Jewish education in America, from colonial times to today
In the mid-19th century, the new German Jewish immigrants--dissatisfied with the content and quality of Jewish studies--began to establish congregational day schools that combined secular and religious education. B'nai Jeshurun, New York City's first Ashkenazic synagogue, became the first to organize a day school in 1842. A few years later, Issac Mayer Wise [a luminary of the American Reform movement] founded the Talmud Yeladim in Cincinnati and, in 1851, the Hebrew Educational Society was established in Philadelphia. Despite tremendous initial enthusiasm, these schools did not last beyond the Civil War era.
By the 1870s, the Jewish congregation day school movement had collapsed in disarray for a variety of reasons, including the lack of national coordination and the transient nature of the Jewish population. Also, state education systems began to satisfy the needs of many Jewish parents.
By the late 19th century a growing number of German Jews began to believe that Jewish day schools would create an unhealthy division between Jewish and gentile communities at a time when Central European immigrants and their children were themselves becoming part of the American mainstream. American culture and integrated schooling were embraced as a tool of socialization.
At the same time as Jews became more integrated into general, public education, synagogues began developing supplementary Jewish schooling for religious instruction. Rebecca Gratz established the first Sunday school in Philadelphia, and other synagogues began full-day Sabbath and afternoon programs. The influence of Reform Judaism, focusing on the universalism rather than the particularism of Judaism, meant that many of these synagogue programs eschewed Hebrew and the study of classical texts in favor of monotheism and English translations of the Bible. The first Hebrew free schools also emerged, in the post-Civil War era, as a means of providing Jewish education for the children of less affluent parents and to counteract the influence of the Christian mission schools in Jewish neighborhoods.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants who felt little or no connection to most of the Jewish education options available. They generally rejected the free schools and the universalism of the Reform supplementary programs, with some in New York City gravitating instead to the community-based Talmud Torah schools, which used their native Yiddish as the language of instruction and emphasized traditional learning of Torah and Talmud.
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