When I ask parents why they send their children to religious school (i.e., Hebrew or Sunday school), all of them talk about wanting their child to learn the history of the Jewish people and to feel part of the Jewish community. None of them have spoken about wanting their children to develop a relationship with God or to become religious. Yet, their children spend much of their time in religious school reading prayers, learning religious laws, and talking about God. Herein lies a palpable tension about the role of the Jewish religious school: should it view Judaism as an ethnicity and nurture children’s sense of connection to the Jewish people? Or should it aim to make children religious?
These contradictory goals are not new. They stretch back into the history of American Jewish education, almost to its very origins in the mid-19th century when, in response to Sunday laws, missionaries, and the emergence of American public education, American Jewish leaders started to consider how best to educate Jewish children in order to protect them from American Protestants. Should Jewish education come in the form of separate Jewish schools or should children attend public schools and receive Jewish education in supplementary settings?
Mostly, American Jews opted for the latter. Jewish immigrants saw public education as a welcome avenue to Americanization, acculturation and good citizenship. Public schools promised American Jews true equality, not mere toleration, in the law and social attitudes. Importantly, this equality rested on the condition that the schools be nonsectarian. But, American public schools retained and practiced a kind of non-denominational Protestantism, and students regularly had daily bible readings and prayer recitations. American public schools were not nonsectarian — they were nondenominational Protestant. By embracing public schooling, American Jews also embraced many Protestant values and attitudes— not least of which was the framing of Judaism as a faith in the Protestant mold.
The Protestant influence infused Jewish supplementary schools, too. In the mid-19th century, the Protestant Sunday school came about in response to high crime rates. In response, religious groups sought to bring self-discipline grounded in faith by enforcing laws that restricted public activities on Sundays. Jews of the period thought it would be best to keep Jewish children off the streets as well, which led to the formation of the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS). The founders of HSS saw it as a mechanism to counter missionaries and religious apathy. The HSS adapted its style and structure from Christian Sunday schools. Lacking materials of its own, HSS used Christian Sunday school catechisms, although they deleted “objectionable phrases” like ‘Christ’ and ‘Saviour’. HSS had a bibliocentric curriculum (e.g., students were tested on Exodus, Ruth and Esther) that reflected the Protestant rhetoric that filled the press at the time. Furthermore, HSS emphasized domestic piety, the hearts longing for and devotion to God, and God’s loving kindness— ideas that are staples of Jewish private meditation, prayers and mystical traditions. By emphasizing the more individualistic elements of Jewish devotion, HSS tailored Judaism to fit the common American belief that religion was a matter of personal conscience, in the Protestant mold.
Although American Jews ardently fought against Protestantism, they could not fully escape its influence. Quite the opposite: American Jews embraced and adopted elements of Protestantism as part of the process of becoming “Americanized.” Learning to be Jewish in America went hand in hand with learning to be Jewish in a Protestant mold, which meant that Jews began to view themselves as members of a primarily religious community. The tension between these distinct and often competing notions of religion continues to influence the landscape of Jewish education, as well as general debates about what it means to be Jewish in America.
Ashton, D. (2003). “The Lessons of the Hebrew Sunday School.” in American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader Edited by Pam Nadell. New York, N.Y.: NYU Press
Cohen, N. (1984). Chapter 2. Encounter with Emancipation. Philadelphia: JPS.
Klapper, M. R. (2005). Jewish girls coming of age in America, 1860-1920. NYU Press.
Richman, J. (1900). “The Jewish Sunday School Movement in the United States.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, 12(4), 563-601.