An Examination of the Impact of Critical Theory on Jewish Education

Sitting at the Birthright NEXT #NEXTwork gathering in the SouthEast and the conversation about young Jewish adults feeling like they are “bad Jews” or “not Jewish enough” just emerged – prompting me to repost AGAIN.

This was originally written as a paper for my EdD program for my course on Theoretical Foundations of Education Research & Practices.  During the Judaism2030 Conference sponsored by Jewish Outreach Institute, a panelist chose to show us a clip from “Glee” in which a teenager (Noah Puckerman) says, “I’m a bad Jew!” (click here to view the clip – towards the end).  This sparked me to share this paper, in which I examine the internal oppression that exists in our Jewish community.

An Examination of the Impact of Critical Theory on Jewish Education


Of the four theoretical frameworks used to explore education, the lens of critical theory leant itself to have the most potential for further author inquiry, especially in the field of Jewish education.  The three aspects specifically of interest are cultural capital, economic accessibility and internalized oppression.

Critical Theory in Jewish Education

Economic Accessibility

In examining the foundation of Critical Theory in education, Professor Alan Stoskopf writes in a presentation about the early critiques of economic inequality in education.  He provides an overview of how organizational structures often perpetuate class differentials.  He credits early thinkers with this prioritization, “Such renown thinkers as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer saw themselves as creating a new and more humane intellectual critique of social and economic inequality,” (n.d.).

Unlike public school education, almost all Jewish education opportunities have a significant end-cost to the consumer. Much has been written about the high cost of the endeavor of Jewish education and the prohibitive nature the collective price tag is to Jewish engagement for many people.  In 2008, a report about Jewish education in the 21st century brings this challenge into the spotlight.  “[There is a] persistence of Jewish schooling as a Jewish norm. The fact that more than 70% of all Jewish children receive some form of Jewish schooling today is itself a signal achievement, given the fact that such participation is not only entirely voluntary, but likely to cost the family thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars,” (Woocher, J, Rubin Ross, & Woocher, M., 2008, p. 7).

In an attempt to quantify the amount, scholar and researcher Jack Wertheimer, researched some basic and routine costs for key Jewish education experiences and access ways.  This especially pertains to the high cost of the most immersive types of Jewish education. Day school tuition can run from $10,000 to $30,000 per child for each year of enrollment; summer camps can cost $4-8,000 for a season; and trips to Israel are equally, if not more costly, depending on their duration. If these forms of Jewish education are not to become solely the province of the wealthy, large sums of scholarship money must be raised … spiraling costs of Jewish living are discouraging some families from taking maximal advantage of the rich offerings available. (2010)

As if the raw enormous expense of Jewish living wasn’t enough, the larger society assumption exists that all Jews are affluent.  This postulation alone is oppressive.  In his 2005 article, The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvements and Barriers, Professor Gerald Bubis quotes a 1984 study which estimates, “that as many as 700,000 or 13 to 15 percent of the total American Jewish population, were poor or near poor.”  There exists an oppressive financial nature in securing a Jewish education, and therefore an empowered Jewish identity, if people have to make a choice between a mortgage payment or religious school tuition. (Bubis, 2005)

Internalized Oppression

In her paper, “The Sixites: The Calm Against the Storm, or, Levels of Concern,” Maxine Greene (2000) spends some time examining Paulo Freire’s view of “internalized oppressors,” (p. 308).  These oppressors begin with how people are trained to accommodate the stratifications within a society.  Within the greater Jewish society, the elevation and stratification of certain kinds of Jewish expression and engagement sometimes leads to a perceived low self-worth within Judaism for those without those skills or observances.  This often gets expressed as being a “bad jew,” (Marcus, 2007).  Marcus writes, “Often people will say to me … ‘Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew.’ After hearing this so many times, it got me thinking…there is a plague afflicting many Jews: low Jewish self-esteem.”

In many cases, this oppression of the non-observant or limited-observant comes from those Jewish sects that are the most strictly observant. In his article, The Odd Couple, Eli Valley tackles the issue of the ultra-Orthodox demeaning and discounting those Jews who choose to observe as part of the Reform and Conservative movements.  Valley quotes one ultra-Orthodox Jewish leader saying,  “the Reform and Conservative sects that are the destroyers of the religion,” and another, “Reform Rabbis are further from Judaism than Christians and Muslims and that they should be considered as filthy, lying, shekotzim [non-Jews] who are criminals….” (2010).

This bold claim of authenticity and legitimacy creates internal oppression within Jewish society and often leads to low self-esteem and further disenfranchisement amongst some less-observant Jews. In a recent on-line forum, Rabbi Josh Hammerman answered this question from one reader, “I am not observant and the teacher of a class I’ve been taking has led me to believe that this makes me a bad Jew,” (2011).  If Jewish educators are perpetuating this oppression, it will be difficult for many Jews to break the cycle.

In order to counteract this oppression and resulting low Jewish self-esteem, Jewish educators and leaders should consider ways to explicitly work to eliminate this oppression, integrating lessons on Jewish pride.  Rabbi Hammerman suggests, “We all really need to be getting away from this ‘Good Jew / Bad Jew’ dichotomy, but to aim to be, as Dennis Prager calls them, ‘serious Jews,’ ever growing, seeking, learning, challenging our traditions – and increasing our capacity to love. Let’s get beyond the “good” and “bad” labels and strive, each of us, to be ascending Jews,” (2011).

Cultural Capital

Many Jewish education sociologists conduct research asking survey questions about the exposure youth have to Jewish books, art, music, and theater. Not typically identified as “cultural capital” as defined by leading secular theorists Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein, Elliot Weininger or Annette Lareau, Jewish sociologists tend to refer to the concept simply as a strong cultural foundation and as indicators of self-expression of Jewish identity, (Schifrin, 1997). Using the cultural capital framework defined by the secular theorists will enhance the perspective of how the concept can be utilized in Jewish life.

On the surface, cultural capital is primarily seen as the “general cultural background, knowledge, disposition and skills that are passed from one generation to the next,” (MacLeod, 2009, p. 13). MacLeod expands on the concept pointing to the role cultural encounters such as books, museums, music and theater all have on education attainment. According to the article Cultural Capital is Key to Preparing for College and Getting into a Good School, the definition of cultural capital originally started out as high-status cultural symbols such as going to the theater, but now cultural capital has several other definitions. “People possess cultural capital if … they have access to educational resources, meaning that they know how to navigate the educational system,” (ScienceDaily, 2010).

Author and sociologist Annette Lareau also uses cultural capital to highlight divergences in the educational experiences of youth, which is the focus of her piece entitled Unequal Childhoods.  In response to the financial barrier that often prohibits Jewish youth of having these educational experiences, Bubis introduces his readers to Carmel Chiswick who he says, “has coined the term ‘Jewish human capital’-the sum of a person’s skills, memories, and experiences, including the time devoted to acquiring this capital. She points out that few are motivated to acquire this capital, because the majority of Jews do not find it attractive,” (2005).  Bubis includes in his article several critical questions Chiswick posits about other ways to gain this capital:

  • What music is included among the cassettes and compact discs found in the cars and living rooms of the family?
  • What books and magazines are found in the home?
  • Is the home easily identified as Jewish by the art on the walls and the conversation at the dinner table?
  • Where has the family chosen to live?
  • Who are its friends, and are the values of the friends congruent?
  • What organizations are the children encouraged to join?
  • How is free time used?
  • Do vacations encompass the so-called “Jewish schizophrenic approach to travel”-enhancing the children’s sense of Jewish and American history wherever they go? Does trip-planning include reference to not only a Frommer’s but also a Jewish travel guide book?

These questions should influence Jewish education practices.  If outside of institution walls, Jewish leaders can teach Jewish families to consider the Jewish ways to answer and embody these questions, then the economic barrier to achieving institutionalized Jewish capital can be reduced or eliminated.  Bubis acknowledges that, “Such youngsters may still lack a “good” comprehensive Jewish education, but they will feel comfortable as a part of amcha [the general Jewish community] will enjoy being Jewish, and will feel positive about it. And the cost is the ‘human capital’ of their parents’ sensibility, regardless of economic status,” (2005).



Despite the erroneous assumption that social and economic stratification doesn’t exist amongst the global Jewish community members, the reality is that these factors do exist and have incredible impact on many Jewish people’s access to Jewish education.  Using the secular educational lens of critical theory, Jewish education practitioners should closely examine, and develop counter strategies for, the internal oppression, the economic barriers, and the restriction of cultural capital.



Baird, J. (2010, April 7). Jewish education begins at home [Editorial]. The Jewish Daily Forward,  opinion section. Retrieved from

Bayme, S. (2005, June). Forward. In G.B. Bubis , The costs of Jewish living: Revisiting Jewish involvements and barriers. Retrieved from American Jewish Committee (AJC) website: content3.aspx?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=843137&ct=1105787

Bubis, G. B. (2005, June). The costs of Jewish living: Revisiting Jewish involvements and barriers. Retrieved from American Jewish Committee (AJC) website: content3.aspx?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=843137&ct=1105787

Gorman, T.J. (1998). Social class and parental attitudes toward education: resistance and conformity to schooling in the family. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 27(1), 10-45.

Greene, M. (2000, Summer). The sixties: The calm against the storm, or, levels of concern. Educational Theory, 50(3), 307-320.

Hammerman, J. (2011, March 24). If I’m an ethical person, does that make me a good Jew? [Online forum message]. Retrieved from The New York Jewish Week, Special Section:

Indiana University (2010, August 15). Cultural capital is key to preparing for college and getting into a good school. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 21, 2010, from

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhood: the importance of social class in family life. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press. Retrieved from:

MacLeod, J. (2009). Aint no makin’ it. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Marcus, Y. (2007, May 21). Guest editorial: “Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew!” Retrieved from Chabad Lubavitch News website:

McLaren, P. (2002). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres, The critical pedagogy reader (pp. 69-96). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Schifrin, D. (1997). Conflicts and challenges of Jewish culture. The Reconstructionist, 62(1), 23-33.

Stoskopf, A. (n.d.). Critical theory in education [Data file]. Boston, MA: Northeastern University.

Valley, E. (2010, January 13). Articles. In The odd couple [commentary]. Retrieved from The Jewish Daily Forward website:

Weininger, E.B., & Lareau, A. Cultural capital. Retrieved from:

Wertheimer, J. (2010, January 15). The future of Jewish education [Interview Summary]. Retrieved from Institute for Global Jewish Affairs website: ShowPage.asp?DRIT=4&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=623&PID=0&IID=3225&TTL=The_Future_of_Jewish_Education

Woocher, J., Rubin Ross, R., & Woocher, M. (2008, January). Redesigning Jewish education for the 21st century. NY: Jewish Education Service of North America, Lippman Kanfer Institute.

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