Jewish Schooling

Jewish education in America, from colonial times to today

Print this page Print this page

Not surprisingly, the, established German Jew­ish community viewed the Talmud Torah schools negatively because of their belief that sustaining the East European shtetl [village] traditions and religious practices represented a step backward from becoming full-fledged and culturally refined Americans.


Although settled "American Jews" created educa­tional institutions such as the Educational Alliance to transform immigrants and clashed with the newcom­ers over their desire to preserve old world ways, it did not take long for East European Jewish immigrants to accept the public schools for the education of their sons and daughters. The community cohesion neces­sary to create Jewish day schools that both offered reli­gious studies and also satisfied new state education requirements proved daunting.

Despite the reverence for tradition on the part of new immigrant families, most parents wanted their children to learn the lan­guage and values of their new home. Although East­ern European Jewish men created heders (religious elementary schools) to replicate educational institu­tions similar to those in the old country, American-in­fluenced sons did not necessarily share the enthusiasm of their fathers for the heder rav (leader) and the world he represented. By the beginning of World War I, only one-quarter of school-aged children received any Jewish education in New York City.

In significant decline, Jewish education required an infusion of modernization and new blood, and it came in the person of Samson Benderly. Benderly be­came professionally committed to Jewish education while studying medicine in Baltimore. In the second decade of the 20th century, he came to New York to develop and lead the new Bureau of Jewish Educa­tion. As its main goal, the Bureau sought to unite the city's Jewish population by connecting traditional Jewish forms to contemporary American ideals. Benderly encouraged Jewish educators to view the process of Americanization as compatible with building a viable Jewish culture in the United States.

At the same time as Louis Brandeis began to frame Zionism as fundamentally aligned with American val­ues, the founders of modern Jewish education used much of the same rhetoric to promote Jewish educa­tion as blending the best of American and traditional Jewish thought and practice.

Although the Bureau sought to build a Jewish "common" school, its limited financial resources shifted its focus to working with New York City's Tal­mud Torahs to improve and invigorate their curricula. But the new proliferation of Jewish educators precipitated the es­tablishment of Bureaus of Jewish Education in a vari­ety of other cities between 1915 and 1938, including Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Balti­more, and led to the founding of new Hebrew teachers colleges.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.