News & Events

Why CASJE? - Benjamin M. Jacobs

May 16, 2017

In "Why CASJE?," members of CASJE's Board of Directors share why they became involved in Jewish education, how they see CASJE as contributing to the field, and other insights related to applied research.

Benjamin M. Jacobs, Visiting Associate Professor of Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts at The George Washington University, has spent most of his professional career preparing social studies teachers and Jewish educators for school and non-school settings, and consulting with various Jewish education agencies on curriculum and teaching.  His research focuses on the history and theory of social education, Jewish education, and teacher education on the American scene, and the implications for today’s educational practices. Along with colleagues Barry Chazan and Robert Chazan, he recently published Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017), which addresses the historical and contemporary centrality of education in Jewish life, as well as its future prospects. Jacobs earned his Ph.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. He has served on the social studies faculty at the University of Minnesota and New York University, where he was co-founder and assistant director of the graduate program in Education and Jewish Studies. Earlier in his career, he taught history at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. A past chair of the Teaching History SIG of the American Educational Research Association, Jacobs presently serves as chair of the Network for Research in Jewish Education.

As a curriculum historian, I am interested in how and why particular educational ideas, programs, and practices developed in the past; the circumstances in which they emerged; how they evolved over time in light of changing circumstances; and their long-term effects on the way things are done in schools and society. Occasionally, I am asked by a somewhat exasperated reader what any of this stuff has to do with the real world, here and now—in other words, who cares?

Naturally, this kind of question makes me bristle. My colleagues in medieval Jewish thought, colonial American history, and so forth, are not regularly asked to explain what makes their work relevant. It just needs to be accurate, informative, and eye-opening enough to capture contemporary imaginations and thereby broaden contemporary horizons. But, truth is, when you work in the field of education, the general expectation is that your research needs to have some sort of direct and immediate applicability to educational activities in order to be worthwhile.

Why CASJE?  The emphasis on the value of “applied” knowledge implies that the Jewish professional world presently has too many opinions and not enough facts to support them, or too much prescription without description, prognosis without diagnosis, or theory without practice. What knowledge is of most worth, then, is that which is based on solid evidence and can tangibly move the needle now and into the future.

A project I co-direct with Jonathan Krasner, entitled “Jewish Historical Understandings,” builds on the interest in applied research by focusing squarely on what learners actually gain from the study of Jewish history, not just on what they should get out of it, which is where most of the attention has focused to date. The book I just completed with my colleagues Barry Chazan and Robert Chazan, titled Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education—even with its heavy emphasis on history and philosophy—nonetheless concludes with ideas on where the American Jewish education enterprise can feasibly go from here.  My work with the Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts program at George Washington University seeks to understand how people learn Jewishly in non-school settings, and to apply this learning to the preparation of educators for Jewish museums, community centers, and other cultural organizations.

CASJE’s focus on applied studies in Jewish education has helped make me increasingly conscious of for whom and what I toil, how, and to what effect. It’s been an interesting reflective process for me as a scholar of Jewish education, and it’s also taken me in a variety of new, fun, and exciting directions with my work.