The History of Jewish Education is not what You Think

This post is written by Jonah Hassenfeld, a second year student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

Perhaps more than anything else, the bounty of reactions to the recent Pew study demonstrates how much the goals of American Jewish education have changed since the beginning of the 20th century.

But not in the ways that you’d think.

Since the early 1990’s, conversations in the American Jewish community have become so wrapped up in the crisis of continuity that it is hard to remember that Jewish educators ever aimed at anything beyond ensuring that the next generation will affiliate with the Jewish community. To be sure, Jewish educators of an earlier generation built Jewish institutions that would ensure the transmission of Jewish knowledge and culture. But perhaps more than that, they believed that Jewish education was going to teach American Jews to become American.

As Jonathan Krasner describes in his book, The Benderly Boys, during the first decades of the 20th century, Samson Benderly, one of the architects of American Jewish education, tried to create a system of supplementary Jewish schools independent of synagogues that served geographically defined communities. In other words, Benderly based his system of Jewish education on the model of the American public school system. He was a strong opponent of Jewish day schools, arguing that in the past, the Jews “had paid dearly for their isolation” (27). And he was not alone.

A generation later, Ben Rosen, believed that Americanization ought to be an explicit outcome of Jewish education. He wrote that Jewish schools needed to teach students to “align… with the progressive and liberal forces which are struggling to preserve the democratic system in American and elsewhere” (345). Rosen observed with pride that “Jewish schools have very consciously and systematically introduced love of our country and its ideals into their program of studies” (345). A 1959 survey conducted by the American Association for Jewish Education, found that more than half of the 1,561 Jewish education leaders surveyed identified “freedom from feelings of inferiority in relationship to non-Jews” as an indispensable goal of Jewish schools. In contrast, only 376 identified Sabbath observance as an indispensable goal.

Lamenting the failures of Jewish education has become something of a popular hobby, and the results of the Pew Report seem only to confirm the popularity of that pasttime. But looking back over the course of the 20th century, we must at least consider the possibility that American Jewish education has succeeded spectacularly. Today, Jews have achieved the kind of integration that was previously the central aim of Jewish education. The reason it can sometimes look like a failure is that the goal posts have shifted, while the field has not.

  2 comments for “The History of Jewish Education is not what You Think

  1. Dan Ab
    November 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Interesting theory, but I don’t think you’re presenting data that remotely supports your conclusions. My understanding is that Benderly & the first generation of his followers lived at a time when there was little professionalization and standards for Jewish education and limited resources to make changes. Benderly opposed day schools, but it’s a stretch to say his primarily goal was Americanization rather than increasing the number of kids getting a serious Jewish education.

    Similarly you cherry pick two questions from a 1959 survey. I’m not sure I’d even say the first question on “freedom from feelings of inferiority” is about Americanization. It would seem to me to be more about pride in being Jewish. Also, I’m not surprised that educators didn’t think their school would change people who aren’t Shabbat observant, but I assume there were other questions about things like prayer and ritual literacy? What were the response rates to those questions?

    • November 5, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      Jonah Hassenfeld responds:

      Dan,
      Thank you. Benderly and his followers had many goals and you are right to emphasize their goal of professionalizing and modernizing Jewish education. It is important to note, though, by “professional” and “modern,” Benderly meant an educational approach that would prepare American Jews for life as Americans. Benderly and his followers opposed day schools explicitly on the grounds that they interfered with Jews integrating into American society, and they championed “Hebrew School,” as both a counterpart to and a continuation of public school. This was central to Benderly’s vision for Jewish education and it was taken up by some of his students. According to Walter Ackerman in his essay “The Americanization of Jewish Education,” Isaac Berkson, one of Benderly’s students, even argued in his 1920 doctoral dissertation that when the needs of America and those of Judaism conflict, those of America ought to take precedence. Promoting Americanization was at the heart of the Benderly project.

      Today, it is virtually the other way around as Jewish educators struggle to make Jewish content relevant to modern American Jews. My argument is that the fact that contemporary Jewish youth are so American is, at least in part, due to the efforts of 20th century Jewish educators, who sought to help waves of Eastern European immigrants integrate into mainstream American life.

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