Barry W. Holtz Reviews Jonathan Krasner: How One Man Shaped American Jewish Education
Source: The Forward, 8-19-11
The Benderly Boys and American Education
By Jonathan Krasner
Brandeis University Press, 496 pages, $95
In the early years of the 20th century, Samson Benderly stood with the legendary figures of American Jewish life: He was recruited to New York by Judah Magnes; he knew Henrietta Szold and Barnett Brickner; he battled Solomon Schechter; he met regularly with his benefactor, Jacob Schiff, and his closest friend was Mordecai Kaplan. Indeed, Kaplan wrote of Benderly, “He is to me the most positive force in Jewish life today.”
Benderly, more than any other single individual, shaped the institutions of American Jewish education that we know today; but aside from historians of American Jewry and scholars of Jewish education, his name is virtually unknown. Now, Jonathan Krasner, an assistant professor of American Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has produced “The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education” (Brandeis University Press, 2011), a prodigious and clear portrait of Benderly and his world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this volume is the most important piece of historical writing about American Jewish education to have appeared in a generation. Although many fine scholars have written about various aspects of Jewish education in America, no one until now has taken such a comprehensive view of it. Krasner’s book delves deeply into the crucial period of the field — the 20th century — and contextualizes the history of American Jewish education both within Jewish life and within modern education. The wonderful collection of photographs on display throughout the book adds to its charm.
Benderly, born into a traditional Hasidic family in Safed, arrived in America in 1898 from Palestine. Though he came to Baltimore for medical studies, he was drawn to Jewish teaching and eventually left medicine to become an educator.
Benderly was a visionary and was capable of inspiring others to follow his vision. He developed around him a group of remarkable young people who shared his excitement about changing the face of American Jewish education. These were the “boys” of the book’s title: Alexander Dushkin, Isaac Berkson, Emanuel Gamoran and many others. Krasner also points out the importance of a group of “Benderly girls” (such as Rebecca Aaronson Brickner and Libbie Suchoff Berkson), many of whom had important careers in Jewish education, though most of them did not go into the work of institutional leadership, which was more characteristic of male career paths at the time. An excellent companion to this book, therefore, is the 2010 book “The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965” (Brandeis). Edited by Carol Ingall, it comprises portraits of influential female Jewish educators.
When Benderly began his work, Jewish education was a hodgepodge of disorganized institutions, profoundly incompetent teachers, nonexistent textbooks and undefined curricula. Studies were often conducted in “dilapidated, dark, stuffy, and often filthy conditions.” Benderly’s main mission was to organize, modernize and Americanize Jewish education. He was, despite his traditional upbringing, a cultural Jew, and he saw Jewish education in the light of Ahad Ha’am’s Zionist dream and his focus on Jewish peoplehood. Therefore, Benderly placed a strong emphasis on Hebrew-language acquisition, with a focus on the Hebrew of the modern world, not that of the synagogue and traditional texts. It was Benderly more than anyone else who promoted the “natural method” in Hebrew education, using the approach that has characterized the ulpan, or Hebrew language school, in Israel and “immersion” techniques in foreign language learning today that have a strong emphasis on conversation and comprehension in real-life situations. In addition, Benderly introduced “technology” into Jewish education, developing magic-lantern (an early type of image projector) slides to use in instruction on Jewish holidays and the Bible. (If he were alive today, it would be fair to assume that he would be promoting social media and the Internet as means for Jewish education.)
Benderly also insisted on a system for training and accrediting teachers. He wanted to apply the findings of educational “science” (what we today would call “research”) to Jewish education. And he strove to create an organized, centralized system of support for, and supervision of, Jewish education, dealing with curricula, standard hours and classroom environments. He also understood the importance of the “informal” aspects of education, and one of his disciples, Albert Schoolman, was the prime mover in creating what is arguably the greatest and most original contribution of American Jewish education: the summer educational camp. All this flowed from Benderly and his followers….READ MORE