Hasidic Learning

Jewish education research takes place in summer camps and informal settings, in congregational schools and community schools, and in Jewish day schools of all stripes—all stripes, that is, other than American haredi (also known as ultra-Orthodox). Even within American haredi schools, the small amount of research that has been conducted tends to be in yeshivish schools—those that follow the Lithuanian yeshiva model—rather than hasidic ones. Hasidic schools’ learning practices and culture, however, have not been studied at all. Education in these schools takes place in Yiddish and can be confusing even to those with familiarity with Jewish texts, cultural practices and beliefs.

Preliminary research suggests that schools play a central socializing role in these communities, inculcating in students a wide-ranging sense of hasidic identity and promoting a deep and broad Jewish literacy that extends to nearly every aspect of Jewish communal life. Yet to achieve this level of Jewish literacy, schools forgo a robust secular education and many of the cultural and extra-curricular aspects of most American schools.

This project aims to understand how these schools function to construct both Jewish learning and Jewish culture, and how students’ Jewish lives relate to their positions in American society more generally. The data that has so far been gathered from hasidic schools has demonstrated that hasidic groups integrate hasidic culture with American society in radically different ways. Choices that schools make about who teaches secular subjects, what textbooks are used, and what language is spoken, interact with students’ community language use and secular exposure to produce dramatically different models of secular cultural engagement—sometimes even within the same Hasidic group.

It is worth recognizing that the nuanced findings in Hasidic contexts may also offer a model for thinking more critically about Jewish education in other contexts.  Closely examining the cultural and religious choices of different Hasidic schools may help researchers better understand aspects of Jewish education in other communities that may have otherwise been taken for granted or overlooked.