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The Second World War and its Consequences

The Second World War, 1939-1945, signaled the end of a vast traditional Jewish culture located primarily in Eastern Europe. The death of six million Jews throughout Europe was a catastrophic fall for Jewry and Orthodox Judaism. The war also signalled the emergence of American Jewry as the largest single Jewish community in the world, and the rise of traditional-orthodox-Judaism on a scale never before seen amongst the six million Jews of America.

What happened? How was it all achieved? Why did it happen? What significance does this have for America's Jews in particular? What role did education have in causing this situation? How was Jewish education influenced by historical events? What kind of education was it that enabled Orthodox Judaism to find a vibrancy and flourish in America?. Who were the architects that stood at the heart of the changes? What kind of educational institutions were involved? Finally, what makes the Second World War a turning-point for Jewish education in America?

The hallmark of American Jewry had been an unprecedented alienation from its traditional roots. This too was a great fall. After the war, a new phenomenon was evident. American Jewry was confronted with the example of Nazi Germany. The once most enlightened nation in Europe transformed itself into the "angel of death". Jewry was shocked. It had suffered a severe body-blow. But it was far from dead. It had survived. Hitler, the Nazis, and the Axis Powers were defeated. Those Jews who had been spared the brutalities, joined with those who had survived, to re-assess their position in the world. The need to rise up again was urgent.

Historians have noted this sea change of attitude. Raul Hilberg states that for the Jews, the destruction process engendered both physical and psychic upheavals. It brought about a deep transformation in Jewish attitudes and thought. "There has been a complication of relations between Jewry and the outside world; a lasting estrangement has grown into the centuries-old relationship with Germany; and ancient bonds of trust and dependence have been broken within the Jewish community itself." Furthermore, notes Hilberg, the effect of the German destruction process on the position of Jewry within Christianity has been twofold:

1. The Jews have been forced into a re-appraisal of the past.
2. They have developed apprehensions about the future.

Adding to the estrangement between Jewry and the world that surrounds it was the fact that throughout the war, the Jewish people adopted the Allied cause as their own, but the "Allied powers however, did not think of the Jews." Jews had "shut out" many thoughts of their disaster and helped achieve the final victory. 1

Solomon Grayzel records that more than a million Jews were officially enrolled in the fighting forces of the Allies:

  Total Jewish Population Number in Service
United States 4,770,000 550,000
Russia 3,000,000 500,000
Great Britain 300,000 60,000
Canada 170,000 17,000
South Africa 90,000 10,000

Grayzel adds that these figures do not include the many thousands of Jews who fought in the armies of other allies or "who were active in the resistance movements in France, Italy and elsewhere, or the remarkable contribution of the Jews of Palestine. 2 " Parenthetically, these figures show that where Jews were permitted to fight as part of organized armies, they did so out of all proportion to their numbers in the general population. The notion that Jews were cowards because they went "like lambs to the slaughter" is false. It ignores the fact that where Jews were accepted, they contributed selflessly to the war effort.

In spite of this loyalty, concludes Hilberg, the allied nations who were at war with Germany did not come to the aid of Germany's victims. "The Jews of Europe had no allies. In its gravest hour Jewry stood alone, and the realization of that desertion came as a shock to Jewish leaders all over the world." Jewish leaders world-wide spoke of the Jews having been "abandoned, forgotten, left alone, betrayed." It was their "unverbalized" fear that the Allies had secretly approved of what the Germans had done and that "under given circumstances, they might even repeat the experiment." 3

To illustrate the difficulties in obtaining Allied help in saving Jewish lives, we shall deal with the obstacles encountered by Jewish leaders. In many instances, those Orthodox leaders who lobbied hardest to save Jewish lives, were to become the most powerful organizers of Jewish learning institutions in America. Men such as Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, joined with others who survived, such as Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum of Satmar and Rabbi Solomon Halberstam of Bobov, to re-create the kind of Yiddishkeit (Judaism) they had known in Europe.

It is the activities of men such as these, the enormity of their struggles, their miraculous survival, and their achievements, that concern us. At the core of this thesis is the world of Jewish education symbolized by these men. Their greatest strivings revolved around salvaging Jewish scholarship from the ravages of war. They succeeded in re-establishing Jewish communities and scholarship in America, contributing to the rise of orthodoxy.

A wide-spread misconception has it that Europe's Jews failed to "resist" the Nazis. To see the clash between Nazism and Jewry in purely military terms, is a superficial reading of what transpired. When Jews were not afforded the opportunity to join organized armies or resistance groups, it could not be expected of them to offer armed opposition. Over two millennia of living in the Diaspora had shown that Jews have other means of survival. Hence our emphasis on the positive commandment impingent upon every believing Jew to "sanctify the name of God". Many of those who survived carried with them the same commitment to Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God's Name) which brought about the transformation of Jewish education in America.

Responses of World Jewry

It is known that two important centres of response developed in the international Jewish community after the war: one in America, the other in Israel. The best known, and most controversial, consequence of Jewry's disappointment with the world was the push for the establishment of an independent Jewish homeland. The masses of world Jewry saw in the establishment of the State of Israel a just reward for the persecutions and betrayals of the world's nations. A political and nationalistic ambition that had been in the making for over a century finally saw fruition. The Second World War was the catalyst.

Our study does not deal with the establishment of the State of Israel per se. We shall refer to Zionism only insofar as it contributed to, or detracted from, the rise of Orthodoxy in post-war America. Our concern is with a lesser publicized and underestimated response of Jewish Orthodoxy: The strengthening of Jewish life and education in America itself.

Judah Pilch, writing the chapter "From the Early Forties to the Mid-Sixties" in A History of Jewish Education in America (1969), mentions the war and its aftermath. His bias is inclined toward emphasizing developments related to the State of Israel. But central to his essay is the observation that the "grave events" of the Second World War "stirred the masses of American Jews. . . Their special concern was to rehabilitate the survivors in Europe proper, to help those who found a haven in other parts of the globe and restore the remnants to the Jewish Homeland in Palestine. . . These were the times when they realized that systematic action was needed in addition to philanthropy to strengthen the morale of the American Jews through greater stress on Jewish cultural values." 4

Thus, Pilch writes of "The Religious Revival" whereby "The Jewish Catastrophe in Europe, the spread of anti-Semitism, and the quest for an answer to the perplexities of the modern age prompted many American Jews to engage in an honest search for a meaning to their Jewishness." So much so, that Jews "whose tendency in the 1930's toward assimilation had estranged them from their people" now appeared to be ready to "join the fold" by joining either a synagogue or a "secular organization" which was engaged in the betterment of Jewish life world-wide.

The post-war years soon became the period of widespread "religious revival" Pilch informs us. But he is unsure whether this came into being because of greater faith and conviction, or, as a result of a "religious aura" which prevailed in the land during and after the war. His assessment is that "both Jews and non-Jews subscribed willingly to religious affirmation". Those that were referred to as the "lost generation" of Jews sought to re-establish some kind of relationship with the Jewish group for the sake of their children. "The need to bring up children in a Jewish milieu motivated most parents to join synagogues." In this "New Climate in the Jewish Community" there emerged a more earnest attempt to deal with the complex problem of Jewish education.

An aim of this thesis will be to trace in overview the history of the cultural and educational achievements of American Jewry prior to the Second World War. This will enable us to understand why Jews in the 1930's tended toward assimilation, having become estranged from their people, and why the "religious revival" that followed the war is so noteworthy.

The Success of Jewish Education in America

Pilch maintains that the most striking development in American Jewish education during the 1940's and 1950's was the steadily continuing upward trend in pupil enrollment within the total Jewish school population. Whereas in 1937 the total Jewish school population stood at 200,000, in 1948 it grew to 239,000, and by 1959 it stood at 553,600 based on the estimates of Dushkin and Engelman in Jewish Education in the U.S. (1959), as reported by Pilch.

However, these figures refer to children receiving “some sort” of Jewish education. Only an estimated 7.8% attended all-day schools. The rest belong to weekday and Sunday schools. Pilch admits that it is true that when measured by years of attendance needed for educational attainment, the schools remained on a "rather low level". And, that the situation in American Jewish education was summarized as being "like a river a mile wide and an inch deep." 5 Our focus however, will be on those Orthodox educators who strove to create that kind of Jewish education which was not merely "an inch deep." The successful establishment of schools and communities committed to the deepest forms of Jewish life and learning was a notable post-war achievement of Orthodoxy.

Whilst wending his way through various features of Jewish education in America after the war, Pilch only briefly deals with "The Expansion of the Day School". He devotes a paltry two paragraphs to "Talmudic Academies" when discussing "Higher Jewish Learning". As we shall show, this is a gross and unforgivable omission for an essay purporting to deal with the history of Jewish education in the modern era.

Pilch does observe that the 1940's marked the period of "phenomenal growth" of the Jewish day schools. He lists some basic factors contributing to this growth into the 1960's:

1. The influx of Orthodox Jews, from Poland and Hungary in the late 1930's.

2. The great Jewish tragedy during the Hitler era, with its destruction of centres of Jewish learning in European lands, engendered a strong desire among Orthodox Jewish leaders in America to perpetuate the "Yeshivoth" which the Nazis destroyed.

3. The growth of parochial schools.

4.The impact of American-born rabbis.

5. The shift away from the "melting pot" idea.

6. The decline of the Talmud-Torah. 6

It is the purpose of this thesis to closely examine the first two of these factors. Even though Pilch mentions the "shock received from the enormity of the Nazi Holocaust", he places it amongst a variety of other points. This detracts from gaining a deeper appreciation of the enormity of the "shock" and the extent and dimensions of the so-called “religious revival” which followed it.

We shall examine the nature and enormity of the destruction that gave forth such a shock to world Jewry. The barbarity of the attackers and the betrayal of supposed defenders was horrifying. In spite of the cruelties inflicted upon them, European Jewry remained, on the whole, true to the education that they had received as Jews. Jewish education in the form of Torah study runs like a golden thread through this period. It is the "unsung" factor that molded the Jew, accompanied him throughout the war, and presented itself as a beacon of hope once the war had ended. The loyalty of many Jews to the Torah as war loomed, their reliance upon it as they faced death, and their clinging to it to survive, concerns us in this study. It is a big clue to understanding the tenacity and success of those who sought to elevate Torah study to its central position in Jewish life in modern America. It lies at the heart of the rise of Orthodoxy.

This rise found fertile ground in a Jewry shocked and disappointed by the world. The corporate soul of the Jewish people was awakened from a complacent drowse. Somehow, Jews were sensitized to the importance of strengthening Jewish life. Somehow, Orthodox Jewish education in America succeeded more after the war. We shall attempt to describe why the Jews were justified in being disappointed with the world. We shall describe how the "shock" of destruction came to be, and how it opened up new vistas of sympathy for traditional Jewish education.

We shall thus give attention to the men of influence amongst the influx of Orthodox Jews in the 1930's and 1940's. We shall focus on the role of the "Talmudical Academies" for longer than two paragraphs because they were the active nucleus, preserving Jewish education rooted in tradition. Jewish historians agree that "throughout the ages Jews have drawn strength and inspiration from the study of the Talmud. As the embodiment of the Oral Tradition, the Talmud was much more than a code of laws. It was considered the very life of Judaism". 7

The Talmudical Academies in America, gave life to day schools and communities in far-flung places. After the war, Talmudical Academies, known as yeshivahs, flourished on an unprecedented scale causing a re-alignment of Orthodox Jewish life. We shall examine the extent of this re-alignment in Chapters VI and VII, as well as the differences between yeshivahs and day schools in Chapter VIII.

Pilch does not deal with the successful growth of Hasidic schools in America after the war. He makes only passing mention of the successful inception of the Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, leaving out significant developments amongst other Hasidic groups. Although the last sentence in Pilch's essay maintains: "At no time since the origin of the New York Kehillah (1909) was there apparent a greater effort to consider Jewish education as a very important item on the agenda of American Jews", he does not deal with the successful establishment of Jewish kehillahs (communities) by Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews in New York and beyond. What of the nature of Jewish life and education in New York communities such as Boro Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush, Crown Heights and Far Rockaway, and further afield in Monsey, Monroe, and Lakewood, N.J.? They find no explanation in Pilch's work. In Chapter VII we shall discuss the flowering of Jewish education within the traditional configuration of the Jewish community. In Chapter II we shall note the early attempts at establishing a New York Community. By looking at its educational policy we find the key to its failure as a venture in Jewish education.

Historical Background and Frames of Reference

It is the aim of this study to address important questions in the field of Jewish education in America by:

1. Examining the ideas, individuals, and institutions of the past with a view to determining their influence on their own, and our own, times.
2. Bringing historical knowledge and perspective to bear on current educational issues, and policies.

We shall trace the roots of the current state of Jewish education to Europe. We know that the Western World of the twentieth century is the product of the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the Reformation, as well as the American, French, Russian and Industrial Revolutions. Jewry, particularly in Europe and America, has not been immune to the historical and cultural forces emanating from the Enlightenment in modern history. In Western Europe Jews embraced the Enlightenment per se. Eastern Europe's Jews modified the Enlightenment, making it "Jewish", hence the birth of the haskalah movement. The growth of haskalah introduced modern notions of politics and culture to the masses of Central and Eastern European Jews. The domain of education was seen by both proponents and opponents of the haskalah as the "battleground" for the mind and heart of the Jewish soul. Orthodox Rabbinic scholars and leaders viewed the Enlightenment, and its "Judaised" off-shoot haskalah, as not only the mortal enemy of Judaism, but as part of the root cause of the misfortunes and retribution which befell Jewry during the two World Wars. We must grasp this notion in order to gain an insight into the minds of the spiritual leaders of observant Jewry. They viewed Hitler's megalomaniacal vendetta against the Jews as divine reproof for abandoning the ways of Judaism. They stressed the dangers of assimilation, and the importance of maintaining Jewish life through Jewish education.

Orthodox thinkers would say that Jewry has not learnt this lesson completely. But, great changes did occur as a result of the Second World War. The growth of Orthodox Jewish education in America is connected to the war. The inter-relatedness of these diverse events, reaching back into the history of the Enlightenment and the opposition it faced amongst Orthodox Jews is of direct interest to us. It helps to place the Second World War and what it meant to Jews in broader perspective.


Our definition of what constitutes Jewish Education rests upon classical Talmudic and Rabbinic tradition (mesorah) of Sinaitic origin, as explained in Chapters II and VIII. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and secular definitions are therefore excluded. However, we have found Lawrence Cremin's definition of education useful because of its generality. He defines-education as "the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, or sensibilities, as well as any learning that results from the effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended." 9 This is of use in examining Orthodox Jewish education. In addition, Cremin's notion of a "configuration" of "educators" that go beyond formal institutions of education, provides a steppingstone for our examination of Jewish education within the Jewish community.

We shall describe and examine the details surrounding the survival of a handful of individuals and institutions from the destruction in Europe during the war. Transplanting themselves to America, they recreated what was to emerge as a traditional Eastern European configuration of communities, institutions and educational agencies. It was a "deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, and acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills and sensibilities" based on Torah principles rooted in halachah (Jewish Law). Throughout this study, we shall be defining and examining the educational philosophies and policies of those who helped bring about the fundamental change of course in Jewish education in America, and, the durability of their views and achievements in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Finally, the use of the term "Holocaust" should be conditional.. Our usage of it should not be viewed as acceptance. We prefer the term Churban meaning destruction or catastrophe. Hence Churban Europe is taken to mean the catastrophe which befell Jewry in Europe. This would be in keeping with definitions of past calamities such as Churban Bayis Rishon, the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., and Churban Bayis Sheni denoting the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the present era.

Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1904-1980) one of America's leading yeshivah deans, was asked whether the term "Shoah" (literally, "Holocaust") was acceptable in describing the destruction of European Jewry. His reply was:"CLEARLY NOT". The reason being, that the word shoah in Hebrew, like "Holocaust" in English, implies an "isolated catastrophe, unrelated to anything before or after it, such as an earthquake or tidal wave." This approach is "far from the Torah view of Jewish history" because "the churban of European Jewry is an integral part of our history and we dare not isolate and deprive it of the monumental significance it has for us." 10

In the later stages of the article "'Holocaust'--A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe" (1977), Rabbi Hutner asserts that ironically, the "artificially contrived term . . . empties the churban of its profound meaning and significance." Those who coined the term "Holocaust", and who thereby appropriated a term which signifies isolation and detachment from history, "did not realize that, the significance of the 'Holocaust' is precisely in its intricate relationship with what will come after". Thus, the pattern of Jewish history throughout the ages is Churban--Golus-Geulah: Destruction--Exile--Redemption, and no event requires new categories or definitions. 11

The phenomenon of "Destruction--Exile--Redemption" defines the nodal point of our study. It is also its unifying theme. One aspect of this phenomenon cannot be isolated from the rest. For a unified perspective there must be a unified approach. We shall not minimize the dimensions of "Destruction." We shall follow the course of "Exile" from Europe to America. Our specific concern shall be Jewish Education as a manifestation of "Redemption".

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