Approximately five years ago, I was in search of a master’s degree that focused on American Judaism. As a public high school teacher, I was not in search of a program dealing with “education.” I have been teaching for about a decade and I did not want to move to a Jewish school; I wanted an education focused on sociological issues that Jews deal with in assimilated American society. I wanted to learn about diverse American Jewish communities. It is important to understand how they interact with one another, with other religious communities, and secular society. I found my options to be, to my surprise, incredibly limited in Southern California. In Orange County, they did not even exist.
In 2015, a Pew report claimed that Jews and Hindus are the most highly educated population in the United States. Yet, Jewish education, in a graduate level setting, seemed to be limited to the following: Jewish educators, theology, or a PhD program in Religious Studies. None of these fit my desired scope of interest.
It is a strange parallel, with little to no educational intersection. Our community looks at the Pew report, but does not cultivate a graduate degree that specifically asks and answers questions related to the report. It was important to find something that suited my educational curiosity, something that made these two ideas intersect.
I ended up at California State University Fullerton (of all places to study American Judaism) in the American Studies department. Fast-forward five years. I am completing my thesis this summer with the support of Dr. Leila Zenderland, the head of my thesis panel. My subject of focus is American Jews and their use of online communities: how space (internet vs. brick and mortar) has created a shift in cultural norms. My chapters include the following: religious outreach, online dating, and alternative sub-communities that contrast with Jewish communal norms.
Jewish education, at all levels, needs to have a wider scope. Not all Jews will become rabbis, Jewish community leaders, Talmud enthusiasts or Israel advocates. However, the majority of us born in the U.S. will remain here. This alone means Jewish education needs to prepare individuals to be Jewish Americans in a vast multicultural and multidimensional society.
Arguably, education is a key component of what keeps our community close. We learn about religion, culture and community as Jews. With education, we come from a common foundation that demonstrates understanding and harvests connections to Jews we just met.
In this month’s Jlife, we welcome you to not only engage in the magazine by reading, but perhaps also by writing in to our magazine. Share your educational experiences with us and/or tell us what Jewish education you would like to see in Orange County that may or may not exist as of yet.
Rachel Schiff is an English teacher who graduated from Cal State Fullerton. She was president of Hillel, a representative of World Union of Jewish Students and a YLD intern. Currently, she is a master’s degree student in American Studies with emphasis on Jews in America.