- Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools by Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman and Elana Maryles Sztokman
Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2013. 349 pp.
The 2014 decision of the principal of a coeducational Orthodox Jewish high school in New York to allow a girl student to lay tefillin during the school’s daily morning prayers stirred vehement debate within the Jewish press and the Jewish community, with opponents declaring this egalitarian practice a rebellion against tradition.1 In Educating in the Divine Image, Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman and Elana Maryles Sztokman confront this type of reaction, arguing that both boys and girls must be encouraged to realize their full potential in the religious and academic spheres, as both are created in the image of God.
Beyond its scholarly contribution, the research presented in the growing number of books and articles on gender and education has led to efforts to redress the gender imbalances in schools, by rewriting curricula, introducing special programs to encourage girls to specialize in math and science, and intensifying teacher preparatory courses and in-service education programs in which teachers learn about the influence of their actions and messages on their students’ emerging gender identities. As these studies have shown, when the sexes are represented in traditional roles in textbooks and in the accompanying illustrations; when teachers and principals encourage boys to major in sciences and girls in humanities; and when schools model a hierarchy in which men are principals and women, teachers—all these have the effect of limiting the students’ perception of the opportunities open to them.
Building upon this body of research, Gorsetman and Sztokman have turned their attention to Orthodox Jewish day schools, which comprise the great majority of Jewish day schools in the United States. Their book is a pioneering one in the field of gender and Jewish education in its scope and comprehensiveness. While it focuses specifically on Orthodox schools, many of the issues it raises are relevant to liberal Jewish schools as well. Basing their research on questionnaires to teachers, interviews with students and anecdotal evidence from their own experience, the authors ask questions [End Page 137] similar to those asked by general educational researchers: What messages do the day schools give their students about gender roles, and how do these messages impact the students’ lives and identities?
The authors’ first area of attention is the classroom, in which boys and girls have different experiences of Judaism. As early as the weekly pre-school Shabbat party, boys recite Kiddush and girls light candles. This gender differentiation often continues in the formal curriculum in elementary and high school, when the boys study Talmud while the girls are taught lighter courses in “oral Torah.” Gorsetman and Sztokman advocate a vision of “compassionate education,” in which both sexes are given equal opportunities to master all the subjects in the curriculum and gain experiences important for a deep understanding of Judaism.
The second chapter turns to Jewish texts, which, like all texts, are potent agents of socialization. The authors examine Israeli and American workbooks and note that, with a single exception, boys appear in them two to four times as often as girls. Moreover, women are largely absent from classical Jewish texts, and when they do appear, they have no authority. Gorsetman and Sztokman suggest that core values represented by the female figures in Jewish texts, such as Esther’s courage and Rebecca’s wisdom, be incorporated into the curriculum and emphasized. Only awareness of the importance of role models for girls can help bring about this change.
The third chapter deals with single-sex vs. coeducational settings. The former are often viewed in the modern Orthodox community as more religiously correct. Research on non-Jewish educational frameworks has demonstrated that, from this point of view, the framework is less important than the attention paid to interactions among the students and between students and teachers. Bullying can take place in both settings, as can empowerment. Boys need to be encouraged to express their interest in the...