Jewish education in America, from colonial times to today
Reprinted with permission from the American Jewish Desk Reference (The Philip Lief Group).
In the United States, education in the traditions of Judaism has had a complex history, which has been dominated by numerous shifts in its orientation and goals. From the colonial period, when the small Sephardic community established its first private school, to the congregational schools established by the German-Jewish community in the mid-19th century, to the community-based Talmud Torah schools that served the Eastern European immigrants of the early 20th century, Jewish education has attempted to parallel and complement the American educational system and to create lasting institutions that preserve and sustain Jewish life as a vital force for the next generation.
Jewish education has been used both for Americanization and for preserving European Jewish culture and tradition. It has been the source of controversy and debate over the relationship between religious and secular education.
The First Jewish Schools
The earliest Sephardic Jewish settlers in North America either educated their children privately in their own homes or paid for them to be taught in private schools. In the colonial era and throughout the early 19th century, education was not considered to be a Jewish communal responsibility.
The first official school under Jewish auspices was established at Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) in 1731 in New York City. Focusing on Hebrew studies, the school (although attached to the synagogue) operated as a separate entity with its own fees. In 1755, Shearith Israel expanded to include secular subjects, such as English composition. After closing during the Revolutionary War, the school reopened and functioned as a day school until 1821, receiving state funds as part of New York's newly created common school system that enabled poor Jewish children to receive an education.
Overall, few 18th-century congregations established lasting institutions. There was a general belief that Jewish education was part-time and secondary. Secular and religious studies were seen as separate activities.