En-gendered Identities:
Accounting for Gender in Religious Educational Role Modeling

Rachel Furst

The goal of this project is to highlight the function of role models or mentors in young, religious women’s construction of religious identity. Are high school students looking for models of the religious personalities they aspire to become? What sort of guidance and/or models are they seeking? Where are they looking for these models, and where are they finding them? Are these models significant to their religious development, and, if so, how? The study presented herein is an attempt to identify and explore the meaning and relevance of religious role modeling to teenage students and their teachers in a Jerusalem-based high school for girls.

The project itself is divided into three parts: (1) a theoretical section, which reviews the related literature in the field of general education and explores the function of role modeling in religious education; (2) a presentation of the author’s own research, i.e., a case study built upon interviews with students and teachers at the Pelech School, along with an analysis of some themes that emerged; and (3) a prescriptive section, in which the author provides recommendations on the basis of the Pelech model.

The goal of this project is to provide an in-depth and (hopefully) insightful analysis of an educational issue of contemporary relevance. It is the author’s acknowledged belief, from the outset, that role models are critical to religious development and that the availability and accessibility of religious models significantly impacts the formation of students’ religious personalities.

The Pelech School was a natural choice of “subject” for a study on gender and religious education. Pelech is a unique institution in many ways, and most significantly for the project in question, it is a school that is aware of both the educational importance of role modeling and the impact of gender on identity formation. This awareness does not make Pelech a typical religious, girls’ high school, but it does make it a fruitful and thought-provoking case study. The author hopes that although it may not be statistically representative, either of the Orthodox world or even of Pelech itself, this case study will at least raise relevant questions and serve as a catalyst for further research. Using the portraiture method developed by Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, the author presents her research in this section as a narrative “portrait” that provides a particular glimpse into the educational world of students and teachers at one high school.

The purpose of interviews with students was to find out whether students are conscious and desirous of the function that role models play in their construction of religious identity and whether that function is being fulfilled by their teachers. The questions posed in the student interviews aimed to glean a sense of: (1) do girls in religious high schools perceive their teachers as models for life or as sources of information; (2) are they looking for role models at all, and if so, where are they are finding those models; (3) does the gender of their teachers affect students’ ability to perceive them as role models; and (4) do they perceive their teachers as religious figures, and does gender impact their ability to do so?

In interviewing teachers, the goal was: (1) to determine whether teachers are conscious of their function as religious models; (2) to find out how teachers present themselves as religious models (through conversations with students, bringing students to their homes, etc.); (3) to record the types of religious models that teachers are presenting; (4) to ascertain whether these teachers perceive their students as searching for religious models; and (5) to pinpoint how teachers determine whether their efforts at religious modeling are successful, and whether students are receptive, satisfied, and so forth.

These questions could easily be asked of male educators teaching male students (and perhaps should be), but since the focus of the current study was relationships between female educators and their female students, the author asked interviewees to be conscious of the gender factor and to give expression to their sensitivities as female teachers in particular. Do female teachers perceive themselves as filling a modeling function (for their female students) that their male colleagues cannot? How do they define that function, and how do they respond to that need? Do they sense that their students are sensitive to gender issues as well?

The overarching theme that emerged from all of the conversations was students’ self-expressed need for religious direction as the products of an educational system that does not hide complexity. Students and teachers alike probed the implications of exposing students to multiple voices of authority and stressed a need for balance between long-range educational goals and addressing students’ immediate conflicts and concerns. Pelech emerged as school that has, rather than a dearth of role models, a confusing overabundance of religious figures whose broadcasted messages often conflict.

In the prescriptive part of the essay, the author recommends ways in which the structure of girls’ high schools might be adjusted to place greater emphasis on religious modeling and to achieve greater measures of success.


Download Article ( MSWord 179K) Back to Journals 02 Bio

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.