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Education Giant, 77, Left Major Legacy

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a prominent lay leader in Jewish communal life who had recently gotten to know Seymour Fox, arguably the most important visionary in Jewish education during the past half century. I mentioned that I had had dinner in Fox’s apartment in Jerusalem a few weeks prior. She turned to me with some surprise and said, “Does Seymour live in Jerusalem? I thought he lived in America.”

Despite the fact that Fox immigrated to Israel in the mid-1960s and lived there until his death on Monday at the age of 77, in many ways he did live in America — in the ideas that he promulgated, through the individuals who were once his students and the work of institutions that he created or influenced, including Camp Ramah, the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, the Teachers Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Commission on Jewish Education in North America, the Jerusalem Fellows, the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education and the Mandel Foundation. After moving to Israel, he headed the School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, advised four Israeli ministers of education and worked with philanthropist Morton Mandel to launch a slew of important programs and initiatives.

Fox committed himself to a career in Jewish education in North America at a time when many of his contemporaries at JTS, where he was ordained a rabbi, and the University of Chicago, where he began his doctoral studies, saw the field as a kind of backwater. Lay leaders who supported and cared about Jewish education were few and far between, as he himself has pointed out. He, however, had the insight to understand that without a vibrant system of education and people qualified to work in that system, American Jewish life would face a crisis. Recognizing that need, he abandoned thoughts about going into Jewish scholarship or the professorate in general education and turned his energies to Jewish education.

It’s clear that Fox’s upbringing in a traditional Jewish home that valued Jewish learning had a profound influence on his own thinking about the nature of Judaism and Jewish education. His family background set the scene for two elements that run as a kind of leitmotif throughout his academic career: One was a deep respect and admiration for scholars who exhibit great depths of Jewish knowledge. The second was an equally deep commitment to sharp intellectual inquiry and the value of asking penetrating questions.

Given Fox’s upbringing, it is no surprise that he was drawn to and worked with those individuals in the academic community who, along with their scholarly credentials, exhibited the kind of encyclopedic Jewish knowledge most valued in the traditional Jewish world. It is no accident, therefore, that during his years as a student and later a teacher and dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Fox developed close connections to both Rabbi Louis Finkelstein and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It is also significant that Fox did his doctorate at the University of Chicago during the time that the university was influenced by its visionary president Robert Maynard Hutchins. Fox clearly breathed the same air of open inquiry and appreciation for “Great Books” that characterized the University of Chicago during those years.

In light of his own background, it is not surprising that one of Fox’s most important influences on American Jewish education was a commitment to enlisting important Jewish scholars in the enterprise. Because of his own personal attachment to scholarship and individuals of great learning, Fox was, perhaps, the first person to recruit Judaica scholars — particularly from the academy — to do actual work in the field of Jewish education. It was rare indeed for major scholars to involve themselves in the work of Jewish education. It is certainly true that prior to Fox significant work in American Jewish education was done by rabbis, but Fox felt that Jewish education required the insights of academics, individuals on the cutting edge of scholarship.

Fox had the opportunity to bring this about through his connection to two institutions already working in the field. The first was the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah. Although Fox was not one of the original founders of Ramah, early on he came to have a key role in the Ramah camps, in essence becoming the chief educational theorist behind the camps’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. Fox saw Ramah as an opportunity to realize a number of educational goals. One of these was developing the original idea of having a Jewish scholar, usually from JTS, in residence at each camp. The scholar’s role was, as Fox put it, “to encourage intellectual ferment.” In addition, the scholar was simply to be there, as a role model for campers and staff of what a profoundly learned person looks like and does. Of course, scholars-in-residence did do other things — they taught the staff, they helped deal with questions of Jewish law and practice, they met with campers — but their main job was to be themselves.

Another Jewish institution closely associated with the Seminary allowed Fox a chance to involve scholars in Jewish education in an even more serious way. This was the Melton Research Center. In 1959, Samuel Melton, a lay leader with a desire to change Jewish education (because of the unhappy experiences of his own children in supplementary school), met Seymour Fox, at that time a young administrator at JTS. Out of that encounter the Melton Research Center would come to be born.

As Fox began to work on the plan that Sam Melton eventually funded, he built in a central role for Jewish scholars in the work of Jewish education. This was first realized in the Melton Faculty Seminar at the JTS, a regular gathering of some of the brightest young stars on the seminary faculty. Fox saw this as an opportunity to expose these Judaica scholars to sophisticated thinking from the world of education.

Scholars were engaged to write books that interpreted contemporary scholarship so that teachers could construct lessons based on the latest thinking from the field. The first book of this sort was Nahum Sarna’s “Understanding Genesis,” still in print 35 years after its publication. Some have suggested that the Melton Center’s support for “Understanding Genesis” had another, quite unintended positive consequence. In writing a book for teachers, Sarna and the Melton team of advisers had created one of the first works to popularize Judaica scholarship for the general reader. It set the stage for a whole genre of works that were to follow. Aside from these general background works for teachers, Judaica scholars came to have an important role reviewing Melton curriculum materials as they were being written.

I once asked Fox why Melton decided to begin with Genesis rather than some other Jewish subject area or classical text. “So people would understand that the Bible wasn’t junk,” he replied tartly. As he explained, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the so-called conflict between science and religion (between the Bible and evolution, for example) came to be seen as a powerful attack on the Bible as a legitimate source of wisdom or area of study. In this conflict the Bible was losing — it was common to view the Bible as simply a primitive and outdated work of science. Educators did not have much of a response to this critique. What the Melton Center tried to do in its curriculum work was to view the Bible simultaneously as a core text of values and as an interesting domain for academic, historical study.

It was an approach that infused Fox’s efforts and will hopefully prove to be a lasting legacy.

Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This article was adapted from an essay that appears in “Educational Deliberations: Studies in Education Dedicated to Shlomo (Seymour) Fox” (Keter Publishing House, 2006).


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