Jewish Schooling

Jewish education in America, from colonial times to today

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Eastern European Jewish tradition tended to favor education for boys far more than for girls, with a focus on bar mitzvah preparation and prayer recital taught by private tutors or in the exclusively male heder set­ting. By 1920, the Jewish education of girls became more accepted, and the seminaries for training teach­ers for the Hebrew schools enrolled an increasing number of female students. In addition, in the Yiddish secular schools that developed during the 1920s from Socialist and labor Zionist foundations, girls studied equally with boys. Most Jewish private day schools continued to be exclusively for boys. In the 1930s, Shulamith, the first day school for girls, opened with a curriculum virtually identical to that of the day schools for boys.

Day Schools

Beginning in the late 1930s and accelerating during and especially after World War II, the development of new Jewish con­gregational schools led to a focus primarily on reli­gious rather than cultural education. Congregational schools of different Jewish denominations were able to develop in new urban and especially suburban set­tings, but the Yiddish schools and the more radical and nationalist educational programs fared less well because of increasing economic mobility and the ac­culturation of the children of immigrants. With the es­tablishment of the State of Israel, the nationalist message became institutionalized within all but the most traditional Orthodox Jewish congregational schools.

One of the most astounding changes in modern Jewish education has been the growth of private Jew­ish day schools, a phenomenon that harkens back to the colonial era and the mid-19th century. This movement evolved [in part] because of the immigration of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic refugees arriving from Eu­rope before and after World War II. With no desire to integrate themselves into the American mainstream or to separate general from religious instruction, these Hasidim developed separate schools for boys and girls to prepare them to become observant, ultra-Orthodox Jews.

More surprising, perhaps, has been the devel­opment by the Conservative movement of its own Solomon Schechter Day Schools, which have been es­tablished in more than 60 communities. The Re­form movement has begun to develop day schools, although they represent only [a small percentage] of the overall total of these programs. The proliferation of these schools can be traced to the belief among many Jewish families born and educated in America that it is no longer necessary to send their children to public school to acculturate them as Americans. These par­ents want a Jewish educational system for their chil­dren because they want to imbue them with Jewish thought and values.

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