An Interdisciplinary Approach:
Understanding Jewish Education
Within Broad Social Contexts

By Ilana Horwitz
Editor’s Note: Since 2012, The Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies (EDJS) at the Stanford School of Education has been a home for the creation and enhancement of research that spans the social sciences, humanities, and education. The Concentration is led by Professor Ari Kelman. In this Guest Blog series, “Shaping the field of Jewish education,” we hear from three current students in the program pursuing their PhDs. 

My experience as a PhD student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University is exceeding my expectations in every possible way. The interdisciplinary nature of the concentration has been especially valuable because I have been able to take classes in, and learn methodologies from, the fields of sociology and education policy. As a result, I examine American Jews and their experiences with Jewish education within the broader social context in which they live. Through my interdisciplinary training and collaborations with scholars outside of Jewish studies, I hope to advance the theoretical and methodological rigor in the Jewish education field.

A particularly helpful part of my studies at Stanford is my fellowship from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (part of the GSE Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA)). The IES Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Program in Quantitative Education Policy Analysis provides doctoral students with advanced training in state-of-the-art quantitative methods of discipline-based education policy analysis. Through this program, I am participating in an interdisciplinary core curriculum consisting of coursework in education policy, discipline-based theory, and applied quantitative research methods. I hope to significantly improve the way scholars, funders and practitioners of Jewish education think about evaluating the effectiveness of their work.  There are ample opportunities to conduct more rigorous research and evaluation studies by improving our standards for what counts as rigorous research, and by adapting quasi-experimental methods used by scholars of public education.

As I work towards completing my Certificate in Quantitative Research Methods through the CEPA IES Program, I am exploring the interaction of religion and education in three populations: families, adolescents, and emerging adults. I think it is quite misleading to study American Jews separately from their social environments. Thus, in most of my research, I examine Jews in the non-Jewish contexts they inhabit to illuminate how social contexts and sociological phenomenon influence their lives and choices about Jewish engagement and Jewish education. 

Currently, I am looking at how being religious affects how adolescents and college students from all religious denominations in the U.S. perform in school. Central to this work is my dissertation entitled, The Long Arm of God: How Religiousness Shapes Educational Outcomes. Based on secondary analyses of longitudinal surveys and interviews from the National Study of Youth and Religion, I find that more religious students consistently report better grades than their less religious peers, even after accounting for social class, gender, and race. I find that religious adolescents are more conscientious and agreeable, traits that are linked with academic success. Being religious helps adolescents in middle/high school because they are rewarded for being obedient, respectful, disciplined, and cooperative. Next, I will examine whether the traits that help religious adolescents in high school continue to help them in college.

As I progress in my studies, I look to further hone my interests, build relationships with colleagues, and continue exploring new areas of research. I am particularly excited about my collaboration with five Stanford scholars, including Abiya Ahmed, to conduct longitudinal surveys and interviews with 150 Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and Christian college freshmen over their first year. Our goal is to understand how they form social networks and construct their identities from the time they set foot on campus. We focus on how identity construction occurs through social networks by building on earlier research I did with Dr. Ari Kelman and my colleagues to examine how American Jews construct, negotiate, and reaffirm their Jewishness through ongoing social interactions. This research serves as a counter narrative to literature that conceives of Jewish identity as something that inheres in individuals, and can be cultivated, strengthened, or enhanced. Two papers resulting from this study are published in Contemporary Jewry and Jewish Social Studies.

I also want to note two key opportunities that would help strengthen the Jewish education field. First, we would greatly benefit from stronger researcher-practitioner partnerships (although this is not a problem solely in the Jewish education field). It is a shame that scholars conduct research that never reaches the hands of our educators and decision-makers. And, it is a shame that Jewish organizations don’t have more opportunities to collaborate with researchers to build their knowledge and to improve their work. With help from The AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and The Crown Family, among others, CASJE (whose Board I recently joined) is bringing together researchers, practitioners, and philanthropic leaders to strengthen our field.

Second, we need to do a better job designing studies to identify strategies and practices that predict learning and engagement. This means better evidence using regression techniques, which allow for deeper analysis and understanding of associations between variables. Our field needs to raise the standards for what counts as quality research and to incorporate decades of knowledge from the general education field. Of course, none of this can happen without stellar graduate programs to train future scholars.

Ilana M. Horwitz is a PhD Candidate in Sociology of Education & Jewish Studies at the Stanford School of Education

Cross-posted from the Jim Joseph Foundation Blog

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1 CommentLeave a comment

  • Ilana,
    I agree with you that there should be a stronger connection between researchers and practitioners in the field of Jewish education. I invite any researcher such as yourself to come to NewCAJE this year in Hartford (July 29-Aug1) where 500 practitioners will gather to share what they have learned in their schools and classrooms.

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