- The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education
In The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, Jonathan B. Krasner chronicles what he calls the “Benderly revolution in American Jewish education” (3). This revolution—spearheaded by Samson Benderly and his “disciples”—included supplementary schools, summer camps, administrative bodies designed to coordinate educational efforts, and publications. As Krasner notes, much of the existing scholarly work on American Jewish education swims in administrative and organizational details and loses sight of the intellectual and cultural significance of efforts to educate Jewish children. Krasner’s book is also very detailed, yet he succeeds in showing that the history of American Jewish educational efforts speaks directly to the way Jews “negotiated, synthesized, and [End Page 227] performed their multiple identities” during the first half of the twentieth century (4).
Samson Benderly’s pioneering efforts to reform educational practices are well covered here. Krasner focuses to an equal extent on the “Benderly Boys,” men generally a generation younger than Benderly who initially revered him but whose relationships with Benderly became more complicated over time. These “boys,” especially Isaac Berkson, Alexander Dushkin, and Albert Schoolman, emerge as complex thinkers on the critical question of how best to educate American Jewish youth. Kranser moves beyond administrative minutiae by demonstrating that Benderly’s vision was much more than an educational program. “It was a paideia,” Krasner explains, “an educational process designed to realize a conscious cultural ideal, or what Berkson called ‘a vision of the rebirth of Jewish life’” (10).
Krasner faced some challenges with source material. There is little surviving evidence, for example, of what actually happened in classrooms. Still, Krasner does well in reading surviving lesson plans, student interviews, and photos of classroom settings. The majority of evidence, however, comes from the Benderly Boys themselves, especially their correspondence with each other.
Significantly, Krasner notes that not all of Benderly’s “boys” were boys. Though the surviving material on Benderly’s female disciples is even more scant, Krasner does not ignore Benderly’s influence on women, especially Rebecca Aaronson Brickner.1 Even though Benderly was troubled by the gap in educational opportunities for boys and girls, he held conventional attitudes about gender roles, expecting women to quit their jobs when they had children. Krasner’s discussion of women who orbited within Benderly’s sphere of influence is informative. It also would have been interesting for him to delve more deeply into the gendered dimensions of American Jewish masculinity and to ask whether the Benderly Boys sought to redefine what it meant to be an American Jewish man through their educational efforts.
Two key themes of Benderly’s educational philosophy emerge in the book’s first part, “Making Order Out of Chaos, 1900–1939.” Benderly was deeply anticlerical and thought that Sunday schools based in congregational settings failed to educate Jewish youth. He was also passionate about acquiring Hebrew language through immersive learning, [End Page 228] known as Ivrit b’Ivrit (literally “Hebrew in Hebrew”). In these early years, Benderly hoped to “build a system that was at once complementary to and analogous with the public schools” (91). His ultimate goal was for Jewish education to contribute to a Jewish renaissance in the United States. Krasner misses a chance to compare the parameters of this intended renaissance to other contemporary efforts both in the United States and abroad. Martin Buber, for example, receives no mention here; it would have been useful to know how the Benderly Boys viewed Buber’s efforts at fostering a renaissance of Jewish culture in Germany during the same period.
On the other hand, Krasner skillfully contextualizes Benderly’s efforts within broader themes of American history. Readers learn how John Dewey’s ideas influenced the Benderly Boys, as well as how progressivism and especially its emphasis on efficiency mattered to American Jewish educators. We see the Benderly Boys’ critical responses to educational reforms such as the Gary Plan. Krasner shows how “politics and shifting philanthropic priorities” during World War I doomed some of Benderly’s early efforts, as well as how the...