Jewish Education in the United States
Among the traditions that Jews brought to America, one may include the diligent study of the Torah and honor to those distinguished in its study. Torah study and its public recognition, however, were restricted to men and, obviously, to those among them who had the means and talent to devote themselves to it. Traditional Jewish communities neither wanted nor expected women to take part in intellectual life. There were occasional exceptions, such as talented daughters taught privately by learned fathers.
This sharp gender division began to be blunted with the coming of the Jewish Enlightenment, starting in Germany in the mid-eighteenth century and gradually moving eastward through Bohemia and Galicia to Poland and Russia. The new schools that were founded by the Jewish Enlightenment’s advocates were sometimes for girls only, but in most cases for both sexes. The new curriculum not only included general subjects such as arithmetic, reading, writing, German, and music, but it also revised the Jewish curriculum. Bible study, the principles of the Jewish religion, and the correct use of Hebrew were emphasized at the expense of Talmud study. Religion, as such a new subject, was also inculcated usually by means of a catechism. The new education swept German Jewry, including in time the Orthodox, and came to America with German Jewish immigrants.
However, the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who were the dominant immigrant group after the 1870s generally came from small towns and villages which the new educational movement was slow to reach. For them the one-room schoolhouse (heder) in the teacher’s dwelling remained the basic form of education for boys. There were some part-time hadarim for girls taught by women, but in general, women’s education beyond the rudiments of reading and piety was quite exceptional.
As with the other traditions that Jewish newcomers brought, American views and practices in education exerted their influence. For example, girls and boys attended public school together and received almost identical education there. Immigrant leaders soon perceived that a requirement for perpetuating Judaism on American soil was Jewish education for girls like that for boys.
Jewish schools had been few and short-lived in colonial America, and were attended by girls as well as boys. Most teaching, it appears, was the work of private tutors. For several generations, the early Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants had desired their children to learn these ancestral languages, to which the parents still felt attached. So far as is known, the Jewish curriculum for both sexes was the same, except that boys were prepared for the bar mitzvah while girls, at least in some places, learned needlework and embroidery and sometimes music. Where there were no Jewish schools, girls acquired Jewish educational rudiments from the surroundings of family and synagogue. Like the boys, they learned the elements of Hebrew reading and the prayer book, and Bible stories in English. Altogether, colonial American Jews aspired to transmit simple traditional Judaism to their sons and daughters, and they achieved this. Scholarship and deep piety were not considered, especially for girls.
The best-known Jewish educational enterprise of antebellum American Jews was the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia. To a large extent, Christian Sunday schools provided a model. It was founded in 1838 and long directed voluntarily by Rebecca Gratz, the descendant of an old and wealthy Jewish family. As its name indicates, this school, which in time produced several branches, existed for transmitting basic Judaism on Sunday mornings to girls and boys, mainly from poor families.
Until the closing years of the nineteenth century, American Judaism was influenced by predominantly German immigrants of that century. Educational philosophy and practice were strongly influenced by German culture. Parents ardently desired that their offspring master German, the native tongue that continued in use for many decades. Girls and boys attended German American Jewish schools, where the German language held a central position. Since German Jews in America largely followed Reform Judaism and conceived of Judaism as a moral code, they dispensed with most of its ritual content, whose performance was largely a function of men. As a consequence, girls’ education was not overshadowed by any special requirements for boys such as bar mitzvah. Instead, both sexes participated in an annual group confirmation rite. Although the teaching was often carried on in separate classrooms as was done in the public schools, Jewish education itself showed little difference between boys and girls. There were numerous women teachers, but it is not clear whether they taught only their own gender. On the other hand, young Jewish women, notwithstanding the equal education they had received with boys, were unequivocally expected to adopt the role of wife and mother. As was the case with the American middle classes to which the majority of German American Jews belonged, careers with the exception of teaching were frowned upon. Volunteer social and charitable work was commended.
Jewish education for girls during the peak generation of Eastern European immigration and its aftermath, from approximately 1890 to 1940, faced particular obstacles. Pupils in all the types of Jewish schools went eight or ten hours a week after some thirty hours in public school. If one reason for the long Jewish school hours was the desire to cover an ambitious curriculum, another potent reason was keeping off the teeming streets boys and girls who could not spend their time in crowded homes.
The burden of Eastern European Jewish tradition favored education for boys far more than for girls, and the mass of parents cared for their boys’ Jewish education mainly in order to prepare them for their bar mitzvah or to recite basic prayers. This teaching was done primarily by private tutors and in the heder, and girls had no part in it. During the first decades of Eastern European immigration, perhaps until 1900, girls’ Jewish education was almost disregarded, although a few girls from culturally elite immigrant families had private Hebrew tutors.
Modern Jewish education began at the turn of the twentieth century, when a new type of Jewish school appeared. The Talmud Torahs that had preceded the new schools were little more than several hadarim under one roof, usually without girls. The new Hebrew school, however, emphasized the study of the Hebrew language and the Bible, along with modern songs and religious practices described as “customs and ceremonies.” Plays and pageants were prominent in the curriculum. The influence of cultural Zionism permeated these schools.
The new Hebrew schools spread throughout the United States, and girls attended them equally with boys. In numerous places, they were in the majority because many boys still went to a heder or an old-fashioned Talmud Torah. Girls did not come for bar mitzvah preparation, as boys, often unwillingly, did, and girls were often the more diligent pupils. A list of Talmud Torahs in the immigrant working-class neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn shows all varieties of enrollment: a large majority of boys, or boys only, or a majority of girls. Most of the schools were for boys and girls, with boys in the majority. Yet, many schools, especially those conducted by Orthodox immigrant congregations, still made no provision for girls.
By about 1920, the Jewish education of girls was generally accepted, with women furnishing an increasing proportion of the modern Hebrew schools’ teaching staff. The seminaries for training teachers for the Hebrew schools, three of them in New York City, had a substantial majority of female students. The rationale of girls’ Jewish education was not simply the intellectual equality of the sexes or religion fused with ethnic loyalty. It also laid heavy emphasis on the likelihood that these young girls would one day be mothers and would need the knowledge and assurance to bring up their own children as Jews. Their responsibility as mothers would be even greater, because under the economic conditions of the time fathers had to work too hard and long to pay close attention to their children’s schooling.
Beginning around 1910, several networks of Yiddish secular schools developed whose teaching emphasized the Yiddish language that was spoken in most of the pupils’ homes. These schools’ ideological underpinnings were Yiddish, as the language of the masses of the people, and a socialist philosophy; Labor Zionism was the philosophy in one school network. Girls studied equally with boys in all the Yiddish schools. In fact, they were probably a majority of the pupils, since some parents sought a more religious bar mitzvah–oriented school for their sons. By 1960, however, Yiddish had faded as the popular language and Yiddish secular schools were nearly extinct.
American Jews were strongly attached to the public schools, not only for their sons’ and daughters’ general education but also as the means of assuring their acceptance into American society. Private day schools were very few on account of public school loyalty, as well as the expense of maintaining a school without government support. With a few known exceptions, Jewish day schools were for boys only. The first three day schools of the 1900s to provide girls with a Jewish education in a Zionist and Hebraic spirit were in Brooklyn. In 1929, a day school for girls, Shulamith, was established by Nacha Rivkin in a spirit of Orthodoxy and modern Hebraism. Its curriculum did not differ in any basic respect from that of boys’ day schools. Shulamith was long guided by Judith Lieberman, who became the school’s Hebrew principal in 1941. The first coeducational elementary school, the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, established in 1927, was Conservative in affiliation. The Yeshiva of Flatbush, an Orthodox institution, was founded the following year. Two additional day schools were founded in 1937, the Ramaz School in Manhattan and the Maimonides School in Boston, the latter established by the foremost modern Orthodox authority Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who gave his approbation to the Jewish education of girls, both in his own school and on a communal level (he later gave the first Talmud class at the Stern College for Women). These schools too were Orthodox and were committed to “bi-cultural education… the integration of Judaism and Americanism” (Lookstein).
The Jewish educational constellation after World War II was quite different from what it had been two decades earlier. Social and economic changes underlay most of these changes. Talmud Torahs dwindled and disappeared as dense urban Jewish neighborhoods broke up and suburbs blossomed. The new afternoon school was the congregational school, three times weekly instead of the Talmud Torah’s five. On the other hand, many Sunday schools broadened beyond one day weekly. There was a vast growth of day schools, especially in the cities, as Jews became prosperous enough to maintain them. Jewish secondary day schools became significant. The equalization of boys’ and girls’ Jewish education also found expression in the near universality of the Bat Mitzvah for girls at age twelve or thirteen, even among the modern Orthodox. The observance itself was varied, with the Conservatives marking it in synagogue services like a boy’s bar mitzvah and the Orthodox conducting the event largely outside the synagogue.
Only in Orthodox day schools has girls’ education been an issue of sorts. The general trend of the past few decades has shown a movement among the Orthodox toward greater religious rigor that has included stricter separation between the sexes. Many Orthodox schools where boys and girls study together now maintain separate classes, and many other schools are for boys or for girls only. The curricula for the sexes often differ as well. In ultra-Orthodox schools this is apparent from the exclusion of girls from Talmud study, the central subject in boys’ curriculum. A large network of ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools, called Bais Ya’akov, provides Jewish and general education from kindergarten through a teachers’ seminary. Girls in Bais Ya’akov study Bible and manuals of Jewish law, emphasizing the strictest ritual conformity, particularly in matters such as kashrut and relations between the sexes. Premarital association between the sexes is frowned upon or prohibited. When girls from the Bais Ya’akov seminary reach marriageable age, their families usually arrange matches for them, often with yeshivah students. The ultra-Orthodox schools prepare young women for their role not only as mothers but also as breadwinners, while their husbands devote themselves to Talmud study in a yeshivah.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Jewish education for women has long ceased to be an issue. The large majority of American Jews tacitly endorses equal education for both sexes, including vocational education for a career as a rabbi. Among the most Orthodox, women’s education is likewise accepted, but there are still basic differences between what boys and girls receive in school.
For the most comprehensive bibliography on this topic, see A Bibliography of Jewish Education in the United States, compiled and edited by Norman Drachler (1996).
Ehrenpreis, Yael, and Monty Penkower. From Zelmanowitz to Selman: Four Generations of an American Jewish Family (in press).
Gartner, Lloyd P. Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History (1969).
Goren, Arthur A. New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment 1908–1922 (1970): 86–133.
The Jewish Communal Register (1917).
Gurock, Jeffrey S. The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy and American Judaism (1988).
Joselit, Jenna Weismann, New York’s Jewish Jews (1990).
Lookstein, Joseph. God Owes Me Nothing (n.d.).
Marcus, Jacob R. The Colonial American Jew 1492–1776. 3 vols. Vol. 2 (1970): 86–133.
Moore, Deborah Dash. At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (1981).
How to cite this page
Gartner, Lloyd P.. "Jewish Education in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jewish-education-in-united-states>.