By August, consumers have already been bombarded for weeks with advertisements for notebook sales and fashionable classroom wear; it's back-to-school season. Millions of Americans are beginning another year as students or teachers (or both). While debate swirls about test scores, underachieving schools, and student debt, at JWA we are considering a more specific question: what has been the relationship between Jewish education and American public education, and what were (and remain) the consequences for Jewish American women?
The heavily Protestant culture and institutional infrastructure of 19th and 20th-century America made religious education an issue of vital importance for Jewish immigrants.
In a letter to her parents written in the 1790s, Rebecca Samuel, a German immigrant, explained the difficulties of rearing Jewish children in Petersburg, Virginia:
"Dear parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virginia] ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shohet [slaughterer of animals and poultry] here who goes to market and buys terefah [nonkosher] meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Ha-Shanah and on Yom Kippur the people worshipped here without one Sefer Torah, and not one of them wore the tallit or the arba kanfot, except Hyman and my Sammy's godfather. The latter is an old man of sixty, a man from Holland. He has been in America for thirty years already; for twenty years he was in Charleston, [where] there is a blessed community of three hundred Jews.
…All the people who hear that we are leaving [for Charleston] give us their blessings. They say that it is sinful that such blessed children should be brought up here in Petersburg. My children cannot learn anything here, nothing Jewish, nothing of general culture. My Schoene [her daughter], God bless her, is already three years old; I think it is time that she should learn something, and she has a good head to learn. I have taught her the bedtime prayers and grace after meals in just two lessons. I believe that no one among the Jews here can do as well as she.…
Rebecca's belief that her daughter had "a good head to learn" reflects a willingness to push the boundaries of traditional Jewish roles for women. Boys had preference in Jewish educational settings because they needed to prepare to provide ritual leadership for their families and communities, while women's religious duties were limited to domestic Sabbath and holiday observances. Before, and for decades after, the first bat mitzvah took place in 1922, there were few opportunities available for Jewish women in America to receive a religious education. Rebecca's optimism and regard for her daughter's capabilities represented a harbinger of the changes to come in this new, American context.
Many issues that were already difficult for immigrants, such as the question of assimilation, crystallized around education. Was it better, Jewish immigrants wondered, for their children to go to school with non-Jews who might help them assimilate to this new land? Or was it safer for Jews to stick together in order to preserve their culture and traditions? Public schools often taught customs and lessons that Jews found offensive or alienating, such as mandatory readings from the New Testament. An 1851 law passed in New York City rendered Bible readings discretionary, but Christian thought and values still permeated American public schools. In spite of these obstacles, many Jewish immigrant women went to great lengths to take advantage of the educational opportunities in America.
American Jewish women were active participants in the struggle for educational equality and access, including (in alphabetical order): Paula Ackerman, the first woman to become the official spiritual leader of a mainstream congregation in the U.S.; Rose Haas Alschuler, a Chicago-area founder of nursery schools, activist, and author of works on early childhood education; Naomi W. Cohen, an eminent historian who wrote extensively on Jewish history and was one of the first women to be prominent in the field of Jewish Studies; Shulamith Reich Elster, head of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Washington, D.C.; and Rebecca Gratz, who founded the Hebrew Sunday School of Philadelphia, the model for the now-ubiquitous coeducational Sunday Hebrew schools. Rebecca Samuel's hopes for her daughter were hardly misplaced, as these women and their modern counterparts expertly prove.
- If she lived into the 21
stcentury, you can ask us to add her to the "We Remember" section of our website by emailing JWA.
- If you yourself are an educator with an interest in Jewish women, explore our "Go & Learn" lesson plans and other educational features.
If you have memories of a special Jewish woman who was an outstanding student or
educator, please share them below.