families were inconsistent in using the audio recorders, so I did not use the data.

  5. I tried to attend every meeting that the family or child had with the rabbi, but occasionally, our schedules did not align. On those occasions, I gave the rabbi an audio recorder and asked him/her to record the session. The family consented to this in advance.

  6. I did not audio record individual bar/bat mitzvah tutoring sessions because it seemed to make the tutor uncomfortable.

  7. This research required a high degree of interaction between myself and the individuals and situations being examined, as well as a significant level of intimacy. Parents treated me very warmly when I was in their homes, often offering me food and drinks. Families seemed comfortable with my involvement in their lives, which I attribute to the following factors: (1) Parents felt they could relate to me because I am white, Jewish, and also a parent; (2) Parents seemed to appreciate the notion of research. The parents were generally very giving with their time. One family was reticent at first because of the large time commitment, but they became very engaged in the research process after our first interview; they even noted that the interviews felt therapeutic and insisted that they were happy to keep talking even after our official interview time was over. The children also seemed comfortable and honest with me. Two of them opened up easily and were very chatty during interviews; the third child was terser, although this may have been her regular demeanor.


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I am grateful to Ari Y. Kelman, Judy Shulman, Lee Shulman, and three anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Ilana M. Horwitz.

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Horwitz, I.M. Foregrounding the Family: An Ethnography of How Families Make Decisions About Hebrew School. Cont Jewry 39, 155–172 (2019).

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  • Family systems theory
  • Ethnography
  • Jewish education
  • Bat/Bar Mitzvah
  • Hebrew school