Hebrew Teachers Colleges in the United States

by Shulamith Reich Elster

During the early waves of immigration to the United States, Sephardi and German Jews established full-time schools in large population centers. Rabbis, clergy and predominantly European-trained male teachers provided religious instruction in private-school settings, often sponsored by and housed in synagogues.

When Rebecca Gratz established the Hebrew Sunday School Society in Philadelphia (1838), teachers were “appointed from among the young ladies” of the Ritual bathMikveh Israel Congregation. Similarly, in Baltimore, the “teaching ladies” were unwed, well-meaning, untrained women who provided instruction in the local Reform Sunday schools. There was no profession of Jewish education in nineteenth-century America.

While experienced teachers came to the United States with each immigrant group, among the Russians who came in the early years of the Jewish Enlightenment; European movement during the 1770sHaskalah [enlightenment] were melamdim [teachers] well-suited to the task of training children in traditional Eastern European ways. As Diane A. King wrote in “A History of Gratz College 1893–1928,” “Even the well-educated East Europeans who were engaged in teaching could not be spoken of as trained teachers.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were few paid religious school teachers. Most were volunteers, and many of those were public school teachers—trained for assignments in general education but woefully lacking in knowledge of Judaism.

It became apparent that the new country and the new young American Jew could not be educated in the same manner and by the same teachers as before. While parents sought an education that would keep their children “traditional,” the children found little appeal in an educational system that prepared them to live their parents’ lives.

The founders of Boston Hebrew College felt the need for American scholars and cultured laypeople. They wanted “a spiritual elite for New England … who would be able to mold a creative and vigorous generation with a sense of belonging to a revitalized Jewish community.” A difficult goal such as this would be unattainable unless the elite had “a profound knowledge of Jewish sources and general erudition.”

The growth of the large American public school system in the nineteenth century, with its predominant goal of assimilating immigrant children into American life and culture, influenced the course of Jewish education in the United States. The after-school communal Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah became the predominant mode of Jewish education and remained so until the synagogue school replaced it as the most popular form of American Jewish education in the mid-twentieth century. Congregational or synagogue schools promoted denominational Judaism, and by the mid-1980s, ninety percent of school-age children who were enrolled in Jewish schools were in this setting.

The formal Jewish education of girls was generally neglected in the early decades of the twentieth century. Boys were educated in the Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah system, at heder, or with private or visiting teachers. Most formally concluded this education at age thirteen with Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah. In America, sons would achieve status through higher secular education; daughters would not necessarily follow this route.

Institutions for the training of Jewish teachers developed in major American cities, primarily in the eastern part of the United States where there was the largest concentration of Jewish population. The preparation of teachers and their availability in areas beyond the large urban centers was, and remains, a challenge.

Women were attracted to Jewish teaching. It combined a love of and commitment to Judaism, interest in children, and the opportunity to earn wages in a highly acceptable and honorable profession. While literature about early female students is limited, it is clear that they were raised in mainly Orthodox and traditional homes by parents who encouraged them to be teachers. In later years, schools, camps and youth groups, and Israel would be as strong influences as the home and family.

Two teacher-training institutions were established prior to World War I: Gratz College (1897) and the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1909).

There were eight women and five men in Gratz’s first afternoon class, and twelve women and nine men in Gratz’s first evening class. The list of twenty-one scholarship recipients for the years 1901 to 1908 includes only three women. Because Gratz’s early emphasis was the training of Sunday school teachers, some do not consider Gratz College to be the first Jewish teacher’s training school. In 1910, according to Alexander Dushkin, “There was not a single Jewish teacher’s training school in the country for the training of professional teachers.”

The 1886 charter of the Jewish Theological Seminary includes as one of its objects “the establishment and maintenance of a Jewish Theological Seminary for the training of Rabbis and teachers.” From its inception, the Teachers Institute welcomed able female students: “Any Jewish man or women of good character above the age of fifteen who in the opinion of the President of the Faculty is capable of profiting by the course may be admitted as a student.” By 1919, there were fifty-seven women and sixty-eight men enrolled: The significant number of women included the “girl graduates of the first class of the Hebrew High School of the Bureau,” a group of students with thorough Hebrew training.

According to King, “The large number of women who were prepared to undertake advanced Jewish education particularly in the 1920s probably reflected the growth in the number of Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah schools during this period … a system which attracted girls as well as boys.” The growth of Hebrew teachers colleges would in time depend on the enrollment and education of girls and young women in the Talmud Torah system.

Seven additional schools were established in the decade following World War I: the Teachers Institute of Mizrachi Zionist Organization (1917), later affiliated with Yeshiva University (1921); the Jewish People’s Seminary (1918); Baltimore Hebrew Teachers College (1919); the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston (1921); Herzliah Hebrew Teachers Institute (1923); the College of Jewish Studies of Chicago (1926); and the Hebrew Teachers Training School for Girls (1928), later affiliated with Yeshiva University.

The Hebrew Union College School for teachers was founded in 1920 and reorganized in 1947 as the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music and School of Education. An earlier Reform Teachers College established in 1909 was closed: In 1923, it became the Union of American Hebrew Congregation Teachers College, independent of the Hebrew Union College.

After World War I, the Tarbut movement—a cultural and educational movement begun in Russia after the Revolution—helped bring about a revitalization of the Hebrew language. Teacher-training institutions were influenced by the Hebrew language societies founded in the early years of the century: The first Ivrit b’ Ivrit [Hebrew in Hebrew] classes were in Boston and New York schools. The curricular emphasis was on the study of classical texts, Hebrew language and literature, and cultural Zionism. In time, all Hebrew teachers colleges would go beyond training classroom teachers and prepare students for work in adult education, Sunday schools, youth groups, and advanced studies leading to the rabbinate (for men only) or academic careers.

The schools varied in their orientation. Each was unique in some way, yet there were shared characteristics among some. Community-sponsored schools were established to meet predominantly local needs. They were, and remain, supported locally as a responsibility of the community and as an indication of the community’s commitment to Jewish education. These schools drew the majority of their students from the local area, and they tended to remain in the community after graduation.

The seven types of schools included: the Hebrew teachers training school with a two- to three-year or four-year course leading to teacher certification; the college as a distinct school within a larger institution; the college of Jewish studies, with a department for the training of teachers; the teachers institute within a rabbinical seminary; a branch or department of a university; the pedagogic institute of a yeshivah gedolah (not open to women); and normal secondary schools (primarily in South America and Europe). Most teacher-training institutions began as secondary schools or as special institutes at the pre-college level.

According to the 1921–1922 registry of Baltimore Hebrew College, male or female applicants from sixteen years of age and upward were encouraged to apply for admission. Nine students—six women and three men—enrolled in Herzliah when it opened in 1927. Its aim was to train young women to become teachers in Hebrew schools, where male teachers were predominant. There were no female faculty members at Herzliah for many years. Early students recall that the only female presence was the school secretary.

The early Hebrew teachers colleges were male-dominated institutions. Women’s participation in governance was limited to the activities of the women’s auxiliaries, with the notable exception of Frieda Warburg, who served as a director of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA).

Few women served on the faculties of the Hebrew colleges in the first decades of their existence. In describing the accomplishments of the Teachers Institute, Mordecai M. Kaplan wrote in 1939: “All this that the Teachers Institute and its affiliated departments have achieved would not have been possible without the men of the faculty.” Part-time and adjunct faculty positions were occupied by specialists such as Judith Kaplan Eisenstein (music at JTSA), Temima Nimtzowitz Gezari (arts and crafts at JTSA), and Shulamith Scharfstein Chernoff (nursery education at JTSA). Instructors of Hebrew within the college programs at JTSA included Rebecca Aaronson Brickman (1911–1914) and Rose Abramson Maximon (1912–1914). Current estimates of female faculty members at schools that train for careers in Jewish education are as high as seventy-five percent.

Women were camp directors, teaching supervisors, librarians, and assistant librarians (Jeanette Newman Bloom, Helen Sarna, and later Ann Lapidus Lerner at Boston Hebrew College). No women are included in the list of the leadership of the profession of Jewish education in the 1920s and 1930s “in the United States and their writings that represent the professional literature” of the period.

From 1929 to 1954, the following community-based colleges were established: the Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Cleveland; the School of Jewish Studies in Pittsburgh; and the Midrasha/College of Jewish Studies in Detroit. As well, community-based colleges were established in Alabama; in Essex County, New Jersey; in Denver; in St. Louis; and in Washington, D.C. The Teachers Institute of the University of Judaism (1947), Brandeis University (1948), the Teachers Institute for Women of Yeshiva University (1952), and Stern College For Women of Yeshiva University (1954) were established following World War II.

Gratz College and the University of Pennsylvania were the first to propose a joint degree program with local colleges, but it was never developed. In 1930, arrangements were made by the Jewish Theological Seminary with Teachers College of Columbia University for students to complete a combined course and receive the degrees of bachelor of science in education from Columbia and bachelor of Jewish pedagogy from the Teachers Institute. Herzliah urged its graduates to attend a secular school and, following graduation, implemented a plan for students to enroll in New York University’s School of Education. Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California also developed joint programs, as did the College of Jewish Studies in Chicago and Roosevelt University.

By 1950, the colleges, partly because of their encouragement of secular studies for their students and graduates, were meeting only twenty-five percent of the need for classroom teachers in Jewish schools. They expanded beyond teacher training to undergraduate and graduate programs in Jewish studies, and by 1981 the term “Hebrew” had been dropped from the official name of all but a few schools. Hebrew was the language of instruction for only about twenty percent of the courses offered.

In 1951, the Iggud Betey A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).Midrash: Association of Hebrew Teachers Colleges was established to bring together accredited Jewish teachers training institutions. The Association of Institutions of Higher Learning in Jewish Education currently brings together the fourteen accredited North American institutions that provide graduate training for careers in Jewish education. The degrees offered by the teachers colleges over the years have included Hebrew teachers diploma, bachelor of religious education, bachelor of Jewish education, bachelor of Jewish pedagogy, master of Jewish pedagogy, and master of arts in Jewish education. Doctoral degrees granted include doctor of philosophy, doctor of Jewish pedagogy, doctor of Hebrew letters, and doctor of education.

Major curriculum revisions occurred in the mid-1950s to meet the changing needs of schools. For many years, the schools had been subject to criticism by professional educators. Teachers were still being prepared for traditional approaches in traditional self-contained classrooms. Courses of study did not reflect the changing nature of American Jewish life and developments in general education. Israel programs were added, as were specialized tracks to prepare experienced teachers for administrative positions. Now, the colleges as a group often recruit from similar applicant pools and offer training for the full range of careers in Jewish education. Most concentrate their efforts on graduate training.

Students who now enter preparatory programs for teaching are often lacking in fundamental knowledge of Hebrew, come from nonobservant homes, and are strongly influenced by experiences in Jewish camps, Israel programs, day schools, and youth groups. Many prepare for careers in education that take them beyond traditional classroom settings to programs in informal settings, family and adult education, camping, and retreats. There is a broader range of career options available to the granddaughters and great-granddaughters of the early female graduates of Hebrew teachers colleges. Yet the profession is still challenged to attract women to the field and to meet both “qualitatively and quantitatively” the demand for Jewish teachers.

Sylvia Cutler Ettenberg (JTSA) and Elsie Chomsky (Gratz) were the first to hold full-time and administrative positions in teachers colleges. Norma Field Furst served as president of Baltimore Hebrew University (1993–1995). Women occupy and have held leadership positions as directors of programs in institutions where more women than men are enrolled: Sara S. Lee at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College, Lifsa B. Schachter at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, Gail Z. Dorph at the Fingerhut School of the University of Judaism, and Shulamith Reich Elster at the Baltimore Hebrew University. Full- and part-time faculty appointments in schools that provide teachers and educators for the American Jewish community are still held primarily by men.

In The Education of American Jewish Teachers, Oscar J. Janowsky wrote: “The most important single factor in Jewish education is the training of teachers. … The teacher has a responsibility far more difficult to fulfill than in other periods when Jews clung together for protection. The teacher must be well-informed, imaginative, incandescent. He [sic] is now the final defense in depth for precious sanctions that are the core of Jewish life.” Today the vast majority (eighty percent) of those training for careers in Jewish education are women twenty-one years of age or older. The Jewish teaching profession remains, like its public elementary school counterpart, a largely “feminine preserve.”


Davidson, Aryeh. The Preparation of Jewish Educators in North America: A Status Report to the Commission on Jewish Education in North America (1990); Dushkin, Alexander M., with Nathan Greenbaum. Comparative Study of the Jewish Teachers Training Schools in the Lit. (Greek) "dispersion." The Jewish community, and its areas of residence, outside Erez Israel.Diaspora (1970); Janowsky, Oscar J., ed. The Education of American Jewish Teachers (1967); King, Diane A. “A History of Gratz College 1893–1928.” Ph.D. diss., Dropsie College, 1979; Margolis, Isidor. Jewish Teacher Training Schools in the United States (1964); Reimer, Joseph, ed. To Build a Profession: Careers in Jewish Education (1987); Schiff, Alvin. “New Models in Preparing Personnel for Jewish Education: Overview of Programs.” Jewish Education 43, no. 3 (Fall 1974); Steiner, M.J. “Hebrew Teachers College of Boston: 1921–1951.” Jewish Education 23, no. 1 (Winter 1952).


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Frieda Warburg, 1936.
Courtesy of the 92nd Street Y, New York City.

How to cite this page

Elster, Shulamith Reich. "Hebrew Teachers Colleges in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hebrew-teachers-colleges-in-united-states>.


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