BEFORE THE DELUGE
And the Lord said to Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the gods of the strangers of the land, into which they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them. Then my anger will burn against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say on that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide my face on that day for all the evils which they shall have perpetrated, in that they have turned to other gods.
JEWISH EDUCATION IN AMERICA: AN OVERVIEW
Topics of Interest
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The Difficult and Troubled Progress of Jewish Education in America
An understanding of the changes brought about by the Second World War requires some knowledge about that which was changed. What was the history of Jewish Education in America during the centuries and decades preceding the war?
Lawrence Cremin has noted that "with
Jewish education better established and financed during the 1960s
than ever before, American Jews seemed functionally illiterate
with respect to their Judaism." And concludes by saying
"it is a paradox that tells us much, not only about the
nature and limitations of education, but also about the character
of life in twentieth-century America. . . . that extends far
beyond the confines of the Jewish community." 1 These words appear in the Foreword to Jewish
Education in the United States: A Documentary History by
Lloyd P. Gartner. The work throws some light on the establishment
and struggle of Jewish education in America. Gartner's
introduction reveals the historical development of Jewish
Scripture commands the Jew to "impress upon your children" the revealed Divine teaching, and to think and speak of it day, and night . . . Every member of God's unique people had to be imbued with the Bible and with the oral traditions later committed to writing as the Talmud, which were also regarded as Divine in origin. Lifelong study and contemplation of the Torah became essential in the Jewish paideia. . . . Social prestige and religious merit were thus ultimately linked in Judaism with intellectual effort . . . . Nowhere did the zeal for pious study exceed the intensity it attained in Poland and Lithuania, the areas from which the greatest masses of Jews came to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. . . . "It is a positive commandment of the Torah to study the Torah . . . . therefore ever Jewish person is so obligated . . . .He must fix a time for Torah study, day or night . . . .Until when is a man obligated to study? Until the day he dies." (Hayyey Adam, Section 10, Parts 1 and 2.) The main content of all this study was law, as discussed in the tractates of the Talmud--civil, criminal, moral, ritual. 2
The fate of traditional Jewish education in the open, emancipated, enlightened and democratic American society is the subject of our present interest and of Gartner's book. Cremin has noted that "the settlement of America, had its origins in the unsettlement of Europe" 3 , and nowhere is this more true than in the transplantation of Jews from Europe to America. The first Jewish settlers in America were fleeing from Christian persecution. Spanish and Portuguese Jews were the first to attempt to set up a "Jesiba" and hired a full-time teacher for their children: ". . . a Suitable Master Capable to Teach our Children ye Hebrew Language; English & Spanish he ought to know, . . . to keep a publick school at the usual Hours of the forenoons on every Customary at our Jesiba," at Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese) Congregation, New York, 1760. 4 The concern seemed to be about obtaining someone learned in "Hebrew", yet also worldly and well-spoken in secular matters.
This trend continued with the arrival of the second wave of Jewish immigrants primarily from Germany and England. Butts and Cremin have pointed out that while there had been a few Jews in America in the 1700s, and while their number had increased significantly with the German immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s, they had not exercised a particularly important influence on religious, educational or social thought. 5 " Isidore Bush's Advocacy of Public Schooling for Jewish Children (1855)" explains the position of the secularist Jew in America. The credo of the Reform movement that was an expression of the times is stated:
. . . After mature reflection and due consideration of all its bearings, I am utterly opposed to all sectional or sectarian schools, nor would I change my opinion if our means were as ample as they are deficient. . . . Would the descendants of our Christian fellow-citizens be more liberal . . . , or would they not rather be strengthened in their lamentable prejudice? . . . Which class of our children are in a better condition to meet and overcome the spectre of Intolerance? . . . Having thus refuted the standing arguments for sectarian schools, I cannot think of any object to be obtained by them to which full justice could not be done by establishing good Sabbath, Sunday, and evening schools for religious and Hebrew instruction only. . . . Sending our children at the same time to our public schools for the acquirement of other branches of learning, the result would exceed our most sanguine expectations. 6
Whatever the expectations, this approach has proven to be a remedy for loss of Jewish identity. Gartner puts it well when he says that the public school was viewed as the symbol and guarantee of Jewish equality and full opportunity in America. The deep American Jewish affinity for the public school lasted a full century, and "turned to disenchantment only in places subjected to urban school crisis in the 1950s and 1960s". 7 We would add that the events of 1939-1945 and their consequences contributed to a re-evaluation of public schooling for Jewish children.
Gartner states that the year 1880 marks the great divide in the history of American Jewry, as unprecedented numbers of Jewish immigrants began to pour into the United States. Prior to 1880 there were approximately 280,000 Jews in the U.S. By 1900 there were about 1,000,000. In 1915, there were 3,500,000. When mass immigration was shut off in 1925, by the Immigration Act of 1924, there were 4,500,000 Jews in America. Today, the figure stands at about six million.
These millions came primarily from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Galicia, and Hungary where pogroms, vicious anti-Semitism, and unstable economic and political conditions, made America a much desired haven. After all, America was free, and its streets were "paved with gold"! The fact that these new arrivals were generally of traditional Orthodox or Hasidic background and commitment, was testimony to the general efficacy of the traditional Jewish educational configuration in Eastern Europe. But the impact of American culture added to the lack of any established vast-scale traditional educational networks, contributed to a severe break-down of accepted practice. The industrial and commercial nature of American life forced most to compromise on Sabbath-observance, dress, schooling, and life style to become Americans, or simply to eke out a living.
The already well-established brethren saw it as their mission to speed up the Americanization of the newly arrived Jewish masses. They entered into "kehillah experiments" together with the homely "greenhorns" in order to gain greater social control and influence amongst the "Ostyidden". Newspapers, settlement-houses, philanthropic and cultural groups provided sustained, systematic and deliberate instruction as to the best and quickest ways to give up the "old" ways and enter into the "new". The surrender of the Jewish masses was not unconditional. Hedorim, Talmud Torahs, and a few yeshivahs were established, lasting well into the 1940s and beyond. "It expressed the determination to maintain the old ways rather than the new. It symbolized ethnic continuity in the ways of their fathers, especially yearned for when neither the fathers nor their ways were to be seen." 8 The order of the day was now "cultural pluralism"; an expression of uniqueness in the face of conformity.
Two unique syntheses were born in America during this period: The Conservative Movement and Yeshiva University. Gartner reports that the traditionalist Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and, Yeshivath Etz Chaim (later to become a part of Yeshiva College) both opened in New York in 1886. Israel Friedlander (1876-1920), professor of Bible at JTS, provides an example of a Conservative view, when dealing with "The Problem of Jewish Education for the Children of Immigrants (1913)", as recorded by Gartner:
. . . The downfall of the central pillar that had supported the structure of Russian Jewish life, the ideal of religious knowledge or scholarship, involved the downfall of all those institutions which had served it. Hence the beth hamidrash and the yeshivah were doomed from the beginning, and, though attempts at reproducing them have been made they did not yield tangible results.
What then was needed? Friedlander reports that, under the auspices of New York's Bureau of Jewish Education:
The aim of Jewish education was formulated to be "the preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, existing and developing in the spirit of the Jewish religion". The plan of parochial Jewish schools was rejected, on the grounds that it was undesirable for the Jews from the civic point of view and was surrounded by insurmountable practical difficulties.
The curriculum of the Talmud torahs . . . stands midway between the high and, in this country, unapproachable standards of Jewish education in Russia, on the one hand, and the meager requirements of the Jewish Sunday School on the other. 9
The difficulties were viewed as
"insurmountable" and high standards were
"unapproachable". There is a tone of pessimism and
resignation. The "Russian" past appears to be
unattainable in the American present. The hallmark of such
thinkers and communal leaders was their rejection of the past
with the rationale that it could never be recreated under modern
Yeshiva University's ethos, a proudly self-declared synthesis, is aptly stated in the "Eulogy to Bernard Revel" by P. Churgin (1940):
For the Yeshiva has never rejected secular studies. . . . During recent generations restrictiveness grew dominant in the Torah world. . . . on account of the dangers of the Haskalah movement the yeshivot began to close themselves in and lock all doors against those trends borne in on the clouds of science and secular activity. . . . The area of Torah became increasingly narrow, and Torah more and more limited its illumination.
Dr. Revel saw this, and set out to restore to Torah its power and untrammeled rule. He brought secular creation within--into the place of Torah, closing the gap and healing the rift. . . . The College is not a world of its own, but is part of a whole. It and the Yeshiva are one unit . . . . Very slowly its image, an image all its own, is becoming fixed, and through the College and the Yeshiva the blemish in Jewish creativeness will be healed. 10
The contribution of Bernard Revel (1885-1940) and Yeshiva College to the establishment of Orthodoxy in America is documented by A. R. Rothkoff in Bernard Revel (1981). He records the vehemence of the Reform movement in opposing, the establishment of a "yeshiva college". In an editorial of the American Hebrew of New York (January 31, 1924) the antagonism is open:
But, now comes something new and fraught with greater danger to American Jewry. This is nothing less than an abominable project for establishing Jewish parochial schools, not merely religious schools . . . . for teaching the secular branches
. . . It is difficult to write temperately on this subject. It is little short of exasperating to stand idly by while a band of fanatics, so blinded by religious bigotry as to the unavoidable consequences of their acts, are playing into the hands of the anti-Semites, the anti-immigrationists, the KuKlux and all other enemies of Israel. 11
It is revealing that this editorial had decided who were the "enemies of Israel", whilst overlooking those who abandoned time-honored Jewish religious practice. The language left no doubt about the rabid anti-traditionalism of its writers. Thus too, when Louis Marshall was approached to aid Yeshiva College, he wrote: "Such a college would be nothing more than a Ghetto Institution. Under the circumstances, I would not be willing to do anything which would favor the creation of such a college." 12
In spite of such criticism, Revel persevered, and sought constantly to reorganize the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University so that it would be "the equal of its East European prototypes". Revel was troubled that yeshivahs such as Mir and Slobodka were revered "while his Yeshiva was considered an inferior American institution". He therefore sought an accomplished European rosh yeshiva to teach the highest class. 13
Several outstanding East European Talmudists took up permanent positions or gave guest lectures. Rabbi Solomon Polachek (The "Meitsheter Illui") , Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop served as heads of RIETS. Rabbi Abraham Kahane-Shapiro, the chief rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania; Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook of Palestine; Rabbi Moshe Epstein, the dean of the Slobodka Yeshiva; Rabbi A. Bloch of Telshe; Rabbi J. Hurwitz of Meah Shearim Yeshiva in Jerusalem; Rabbi J. Kahaneman of Ponevez; Rabbi A. Kotler of Kletzk; Rabbi B. B. Leibowitz of Kamenitz; Rabbi M. D. Plotski of Ostrov; Rabbi M. Shapiro of Lublin; Rabbi Y. Sher of Slobodka; Rabbi B. Uziel, Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine; and Rabbi M. Zaks of Radin--all delivered guest lectures to RIETS students. 14 Each of these visitors gained impressions of Jewish education in America which influenced their own attitudes and policies.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, "Orthodox ideals vastly different from those of the Yeshiva (College) were starting to germinate in America. . . The Yeshiva could no longer claim to be the only advanced American yeshiva, although it was the largest and most important." Rothkoff points out that Revel's course of action was no longer the only alternative for American Orthodoxy, and those who did not comprehend or approve of Revel's innovations could support other American Torah institutions. In 1926 the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath opened an advanced yeshivah, or Mesifta, for high school and post-high school students. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948), as principal of the Mesifta, was determined to continue the tradition of the famous Lithuanian yeshivahs. 15 In addition, other yeshivahs, such as Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and Mesifta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, established advanced divisions that rejected the "synthesis" notions of Yeshiva College.
In retrospect, the establishment of Yeshivath Etz Chaim in 1886 was a turning point. When Moses Weinberger exclaimed at the time: "Oh! What pleasant news! A yeshiva for the study of Mishnah and Gemara! . . . Is it possible, can it be? Here in New York? In America?" 16 -- his euphoria was not unfounded. But it would take over eighty years before yeshivahs would become entrenched and a way of life for tens of thousands of Jews in America.
Gartner's work understates dramatic changes in Orthodox life following the Second World War. Asher Penn's excerpt on "Advanced Talmudical Academies" typifies the surprise that such intense Jewish phenomena can be found in America, in 1958. Gartner's words of introduction are that "full-time talmudic education, without college study, flourished at a number of extremely Orthodox yeshivot, mainly in ,the New York City area." The use of the word "flourished" is inaccurate, it should state "flourishes". Writes Penn:
At the Beth Midrash Govoha [in Lakewood, New Jersey] . I held lengthy discussions with a great many students. They were almost unanimous in demonstrating to me that "here in Beth Midrash Govoha" everyone learns solely to deepen himself in Torah. One does not come to . . . acquire rabbinic ordination . . . they have come here to study for years. "one sits and learns"--constantly.
(At the Mirrer Central Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York] I walked down a very long corridor on the second floor, off which on either side are classrooms. At the end of the corridor I noticed a broad window. I looked down, and my surprise was really beyond description. Before my eyes there unfolded the scene of a bright, modern, vast hall filled with about one hundred young people, all swaying over their Talmud tractates. 17
In the early 1980s, the total enrollment at Beth Medrash Govoha was close to 1,000--possibly the largest single concentration of Torah scholars in centuries. In addition, the yeshivah has established affiliated "branches" in other cities. At the Mirrer Yeshiva, not part of the "Lakewood" constellation, enrollment stands at about 500 students. Both Lakewood and Mir did not exist in America before the Second World War.
What amount to spectacular victories for Torah Judaism, and also the most underestimated and misunderstood, have been the establishment of yeshivahs and Hasidic communities in America. The most glaring omission in Gartner's book is that nowhere do we find any mention of the Hasidic movement as transplanted and thriving in America. This is an unforgivable omission for a work purporting to deal with Jewish education in America. It ignores perhaps one of the most dynamic and widespread phenomena in Orthodox Judaism during the modern era.
The portentous visits to America of Rabbi Aharon Kotler in 1935, and Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman in 1938, showed the direction that Orthodox Jewish education was to take after the war. Rabbi Kotler, rosh hayeshiva of the Slutzker Yeshiva in Kletzk, Poland (later re-established as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J.) was reluctant to deliver a guest shiur (lecture) at RIETS requested by Rabbi Revel in 1935. Rabbi Wasserman, rosh hayeshiva of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranowitz, Poland, "refused to lecture at the Yeshiva (RIETS) and gave all his support to Mesifta Torah Vodaath." 18
Prior to his death in 1940, Rabbi Bernard Revel wrote his final article entitled "Our Thought and Hope". In it he stated: "We behold the guiding hand of the Hashgaha (Divine Providence) in the fact that, before the spiritual sun of Israel has set in Europe, a sanctuary of the eternal soul of Israel has been established on this continent." 19 He was aware that a profound change was taking place not only demographically, but spiritually as well. Rothkoff maintains that it was Revel who was the first to wrestle with America and successfully established a beachhead for Orthodoxy in the New World. It was only that: a beachhead. Talking of Revel and his times, Rothkoff's conclusion is worth noting:
An era ended with his death. Europe was now completely caught up in chaos and destruction. The historic European Jewish community which nurtured Bernard Revel was now ended. Its Torah centers, rabbis, and scholars were soon to be decimated by the Nazi hordes. American Jewry was to face a host of complex problems and responsibilities in the postwar era. American Orthodoxy, in particular, was to undergo rapid challenge and change, rejuvenation and revitalization, at the conclusion of the global conflict. 20
The tide of history and events following the Second World War, and a resourceful and uncompromising nucleus of Rabbinic leaders and roshei yeshiva (heads of Talmudical Academies), were instrumental in what amounted to nothing less than a firm reorientation of Jewish communities and educational institutions towards greater awareness of the importance of Jewish--Torah--education for Jewish survival in America.
The Notion of Community in the Jewish Educational Configuration in America
An examination of Arthur A. Goren's New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922 (1970), serves as a useful means of bringing together some of the central motifs of the Jewish experience in modern America. The central area of concern in Goren's book is fundamentally related to the ideas and themes in Gartner's Jewish Education in the United States (1969). The attempt by partly or completely secularized Jews to enter into an organized community compact or gemeinde (or "kehillah" in Hebrew) with newly arrived traditional East European Jews, can be viewed as an attempt at communal and cultural synthesis:
For (Dr. Judah L.) Magnes and his friends, the Kehillah venture represented a step towards realizing that vision.--So singular an undertaking entailed considerable experimentation: it required synthesizing Old World practices and New World skills. 21
Goren states that the "dual process--the struggle to maintain ethnic integrity and to achieve social accommodation--is the ultimate concern of this book". 22 This process" of "synthesizing" is at the core of the attempt by the Jew to remain loyal to what he perceives to be his traditions and at the same time function normally as part of a broader secular society.
Goren's work shows how the vast majority of Jews in the United States were swept away by the main currents in American education: The Jews of "uptown" New York, descendants of earlier migrations from Germany, had adopted a "Protestant-congregational model of communal polity". The "young professionals of the Bureau replaced scriptual authority with Dewey's educational philosophy". The powerful policymakers of the community appointed a director of education who "embraced the tenet of the public school as the sine qua non for a Jewish educational system". The minister of New York's Temple Beth El asserted: "Judaism must drop its orientalism and become truly American in spirit and form. . . . It will not do to offer our prayers in a tongue which only few scholars nowadays understand. We cannot afford any longer to pray for a return to Jerusalem. It is a blasphemy and lie upon the lips of every American Jew." The American Jewish educator, as conceived by some theorists, would be the dominant figure in the community because he was motivated by the ethical and professional standards of "modern educational practice" and be a "scientifically trained professional" and a "devoted democrat". And, that after the Kehillah experiment of 1908-1922 "most Jews remained interested in the minimum of separation from the larger society necessary for maintaining their Jewish identity. They would be content with a more modest vision of community" 23, which are Goren's own concluding sentences in his book.
Goren declares that "the Kehillah's most substantial achievement--its educational system--rested upon the attempt to apply modern pedagogical insights to an archaic but hallowed curriculum." Not surprisingly, "the controversy it roused, convulsed the community" 24. The Kehillah's "substantial achievement--its educational system" was riddled with inconsistencies and never received the huge financial backing ,it deserved from its own leaders. A major inconsistency was the dedication of the Bureau of Education, and its Director, to public schooling as a means to "help" Jewish education.
Benderly, the Director, did everything in his power to undermine the potency of Jewish education received in the Talmud Torahs and Hedorim. He was basically committed to the secular ideal because his attitudes, approach, methodology and techniques represented the antithesis of traditional Orthodox Jewish education. Not surprisingly, Groren records that: (i) Not a single member of the education committee identified with Orthodoxy was promoted to the inner circle of policy makers. (ii) The yeshivah was anathema in the eyes of the "uptown" wealthy, receiving little support from the "downtown" men of means. (iii) Dushkin suggested that instead of teaching Hebrew or Bible or Prayers or Talmud, the Jewish schools should "teach Jewish children". (iv) Money was withheld from those schools that needed help most, namely the small Talmud Torahs and Hedorim. 25
The so-called "archaic but hallowed curriculum" that Goren refers to, Magnes sought to modify and modernize, and, Benderly, in effect, sought to nullify, was as archaic as the attempts at destroying it. The rise of the Hebrew day schools, the proliferation of European-type yeshivahs, and the growth of vast Hasidic communities, kehillahs in a greater sense, became living and not archaic disproof of all rationalizations for a fallen Judaism. Regrettably, Goren ends on a rather pessimistic note. Nowhere in his book is there any mention of the eventual establishment of a significant number of large kehillahs in New York during the 1940s, 1950s, up to the present. He appears to leave us with the impression that a "kehillah experiment" can never work in modern New York. In reality, the type of "experiment" that he dealt with collapsed, but subsequent "experiments" succeeded in Brooklyn and beyond. Perhaps it could be said that the "kehillah experiment" of 1908-1922 was a "trial run" at cooperation between diversely oriented secular and Orthodox Jews, after which the Orthodox realized that they would have to be more independent.
In the light of developments during 1939-1945, and since then, the notion of applying "modern pedagogical techniques to an archaic but hallowed curriculum" becomes ironic. Perhaps the order should have been reversed? It has been the ancient and hallowed curriculum of Jewish Ethical Monotheism that has nurtured and defined humane and disciplined communities serving as an example to all. The policy of the Kehillah's secular backers and directors was misguided for they sought not to encourage Jewish growth but a blending into society at large. They lost a golden opportunity to really further Jewish education on a vast scale.
A new pattern, albeit faint, was discernable in the decades preceding the Second World War. The latent traditionalist leanings of the millions of East European immigrants was illustrated by their desire for a kehillah. The fact that they were courted by the "uptown" wealthy was recognition that they were a force to be reckoned with. Even though prior to the Second World War, Manhattan was the hub of Torah and traditional life never seen before on such a scale in America, the break-down in traditional life was even greater. But something different was taking shape, and it was soon to be Brooklyn's turn to prove that traditional Jewish Orthodoxy need not compromise and synthesize in order to survive and flourish.
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