Education of Jewish Girls in the United States
The secular and religious education of Jewish girls in America has very modest roots. Initially perceived as seamlessly bound together, over the course of nearly three and a half centuries, the general and Jewish education of Jewish girls took separate paths, which crossed and on occasion entered into conflict with each other. Secular education of Jewish girls has consistently expanded, but the path of Jewish education has been inconsistent.
The first Jewish settlers to North America in the seventeenth century, Sephardim from the Caribbean, provided rudimentary instruction to their own children, usually in the home, occasionally employing tutors. In the late eighteenth century, education began to move out of the home, and the children of now-established Jews, boys and girls, went to dame schools (a combination child care and primary school run by women, often in their homes) and private schools (a few linked to synagogues) where they received a general education.
Boys were tutored in Jewish subjects in preparation for bar mitzvah by religious leaders in towns with established synagogues, such as New York, Newport, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Girls, except if a parent elected to provide tutoring, received virtually no formal instruction in Jewish subjects. A girl’s Jewish knowledge was to be acquired by listening, observing, and modeling her own religious beliefs and practices on those of her mother.
When large-scale Jewish emigration from German lands was under way in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, the battle over primary school for girls was being fought and won in most settled parts of the United States. At the end of the American Revolution, few schools admitted girls. By the middle of the nineteenth century, almost as many girls as boys attended elementary (common) schools, and by the 1870s the achieved educational level of girls had surpassed that of boys.
Rapidly rising elementary school enrollments in the decades surrounding the turn of the nineteenth century were largely fueled by the growth in female school attendance. It was argued that to carry out their adult roles as mothers and homemakers, girls needed a strong basic education, especially so they could educate their own children.
Coeducational, graded classes taught by women were rapidly becoming the norm by the 1840s. The perceived special female talent for teaching young children, coupled with women’s willingness to work for wages much lower than those of men, led to the entry of women into teaching. Common school education enabled them to do so. By the middle of the nineteenth century in the northeast United States, over half of all teachers were women, a proportion that would grow to about seventy percent nationwide by century’s end. The substantial demand for teachers generated by the great common school movement in the first half of the nineteenth century set in motion a dynamic that was sustained well into the twentieth century: the need to educate more women, and to higher academic levels, to meet the nation’s demand for teachers.
The wide-scale acceptance of coeducation and the feminization of teaching went hand in hand. And the feminization of teaching and enhanced educational opportunities for girls and women were also intimately related. There was a close relationship between and among growing school enrollments of girls, increased demand for women teachers, and the rise in secondary education for girls at the female seminaries created by Emma Willard, Mary Lyons, Harriet Beecher, and others in the 1820s and 1830s.
Women used the education they acquired, even if modest, to transform themselves into educators. This process became a recurrent theme in the story of the education of American women, Jews and gentiles. Teaching became among the very first occupations open to women. It would prove to be of great advantage to women’s education that they were gender stereotyped into an occupation that required academic preparation. Each time American society sought to broaden the education of its children or raise the quality of teaching and learning, it had to enhance the education of women, who came to dominate classroom teaching. And these higher levels of education could be used beyond the confines of school to enlarge and respond to opportunities in other fields as they opened to women.
American Jewish women were very much part of the same dynamic landscape. Unlike Catholics who largely rejected the Protestant-controlled common schools as anathema to their religious beliefs, most Jews accepted the common school ideal. Jewish girls benefited from the expansion in educational opportunities for all girls in the American common school. More equivocal, however, was the Protestant character of common schooling. If secular schooling was to take place in a Christian-influenced environment, supplementary Jewish education was needed to counter Christian influences.
There was a long history of supplementary Jewish schooling in the colonial and federal periods to draw upon, but such schools served boys almost exclusively. If girls received no Jewish instruction, their formal religious training and informal models would be increasingly pan-Protestant—based on Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments, and Protestant prayers and hymns led by Protestant women teachers who served as their religious role models. The Jewish community could no longer rely exclusively on a mimetic process for girls to learn their female Jewish roles: Imitation could as readily lead to assimilation and conversion as to retention and knowledgeable Jewish participation.
The urban, immigrant poor were of intense interest to Protestant Christian missionaries, many of whom were women staunchly committed to the evangelical religious movements of the age. In the 1830s in Philadelphia, such missionaries turned their attention to poor Jewish immigrants. The ecumenical Christianity, moral instruction, and literacy training of the common school classroom could be brought by missionaries directly to the children of Jewish neighborhoods, boys and girls believed to be dwelling in ignorance and darkness. Christian missionaries offered poor Jewish mothers charity (food and clothing) and in return offered to educate their children in Sunday schools. Philadelphia, home of the American Sunday School Union (1825), was a city well prepared to give these children a limited basic education linked to Protestant religious and moral instruction. Philadelphia’s Jewish community had to respond.
Led by Rebecca Gratz, a group of Philadelphia women rose to the dual challenge: the need to counter missionary efforts among Jews and the need for a Jewish education to supplement the general (and Christian-influenced) education received by most Jewish children. These Jewishly committed women were themselves poorly schooled in Jewish subjects but were imbued with the American vision of “women” as pious, spiritual, and possessing a gift for teaching the young. With years of public charitable activity behind them as members of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, they were prepared publicly to defend Jewish interests by founding a Sunday school in 1838 based upon the model of the Protestant Sunday school.
The Hebrew Sunday school offered perhaps the first opportunity for American Jewish women to teach Jewish subjects. Lacking teaching materials, they adopted the Protestant Sunday School Union catechism as the basis of their religious and moral instruction, blotting out overtly Christian passages. They used the King James Bible because English was the language of teachers and students and there was no alternative Jewish translation.
The Hebrew Sunday school enrolled boys and girls, American-born and immigrant. Through this very model of an American institution, Americanized Jewish women responded to the Protestant challenge to their Jewish community. By providing formal Jewish teaching to girls, they implicitly acknowledged that the mimetic process was insufficient for educating girls Jewishly. The Hebrew Sunday school embraced the American practice of coeducation and placed women teachers at the head of the class. Since many of the Sunday school’s pupils went to other schools during the week, it reinforced the supplementary nature of Jewish education and legitimized the separate study of secular and religious subjects. It framed Judaism as an American religion that was compatible with, and complementary to, the American day school.
The Sunday school curriculum presented Judaism as a religion with a catechism to master, Bible stories to mine for moral lessons, and religious practices compatible with American life. This Jewish education, taught in English, was worlds apart from European concepts of Jewish studies tied to Talmud and Torah, taught by men and generally reserved for males.
The Sunday school, which spread rapidly to Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, and other Jewish communities, circumvented traditional halakhic practices regarding the status and roles of women in Judaism. Women served as teachers and as defenders of the Jewish community in the face of forces promoting assimilation of the young into American Protestant society. The teachers of the Hebrew Sunday school explicitly used the school to recruit new young women into Jewish school teaching. As was already the case in the American common school, the education of girls led to women becoming educators in Jewish schools.
In New York City in the 1840s and 1850s, the course of Jewish education, for boys as well as girls, was tied to the relationship between the city’s Jews and its public schools. German Jewish immigration in this period made New York City America’s largest Jewish community. The new arrivals found the city’s schools divided by class and religious denominations. Parents with even modest means sent their children to private, usually church-related schools. Free public education, common throughout the rest of New York State and most of the northeast United States, was not provided in New York City until 1842. Free education was available at charity schools, especially those of the Public School Society, a philanthropy with an overtly Protestant character that was organized early in the century to offer instruction to the city’s poor.
New York City’s small public school system also had a decidedly Protestant cast: Readings from the New Testament, Protestant prayers, and primary readers with stories of a clearly Protestant nature offended Catholics as well as Jews. Many Jewish parents, especially among new immigrants, did not want to expose their children to Christianizing influences in either private or public school. The need of these parents to educate their children, coupled with the lack of viable alternatives, gave rise to pressures to found Jewish day schools. In 1842, B’nai Jeshurun, the city’s first Ashkenazi synagogue (1824), organized a day school that existed for five years. Three German congregations, Ansche Chesed in 1845, followed immediately thereafter by Rodeph Shalom and Shaarey Hashamayim, founded day schools. These three schools, which briefly merged under the leadership of Max Lilienthal, were joined by four other congregational day schools in the early 1850s. By 1854, there were seven day schools enrolling over 850 students.
With the exception of B’nai Jeshurun, the day schools enrolled both boys and girls. Girls accounted for about one-third of enrollments, a proportion of Jewish school enrollments (day and supplementary) that, with a few percentage points of variation, has been relatively constant to the present time. These schools offered both secular and religious studies at the elementary school level. At that time, schools were divided into multiple-year classes (not year-by-year grades): one at the primary level and two at the grammar level. In general, boys and girls were placed in a coeducational primary class but were then assigned to sex-segregated grammar classes. Women taught the primary secular (English) subjects, and men taught all religious (Hebrew) subjects (primary and grammar) and secular grammar classes. While it would appear that boys and girls followed a common curriculum, there was gender differentiation: Girls received instruction in sewing and needlework and boys in cantillation of Torah and haftarah. The presumed adult roles of men and women within the Jewish community now seemed to permit, if not yet require, Jewish as well as general education for girls. But the presumed nature of adult participation, at least in the public religious realm, was still divided on gender lines and hence the differentiated studies.
The congregational day schools arose, in part, to provide an alternative to the Christian-influenced public schools and to offer secular instruction of higher quality than could be provided by means of the “monitorial” system, then employed by the free public schools. Monitorial schools were organized into huge classes of several hundred children, with limited instruction provided by student monitors under the direction of a single teacher. While learning was limited, it kept costs low and hence instruction could be provided free of charge. However, even parents with limited means elected to send their sons and daughters to private, usually church-affiliated, schools with smaller classes, and, in the case of Jewish parents who sent their children to congregational schools, the smaller classes were also free from overt Christian influences.
In addition to congregational schools, private Jewish day schools were founded in New York in the same period. Several were boarding schools that served Jewish families outside New York City. The first day school for girls was founded by the Palache sisters in 1840 and served boarders as well as day students. Max Lilienthal, after leaving Congregation Ansche Chesed, founded a school for boys (1849), which was taken over by the Rev. Mr. Henry in 1855 when Lilienthal moved to Cincinnati. In 1851, Adolph Loewe founded a boys’ school, and sometime before 1860, Mrs. Bondy founded a school for Jewish girls. These schools, which charged higher fees than the congregational schools, tended to serve a wealthier community and were modeled on upper-class Protestant private schools in the city. Like the congregational schools, they included both general and Jewish instruction.
Jewish day schools, especially those sponsored by congregations, served a largely immigrant community, but they were not modeled on Jewish education in Europe. They reflected a Jewish Enlightenment concept of education in which Jewish children received instruction related to both the Jewish and contemporary secular worlds. These schools, however, were very much a product of the American educational environment. They recognized the need for the education of girls and placed children in coeducational classes in the early grades. They offered a secular curriculum, with English as the language of instruction. And they employed women as teachers.
Much reliance was placed on catechisms in the study of religion. Acknowledging that few Jewish boys and fewer girls (given gender-differentiated curricula) would gain sufficient Jewish knowledge to study Talmud or Hebrew legal codes, the question-and-answer method of the catechism, popular in the American Sunday school, was adopted as a direct approach to teaching Jewish beliefs and moral values. Jewish catechisms had been published in Europe and brought to America in English translation in the early nineteenth century. The first American Jewish catechisms were written and published around 1840, hence available for adoption by day schools in the 1840s and 1850s.
At mid-century, Lilienthal introduced a new practice to the American Jewish community: confirmation of boys and girls. The bar mitzvah was denied to girls, which undercut the incentive to educate girls Jewishly. Lilienthal’s Shavuot-linked confirmation ceremony, first held in 1846, was preceded by five months of twice-weekly classes for the participating twelve-year-old girls and boys. Criticized by more Orthodox congregants and suspended due to unrelated congregational politics, the confirmation was adopted by Temple Emanu-El in 1852 and resumed by Ansche Chesed in 1860. Although now held at a slightly older age, confirmation continues in many congregations, especially Reform, and was an early acknowledgment of the importance of Jewishly educated women.
Changes in New York State’s education laws in 1851 and 1855, and changes in the nature of public education in New York City, addressed many of the concerns of Jewish parents. Local school boards were granted the powers to choose instructional materials, and reading from the Bible was made discretionary. The ward system of public education in the city meant that local concerns could be brought to bear on elected ward trustees. Overt Christian religious influences were considerably diluted, especially in wards with concentrations of Jewish families. In addition, in the 1850s the city’s public schools did away with the monitorial system, and organized class sizes became closer to those in private schools: one teacher for each group of thirty to thirty-five children. The vibrant congregational day school sector of the 1840s and 1850s evaporated overnight. The seven congregational day schools that flourished in 1855 collapsed by 1856.
Jewish parents apparently were ready to accept the division of secular and religious instruction for their sons and daughters. Jewish parents rapidly abandoned congregational day schools in favor of free public schools, although the private boys’ and girls’ Jewish day schools continued to function and absorbed some of the students formerly enrolled in congregational schools. Most Jewish parents, it would appear, had been more concerned with shielding their children from Christian influences than with providing them with a Jewish education.
Most Jewish children in New York City, like those throughout the United States, now received their secular schooling in public schools. Jewish education, if received at all, was offered in supplementary schools or by private teachers who scheduled instruction after school hours. Jewish girls were especially affected. While continuing to receive a general education in the public schools, many, probably the majority, received little or no Jewish instruction. For those American Jews who embraced then-emerging Reform Judaism, the Reform Sunday school provided girls with a limited Jewish education but presumably an education considered adequate for their anticipated adult Jewish roles. But even Jewish girls who did attend Sunday school received the better part of their education in a secular setting, influenced by American ideas and values, gender role expectations, and concepts of religion and civic virtue as embodied by their American (generally women) teachers.
For Orthodox Jews, especially newly arriving immigrants from Eastern Europe, efforts were made to adopt and adapt European educational models of Jewish education. The first Talmud Torah was opened in New York City in 1857 and, by 1890, hundreds of heders had been established. A typical heder enrolled forty to fifty boys, often in wretched physical quarters, after public school hours to learn mechanical reading of Hebrew, siddur, hummash, and Mishnah.
As inadequate as the Jewish education was for boys, the state of Jewish education for girls was worse. Since there were no European models of Jewish schooling for girls, the education of Jewish girls was largely neglected. In Eastern Europe, the mimetic tradition, coupled in many cases with home tutoring, provided girls with the knowledge, skills, and affective attachments they needed to live as Jewish women. Jewishness was as much cultural as intellectual. Hence, for Eastern European Jews, the natural and informal process of cultural transmission carried along with it religious identity and beliefs, group attachment, lifeways, and gender-defined roles. Since Jewish women had few religious responsibilities outside the home and no obligation to study religious texts in Hebrew (although there was a considerable religious and later popular literature in Yiddish intended for a substantial female audience), little or no formal provision was made to educate girls. It was assumed that home and community in America would nurture the head and heart of Jewish girls as they had in the old world.
The opening of a Christian mission school in 1864 on New York’s Lower East Side, home of many of New York’s poorest immigrant Jews, spurred the Jewish community to action, as an earlier mission school had done in Philadelphia in 1838. Eleven established congregations met and organized the Hebrew Free School Association, which opened its first school in 1865, a day school teaching general and Jewish subjects. Many in the already established Jewish community opposed a day school, arguing that it segregated Jewish immigrant children and made it more difficult to assimilate them into American society. Additional free schools, all supplementary schools, were opened and the day school was closed in 1872. Attendance at a public school became a precondition for enrollment at a Hebrew free school.
The free schools were more popular with girls than boys. Poor immigrant parents, many Orthodox, preferred the traditional instruction of the heder for their sons to the free schools’ lessons on morality, manners, vocationalism, and Americanization. However, lacking a European precedent for daughters, these same parents seemed more disposed to experiment with a new curriculum when it came to their daughters’ educations.
The Hebrew Free School Society joined in 1889 with other Lower East Side agencies to form the Educational Alliance, the main vehicle for uptown, established Jews to help downtown immigrants. Ostensibly the alliance was to assume responsibility for the religious instruction it inherited from the free schools, whose enrollments had reached five thousand in 1899, its last year of operations. In practice, however, the alliance served primarily as a settlement house, with a focus on social, economic, and cultural assimilation, not religious education, and it paid little attention to the Jewish education of Lower East Side boys or girls.
As the great wave of new Jewish immigrants to America gathered force in the last decades of the nineteenth century, settled Jews became increasingly concerned with the poor Jews of the tenement districts. Out of a complex mix of self-interest and selflessness, established Jews greatly expanded their missionary–social work efforts. Charity work among the Jewish poor became a major expression of one’s religiosity and identity as a Jew, especially among Reform Jewish women of the upper classes. Their mixed motives yet strong commitment are captured in the record of the first Jewish Women’s Congress held in Chicago in 1893: “And who are there to lend a helping, nay, a saving hand here? The women of America! The religiously enlightened matrons of our country, delivered from the oppressor’s yoke, must dive into the depths of vice to spread culture and enlightenment among our semi-barbaric Russian immigrants, not insusceptible to the keen edge of the civilizer’s art.”
In New York City, Minnie Louis, president of the sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El, led her colleagues downtown to make home visits to immigrant families. Out of these visits emerged the Visiting Trained Nurses (which, under Lillian Wald, became the Henry Street Settlement) and, in the early 1880s, the Down-Town Sabbath School, later the Louis Down-Town Sabbath School. Initially it provided one-day-per-week Jewish religious instruction to girls of the Lower East Side, but it expanded to daily technical-vocational instruction for girls in 1887. Passing through several additional changes, it became the Hebrew Technical School for Girls in 1899. What started as a school to bring religious education to Jewish girls who otherwise had few such opportunities was transformed into a vocational program to serve what came to be considered the more pressing need to help female Jewish immigrants adapt to a modern, enlightened, but economically demanding America.
At the turn of the twentieth century, parents as well as the Jewish charitable community—Reform and Orthodox—were ambivalent about and even neglectful of Jewish education for girls. On the other hand, there was strong commitment to secular education for Jewish girls. Established Jews, often in close collaboration with American public schools, directed the children of immigrants into the public schools. In addition, such factors as compulsory education laws, which usually required a school to offer a general education curriculum taught in English; lack of resources in the Eastern European Orthodox community to found an alternative Jewish school system that would simultaneously meet state education laws and the demands of Torah and Talmud; conflicting tendencies within the immigrant community (secular, religious, socialist, Yiddishist, Zionist, assimilationist, etc.); the legal requirement for educating girls as well as boys; the lack of appropriate European models; and the natural desire of the children of immigrants to want to become “Americans” resulted in an overwhelming proportion of Jewish children entering American public schools. By World War I, over 275,000 Jewish children in New York City attended public schools and fewer than one thousand attended the city’s three all-male yeshivas.
Established Jews saw the public schools as their allies in efforts to transform immigrant children into model Americans. The established Jews set out to modernize these children and give them religious enlightenment, teach them the vocational skills needed for the contemporary economy, replace their Yiddish with English, rid them of “oriental” superstitions, beliefs, and lifeways, and through all these, they believed, facilitate their successful integration into American society.
The emerging division of American education into separate secularized public schools and complementary but independent religious schools served the needs of established Jews. They wanted to sever the ethnic-religious amalgam that characterized Eastern European Jews. American nationality was to replace ethnic Judaism, and a reformed religion would replace an oriental, Old World halakhic Judaism. The public schools would have primary responsibility for making over the children of immigrants into true Americans, and a new, modern Jewish education would transform Old World religious beliefs and practices into a modern Jewish religion better suited to the American milieu—one in which all citizens shared in a common secular-civil culture while individuals embraced compatible, but separate, religious denominations.
Jewish identity was to be religious rather than national. Public school would shape the immigrant child’s American cultural identity, and Jewish education would inculcate religious faith and moral character. For many established Jews, that transformed religion was to be more like American Reform Judaism than the minhag Eastern European immigrants had brought with them.
By 1900, the elementary school attendance of American girls was about that of boys, and at the secondary level more women than men graduated from high school. For middle- and upper-class girls, high school was a socially acceptable place to spend one’s teen years, and for young women intending to teach, high school was a necessary step into teaching, one of the few careers open to them. Boys, however, could enter many fields without a high school diploma.
Brothers often shouldered aside sisters when it came to college entrance, but Jewish girls, with a public school education behind them, did go on to college in the early decades of the twentieth century, usually as day students in municipal colleges and generally in the fields of education or social work. In New York City, many attended the Normal School (later Hunter College) or one of the three public teacher-training schools.
Boys’ and girls’ public education was strikingly similar. Girls were taught sewing and home economics and boys were taught shop, acknowledging presumed differences in adult roles. But the academic curriculum was largely the same, both in elementary and high school. In elementary school, boys and girls almost always sat in the same classes and learned the same subjects. Even in high school, which enrolled only a small proportion of young people, boys and girls generally attended the same coeducational classes and sat for the same examinations. More girls than boys may have entered commercial programs, and more boys than girls may have entered vocational programs, but many girls and boys selected the more traditional liberal arts–college preparatory curriculum, which was not gender differentiated.
Jewish girls in American public schools, especially at the elementary level, were exposed to the potent model of the American woman teacher. The mimetic tradition was alive and well, but now it was in the service of cultural transformation rather than conservation. Mary F., a student in the New York City schools early in the twentieth century, recalled the influence of her American teachers. “I think they were a different breed ... the way they acted, dressed, and so on. I think I got [to know American practices] that way, there was a certain thing—very retiring. See, my Jewish background is to be outgoing and to yell and scream and do everything. And I think the one big thing that I learned is to behave and to be retiring, not to be pushy. I think I learned that from my teachers. I think that’s an American trait.” Jewish girls also acquired a new set of American aspirations that could be satisfied only by mastering American culture. Mamie T, a seventh-grade student on the Lower East Side, wrote of her class “Trip to Riverside Drive,” published in her school magazine in 1917. “It was a bright, clear Sunday afternoon when [my teacher, classmates, and I] got on the Fifth Avenue bus at Washington Square. We immediately felt the change of atmosphere. ... In less than an hour, we were in the regions of those who have always been in our dreams, presenting us with cups of gold and pearls, and offering us a dwelling place, similar to those they possessed. So you needn’t be surprised when I say that we were eagerly looking for the houses that would perhaps be ours in the future. ... As soon as we returned to the East Side, we first realized how poor and congested the people lived in our section of the city.”
It was not a nostalgic dream of Europe that spurred these girls, but the bright prospects of America. And public school—American school, which could prepare them for modern women’s roles—provided the opportunity to get up and out. Sara Z., in her nineties and a veteran of fifty years as a New York City schoolteacher, reflected on her own life and education. “My [immigrant] father was a very learned man, and he believed that the man counts, the woman doesn’t, and I was more or less of a revolutionary. The woman has to count. Well the brothers counted, as I remember, and the women didn’t count, and we said, Yes, that the women do count, and that is why I went to [college].” She followed a path from Ellis Island to public school, teacher’s college, and back to the public school classroom—a path followed by thousands of Jewish women in the twentieth century. But her formal Jewish education was nonexistent. She set her sights, chose her path, and did not look back. “Certainly the boys studied Hebrew but the girls studied if they wanted to. I didn’t study Hebrew. I said, ‘I’m an American—I have to study English.’ And I did. And that’s how I came to go to Hunter College.”
In fact, few Jewish children received any religious education in the period prior to World War I. As Alexander Dushkin reported in his study of New York City Jewish education, fewer than one in four children in 1917 received any Jewish education, dropping to only one in six girls. More children would have received some Jewish education during their childhood than were enrolled in any given year, but it is clear that the Jewish education, especially of girls, was largely neglected. The experience of Mary F., so strongly influenced by her public school teachers, is representative of her times. “Yes, my father wanted me to read, thank God he did, the Hebrew alphabet, which I remember to this day. I was about nine and I wanted to be out in the street, playing, but my father used to drag us in ... and this Rabbi would come. He probably got ten cents for the lessons and every day, maybe it lasted a year, I used to read from the Good Book. ... Yes, the Rabbi would come, dum-de-dum, and out he’d go!” The peddler melammed [teacher], going from door to door with siddur and Humash in hand, teaching boys and girls their aleph-bet, or the Old World rabbi confronting scores of boys in a basement heder, stood in stark contrast to the modern public school, with its imposing building and its corps of well-trained American teachers.
Jewish children, but especially girls, lacked a Jewish education to complement their public schooling. American life, observed and imitated in public schools, was reinforced in the streets, public entertainment, magazines, and libraries, as well as in the casual process of window shopping, going on uptown outings and, later, watching movies and listening to the radio. And for those whose employment was outside immigrant districts, their work lives gave them the opportunity to observe, practice, and perfect American lifeways. The public schools also indelibly reinforced children’s adoption of the English language. It was English that conveyed a new cultural world, new manners, social conventions, tastes, embedded values and beliefs, and daily discoveries.
The absence of public Jewish ritual or study roles for girls and women in the Eastern European immigrant community reduced the perceived need to educate them Jewishly. Most immigrant parents were concerned with discharging the religious obligation of preparing their sons for bar mitzvah. But no such obligation was felt to extend to their daughters. It was assumed that girls would learn their adult roles by observing their mothers. The Jewish education of girls had to compete for the little time left in a girl’s life after public school with baby-sitting, piano lessons, settlement house clubs, and socializing on the front stoop. From the vantage point of young girls, they knew they could compete with boys on nearly equal footing in public schools, win prizes, and aspire to be teachers. But when it came to Jewish learning, immigrant Jewish girls were assigned a separate, unequal status. And with few things the adult Jewish woman was expected to do that required formal Jewish learning, there was little incentive to study and master Jewish subjects.
The need to provide a modern Jewish education to American Jewish children was recognized early in the twentieth century by many Jewish leaders, especially those connected with the Kehilla of New York. Samson Benderly, the father of modern American Jewish education, was invited to New York to form the Bureau of Jewish Education in 1910. The dual task of Jewish educators, as he saw it, was to Americanize their students while simultaneously building a viable Jewish culture in America. Jewish education, he argued, should be “complementary to and harmonious with the public system.”
The new Jewish education that Benderly, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and others set out to create was to prepare Jewish youth for active participation in a bicultural world. Heavily influenced by Cultural Zionism and strongly embracing the Hebrew language, they were optimistic regarding the possibility of a Jewish renascence in America. Benderly and Kaplan set out to identify and attract the best and brightest Jewish college graduates of the day to the field of Jewish education and provide them with professional training at the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary and at Teachers College, Columbia University. While most of “Benderly’s boys” were men, young women such as Rebecca Aronson Brickner, Libbie Suchoff Berkson, and Dvora Lapson were also recruited to the bureau.
The bureau recognized that a modernized concept of women’s role in the American Jewish community was critical and set out to enlarge the Jewish educational opportunities of girls. Experimental programs for girls at the elementary level were developed, followed by girls’ (ages eleven to fourteen) Hebrew preparatory schools, and Hebrew high schools (the Marshaliah schools). By the 1920s, the bureau had created what may have been the first Jewish school “system” for girls, from elementary to the Teachers Institute, a program that attracted more women than men. Based on American institutional models, the bureau actively embraced the American practice of training and employing young women as teachers. This new adult role for Jewish women who had been born into an Eastern European immigrant community served as a goal and motivation for pursuing a Jewish education in America. And the growing presence of Jewishly educated women helped to redefine female Jewish roles. In 1922, the first Bat Mitzvah was celebrated by Rabbi Kaplan’s eldest daughter, a ceremony that went beyond confirmation and opened a possibility for girls that became a reality for many as the twentieth century progressed.
The demise of the New York Kehilla after World War I led to a drastic reduction in the activities of the New York Bureau of Jewish Education. Most of the young people it had recruited and trained could not be retained. They scattered across America, helping to establish and run city Bureaus of Jewish Education. Between 1915 and 1938, bureaus were started in fifteen cities, and, in four of these, Hebrew teachers’ colleges were founded to train modern Jewish educators, men and women.
Not all Jewish education directed at Jewish children was religious. In the early decades of the twentieth century, secular Jewish movements proliferated in the New World. Often Yiddish-language oriented and including bundists, socialists, anarchists, Yiddish culturalists, Zionists, and nationalists, education became critical to each group as it sought to establish itself in America and propagate its ideas and faith among a new generation of Jewish youth. In 1910, the first Yiddish secular school was opened by the Labor Zionists (the National Radical School, later known as the Jewish folk schools). In 1913, the coeducational Sholom Aleichem schools, which eschewed an overt political position and focused on Jewish culture and the Yiddish language, were organized.
The largest Yiddish-language school system was founded in 1918 by the Workmen’s Circle. These “after-school” schools promoted both socialism and Jewish nationalism, with Yiddish as the critical vehicle for communicating Jewish knowledge and understanding and ensuring Jewish cultural autonomy. By 1934, the Workmen’s Circle had established 104 schools (elementary and secondary) in forty-two cities in the United States and Canada, which enrolled over six thousand students, nearly fifty-eight percent of whom were girls. They maintained a teacher-training institute to prepare male and female teachers, ran national educational conferences, and supported a summer camp. Though now greatly reduced in number and influence, for decades the Workmen’s Circle provided an extended range of educational programs (kindergarten through teacher training) to boys and girls, which served as a potent secular Jewish complement to the public schooling received by its students.
Most Jewish children in the twentieth century, if they received a Jewish education, did so in congregational after-school programs or Sunday schools. But Orthodox Jews in New York and elsewhere grew increasingly concerned with the limited Jewish education available to their sons and daughters. Many felt supplementary education inadequate. In the 1880s, Orthodox educators founded a boys’ yeshiva that emphasized Torah and Talmud but also offered secular studies to meet state education laws.
New York’s Orthodox were first able to send their daughters to day schools in the late 1920s. The Center Academy was established in 1927 as a coeducational elementary school at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, then a modern Orthodox congregation that served an upper-middle-class community and gravitated toward Conservative Judaism. The Center Academy, headed by a woman principal, defined itself as “a progressive school for the American Jewish child.” The coeducational Yeshiva of Flatbush was opened in 1928, followed shortly by the all-girls’ Shulamith School in 1929. These schools, along with the coeducational Ramaz School in Manhattan (1937), offered elementary school students both secular and religious instruction, seeking to integrate the modern with the classical, Jewish with American. Except for the Center Academy, which sought to be Jewish but theologically neutral, these schools were religiously Orthodox. However, they all supported cultural Zionism and the Hebrew language. In an important sense, they attempted to prepare students for the bicultural world envisioned by the new Jewish educators within one Jewish institution rather than splitting responsibility between public and Jewish schools.
By the late 1940s, girls who sought to continue for an Orthodox high school education had a small but diverse number of options. The first Beth Jacob high school was established in Williamsburg in 1948 to provide an eastern European-style girls’ education. The Central Yeshiva High School for Girls was established that same year as the first women’s component of Yeshiva University. Like its Brooklyn counterpart, the Shulamith School, it provided an Americanized and Zionist Orthodox education in an all-girls’ setting. The coeducational institutions also established high schools, Ramaz in 1945, and the Yeshivah of Flatbush in 1950.
Modern day schools are clearly distinguished from European yeshivas by their rejection of Yiddish and its replacement by English and Hebrew; the coeducational practice of most of these schools; the high level of Jewish instruction provided to girls, including in many cases the study of religious texts previously considered inappropriate and proscribed by traditional Orthodox practice; the employment of women teachers; and the high regard for secular studies. In addition, even to this day, most of their graduates go on to American colleges and universities rather than to higher rabbinic training.
Jewish day schools, numbering 759 in 2004 (an increase of about 80 since 1999) in towns and cities throughout the United States, are a growing American Jewish phenomenon. While 80 percent are under Orthodox auspices, the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism also sponsor day schools. In an American environment in which public education has been questioned by some and religious education has become increasingly relevant to many, the private religiously sponsored day school—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—has become a common phenomenon on the American educational landscape. Jews who at one time strenuously opposed Jewish day schools as a form of self-imposed segregation and looked to the public schools as the best means of integrating Jews into American life are now confronted by a much more variegated educational-religious landscape. Most Jewish children still attend public schools, a phenomenon attributed to the Jewish community’s longtime support of public school education, the relatively high cost of day school tuition, and concerns about the academic standards of day schools’ curriculum, but nearly thirty percent attend Jewish day schools. And unlike the beginning of the twentieth century, girls are now almost as likely as boys to attend day schools. In the 1980s, about 41 percent of Jewish children were enrolled in all forms of Jewish schooling, approximately 72 percent of whom were in after-school programs and 28 percent in day schools. Those numbers steadily increased during the closing years of the twentieth century. By 2000 79 percent of Jewish children were enrolled in some type of Jewish school, about 50 percent in a part-time or once-a-week format and 29 percent in a day school or yeshivah. According to a survey released in 2004, day school enrollment increased 11 percent between 1999 and 2004 alone. This growth in day school enrollment is attributed partially to the high fertility rate among the Orthodox (particularly the ultra-Orthodox) for whom the all-day dual curriculum school system is “virtually mandatory,” but also to the increasing emphasis placed on day school education by American-Jewish society as a whole. Thus while the majority (80%) of the 205,000 day school students nationwide are in Orthodox schools (in New York, which has about 40 percent of all day schools, 97 percent are Orthodox), non-Orthodox schools, particularly non-denominational community schools, continue to increase. Today, about 12.5 percent of day schools are community schools, 7.5 percent are Conservative, and 2 percent Reform. Most Conservative and Reform students leave the day school after completion of elementary school; however Jewish high school attendance has become far more widespread than in the early part of the twentieth century. In the words of Steve Bayme, National Director of Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, “there has been a major growth in the acceptability of day schools across the board.”
In addition to the modern Jewish day school there is a second, potent, Jewish day school sector sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox who arrived in America in small numbers before World War II and in larger numbers following the Holocaust. They brought with them models of settlement and education that conformed with their desire to separate themselves as best they could from the secular world. They rejected the models of American Jewish day schools developed by the modern Orthodox Jews, schools that sought to synthesize the Jewish and the modern, and established their own yeshivas that focus on Jewish texts and Jewish learning, and incorporate secular studies only to the degree that they minimally satisfy state compulsory education laws.
For ultra-Orthodox Jews, schools are integral to their efforts to protect their children from the perceived evils of secular America. Jewish education can do battle with the antireligious, assimilating, and secularizing forces of modern education, represented especially by public schools. And girls as well as boys are to be saved from public education.
The Orthodox community in Eastern Europe had neglected the formal Jewish education of its girls, allowing many to attend secular government schools and even church-run schools. In 1917, Sarah Schenirer founded the Bais Ya’akov school for girls in Cracow, Poland, to provide a religiously acceptable alternative to secular schooling. Jewish girls from Orthodox families were being educated for life in a modern, Western-oriented, secular society—poor preparation for marriage and motherhood in a strictly observant Jewish community. With the support of several prominent rabbis, most notably the Hafetz Hayyim (1838–1933), Schenirer was able to overcome initial opposition to a girls’ school and, under the wing of Agudat Yisrael, the Bais Ya’akov school system grew rapidly.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews who immigrated to the new world in the 1930s carried with them the Bais Ya’akov model and established such a school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1937. Other schools followed in the 1940s, joined by girls’ secondary schools. The curriculum of Bais Ya’akov and later Bais Rivka (run by the Lubavitch Hasidim) focuses on Jewish studies but also includes secular, English-language classes to meet state requirements. However, consistent with ultra-Orthodox beliefs, girls’ Jewish studies are limited to the written law, excluding nearly all of the oral law. For boys, Talmud, the oral law, forms the very essence of their study. Such study is believed to be a religious obligation for men, but not for women. For men, Torah study is as much a religious as an intellectual activity: Learning becomes a means to perceive God’s will.
Ultra-Orthodox girls, traditionally excluded from all study, were now to study Torah (the written law) and secular subjects but not the oral law. Secular study, lacking precedent in the Orthodox world, either for men or women, and considered of decidedly lesser value compared to the study of Jewish texts, was readily incorporated into the schooling of girls. The study of the written law and the literature dealing with morality and piety were not entirely foreign to women, since women had long read and studied an altered and abridged form of the Torah (with commentary) in Yiddish (Tsenerene, in Hebrew Ze’enah U-Re’enah ) and Yiddish-language pietistic writings. But Talmud remained beyond the scope of learning for ultra-Orthodox girls in Europe and later in America.
Whereas Jewish religious reformers, Maskilim as well as Reform, saw schools as positive modernizing forces, and the modern Orthodox saw schools as the arena within which modernity and tradition could be synthesized, the ultra-Orthodox saw education as the means to conserve their beliefs and lifeways, a defense against the modern world, a way of ensuring separation rather than integration, and a way to reinforce stringent adherence to halakhic prescriptions.
For the first time in the history of Jewish settlement in America, a community of Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, sought to use schools as a defense against America and not as a means to incorporate Jews into American society. Integration clearly was and still is the goal of Jews who place their children in public schools for secular studies and in supplementary Jewish schools for a religious education. But it is also true for Jews who established modern day schools: Their children may not go to class with gentiles, but the curriculum of such schools seeks to incorporate and integrate the secular and the Jewish, and to educate children, boys and girls, for roles in the larger American society. The ultra-Orthodox reject cultural integration. Their goal is to establish a separate community of believers devoted to stringent adherence to halakhic Judaism.
The education of Jewish girls in America today is as heterogeneous as the Jewish community of which they are a part. By far the largest number attends public schools and secular colleges and universities. Many receive no Jewish education at all. But American Jewish girls now have Jewish educational opportunities broader and more available than ever before and a full range of adult Jewish roles in which to actively employ their Jewish studies, including rabbi, cantor, Judaica scholar, and Jewish educator. Women study Torah and Talmud and have become acknowledged scholars. The only limits to what women can study or the adult roles they can perform are set by the status of women in the branch of Judaism into which they are born or in which they choose to participate.
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How to cite this page
Brumberg, Stephan F.. "Education of Jewish Girls in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 27, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/education-of-jewish-girls-in-united-states>.