- The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education 1910–1965 ed. by Carol K. Ingall
The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965 brings to light the stories of some key female figures of American Jewish education of the twentieth century who have not received the attention they deserve. For that alone, the book is worth exploring.
The book opens with an introduction by Carol Ingall that sketches out a brief history of American Jewish education starting in the late eighteenth century, discusses the contributions and influence of Samuel Benderly and Mordecai Kaplan, and puts the contributions of influential female Jewish educators in historical and social context. The ten chapters that follow provide portraits of eleven women who were particularly influential through their work as teachers, administrators, writers, or social workers.
How did these women “reconstruct” American Jewish education? Ingall argues that they “not only recast Jewish education in the progressive, experiential model of John Dewey and his followers but also implemented a pedagogy based on the primacy of Hebrew language and culture” (p. 1). These women, most of whom were connected to the wider circles of either Kaplan or Benderly (or both), were leaders and “doers” in this work. Ingall continues by describing the gendered division of labor in the world of early twentieth-century [End Page 115] Jewish education: male disciples of Benderly ended up in administrative positions or working in academia, whereas women “implemented the Jewish educational responses to the social and cultural challenges facing the American Jewish community” (p. 16). Throughout the volume, Ingall and other contributors argue that men created educational theory, whereas women put it into action.
Contributors to this volume had a complex task: to address multiple frameworks of understanding these women’s lives. First, these life stories add color to our tapestry of the history of American Jewish education. Second, given that Jewish education is about transmitting Judaism from one generation to the next, this is a story of how these women used their work to build and reinforce Jewish identity, combining universalistic and particularistic elements to suit the times. And third, this is a story about gender: given the choices open to them, how did these women navigate nontraditional roles?
The best essays in this volume successfully move among these three analytical lenses. Take, for example, Miriam Heller Stern’s essay on Ethel Feineman and Grace Weiner and their San Francisco settlement house for immigrant women in their teens and twenties. Stern describes how Feineman and Weiner’s endeavors as social workers, and in fact as role models and surrogate mothers, allowed them to practice an impactful form of experiential education. They used their position as powerful women to expand the possibilities for gender roles for the women at the settlement house.
Similarly, Jonathan Krasner’s essay about children’s author Sadie Rose Weilerstein discusses Weilerstein’s success as an author and the contrast between her public portrayal of herself as an “accidental writer,” which Krasner attributes to her conformity to gender expectations, and her private dedication to the craft of writing. Krasner describes how Weilerstein’s writing—and even her books’ illustrations—captured the tension between Jews’ desires to assimilate, and the ways in which they were identifiably Jewish and lived primarily among other Jews. As with many of the women in this volume, Weilerstein was an informal Jewish educator: her stories modeled how American Jews might navigate between tradition and modernity.
The missed opportunity of the book is that the stories are told independently of one another. Each contributor was tasked with writing about a particular woman, and each author puts forward a particular thesis about her subject’s triumphs and challenges. Yet these analyses do not build on or engage with each other, leaving readers on their own to bring the themes of these chapters together. Although Ingall draws some connections between these women in her introduction to the volume, it is not enough. By the time I “met” the third or fourth woman in this volume (not to mention the...