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Bonnie K. Goodman
Historian, Librarian, and Journalist

My Jewish education journey

My journey to this point in life has been long and winding, but always with a singular purpose. However, the confidence in asserting my Jewish identity has been a progression based on my Jewish education at home, formally in Jewish day schools, and through experiences. Despite an intensive Jewish education, in the years after finishing day school in the face of adversity and antisemitism, I too felt the fear, and it affected my public displays of Jewish identity. As Rabbi Zuckerman indicated, “When faced with the reality and sometimes danger of antisemitism, we can choose to retreat; we can pull back from Jewish practice, we can scale down our public identity.” [1] The mission of creating a strong Jewish identity to be confident about expressing their religion and supporting Israel publicly, which lasts through adulthood, is something that Jewish schools need to work on; it has to become more than a tagline because statistics counter this.

Amid the pandemic, educational philanthropist Manette Mayberg wrote this insight in her article, “The invaluable role of a Jewish educator.” Mayberg equates family and educators are interchangeable at different points and builds on Jewish identity. Mayberg said, “Educators, like family members, are uniquely positioned to offer personalized feedback and coaching grounded in Jewish principles aimed at honoring children’s efforts to grow and find meaning in their lives…. Jewish education integrally and uniquely guides the student’s Jewish identity with messaging that potentially influences the trajectory of each one’s personal life journey.” [2] 

In my life, I have had educators that influenced my life at various points, but no one did so more than my mother. My mother died three months ago; she had a chronic condition for a long time since I was a child, but her death was sudden. She influenced my life in every way possible. She was my first teacher. I grew up when daycare was not standard, and my mother chose not to send me to school until kindergarten. She taught me to read, draw, and color, and she and my father encouraged my creative play and imagination, and my first introduction to Judaism was at home. However, my mother taught me more than the basics; she introduced me to arts, culture, music, movies, history, and politics from an early age.

My parents instilled in me a Jewish identity and, as Rabbi Zuckerman expressed, “did their best to plant in us the love of Judaism and the Jewish people.” [3] However, Rabbi Nicki Greninger, director of education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif., recently explained that as much as parents try to teach, they provide a foundation. Still, a community and Jewish education beyond the home is necessary. Rabbi Greninger wrote, “Parents alone can’t teach their kids what it means to be Jewish because part of being Jewish is a connection to community. ‘Jewish’ is not an individual identity. It is a group identity. It is being part of a people… and being part of a Jewish community is an essential component of Judaism. We support each other through tough times, and we celebrate together in good times. We teach each other and we learn from each other. We do not do Judaism alone.” [4]

Jewish education was a must in my parents’ opinion, especially my mother, who had longed as a child to go to the Jewish People Peretz School just down the street from her, but her immigrant parents could not afford it. She wanted me to have everything she did not have as a child, including attending Jewish day school. For as long as I can remember, I loved the Hebrew subjects I took in school. In elementary school, I attended Hebrew Foundation School, a French immersion Jewish school in Dollard Des Ormeaux; and the highlight was the Hebrew half of my day. I love the plays and pageantry of the early grades, but one of the memories I most remember was in kindergarten, working with my mother on memorizing the Mah Nistanah in Hebrew. My mother was not privileged to learn Hebrew at home; her parents spoke Yiddish. My parents exposed me early on to English and Yiddish, but not Hebrew. In that, I was behind my peers.

Throughout my school years, my mother was the one that helped with my educational journey; there was not one homework assignment, test, or project that my mother did not help me with. My mother took me to school each day from the first day to the last day of my education and waited late as I attended group Bat Mitzvah classes. Outside of the classroom, she was the one that inspired my love for reading, making sure I had any book that interested me to keep reading. At school, I loved the Hebrew subjects, and it was no question that when it came time to choose a high school, I wanted to continue my day school education, and I wanted the most immersive experience possible then. My parents and I only considered two high schools. Now Montreal Jewish parents have various choices; living in Dollard in the 1990s, only two Jewish schools seemed like options: Herzliah High School, St-Laurent campus because of proximity, or Bialik High School because they offered a school bus. Before we moved to Dollard, I begun at the United Talmud Torah, and I wanted to finish my day school experience where I started.

My time at Herzliah shaped my life. An elementary Jewish day school introduces children to Jewish life and literature. Whereas high school, especially a Hebrew immersion program, should instill a high level of Judaic knowledge, preparing for life and further study. In 2014, Daniel Held, the executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, told the Globe and Mail, Parents are “also looking for institutions which will interest their kids in the Jewish identity and their connectiveness to their Jewish lives and to their heritage, religion and culture, and which add to the cultural mosaic of what it means to be a Canadian.” [5] Jewish educators believe that although elementary school provides the religious foundations for Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, high school develops Jewish identity. Russ Klein, the principal of King David High School in Vancouver, BC, finds, “People underestimate that high school is when teenagers determine who they’re going to be. It’s now starting to change as people realize that actually, if you want to keep them Jewish, you better educate them when they’re thinking about their identity.” [6]

As much as day schools attempt to instill a Jewish identity, in my experience, at the high school level, we see that mission takes a back seat in importance, whether the schools intend to. The general education classes were more important to the students because they were where their future careers would be. The students clarified to the teachers that math and science were more important in the hierarchy, and the school supported the feeling that sciences or professions meant success. Held even admitted in choosing a school, parents are “‘looking for quality and excellence,’ in traditional subjects such as math, science and literacy.” [7]

Unfortunately, years later, I saw how many did not appreciate Jewish day schools’ fundamental lesson and aim at the time. I went to high school just after the 1990 National Population survey in the US and the start of the Jewish continuity crisis, which quantified the threat of intermarriage and the survivalist reaction from Jewish communities. However, Canada, particularly Montreal, and Toronto, have and remains a unique place for Jewish education. In contrast, in Montreal, 54 percent and in Toronto, 43 percent of Jewish children have attended Jewish day schools. [8] Still, I have seen too many of my fellow day school graduates marry outside Judaism, despite the trio of Jewish educational experiences of day school, camp, and Israel trips. It was the opposite; I excelled in the Hebrew subjects, and they were my priority. Some grades, I had scores in Jewish history and Talmud in the nineties and graduated with an award for my Hebrew studies grades. While my Jewish identity was strong, I struggled with the opposite view of what success meant at my Jewish day school.

The arts are an essential part of education but are severely lacking in educational importance; however, had Herzliah not taught art; I would never have developed my talent. An unfinished painting assignment required me to complete it at home. My mother took me to the local Omer des Serres art supply store, where she bought me my first acrylic paint set and brushes. There I discovered the art cards of a local Quebec artist, Pauline Paquin, that would become my favorite artist, whose artworks I replicated as is the practice of beginning artists. Except for my later academic writing, nothing pleased my mother more than my art and painting. Also, affecting my trajectory was that my father died when I was in grade ten. My father worked hard to provide us with everything we needed, including my Jewish education.

In CEGEP, I combined my passion for art and Jewish studies, taking a degree in Communications: Art, Media, and Theatre focusing on the Fine Arts and a Major in Jewish Studies, which meant I took Jewish-related classes but also incorporated Judaics into my other classes, whether it be a Jewish related art projector an essay in English class. My goal was not the fine arts at university but McGill’s Jewish teacher training program. I dreamed of teaching at either school I graduated from. I amassed references from old teachers and waited in anticipation, as many students hope they will be accepted into their dream schools and program. I was excited when the letter came that I was accepted into the Secondary Education program culture and values education, which at the time allowed students to focus on Jewish studies as one of their teaching subjects.

Part 1: Antisemitism and Jewish identity in education

[1] Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Shabbat Sermon, Park Avenue Synagogue, February 25, 2023.

[2] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-invaluable-role-of-a-jewish-educator-a-funders-perspective/

[3] Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Shabbat Sermon, Park Avenue Synagogue, February 25, 2023.

[4] https://thecjn.ca/perspectives/opinions/jewish-schools-preserve-identity/

[5] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/jewish-schools-give-kids-identity-academics-and-connectedness/article20785049/

[6] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/jewish-schools-give-kids-identity-academics-and-connectedness/article20785049/

[7] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/jewish-schools-give-kids-identity-academics-and-connectedness/article20785049/

[8] Sigal Achituv, Meir Muller, Shelley T. Alexander, and Hanan A. Alexander. “Early Childhood Jewish Education Multicultural, Gender, and Constructivist  Perspectives,” New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History, and Art History and a Master’s in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.” 

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on the “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a historian, librarian, journalist, and artist. She has done graduate work in Jewish Education at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Jewish Studies at McGill University. She has a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies. Her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.” Ms. Goodman has been researching and writing about antisemitism in North American Jewish History, and she has reported on the current antisemitic climate and anti-Zionism on campus for over 15 years. She is the author of “A Constant Battle: McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and Now anti-Zionism.” She contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, and her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu where she is a top writer.
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