Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, teaches Judaic Studies and History at The George Washington University. She chronicles the development of the Jewish community in the United States. She recently wrote a short essay about the history of Jewish day schools in America. It was not an argument on behalf of day schools. Nor was it a polemic against. It was, simply, a brief outline of the rise of day school education as one among many of mainstream educational choices within the community.
The sub-headline of the essay captures its gist. “Once demonized as the community embraced public schools, they [day schools] eventually came into their own by teaching ‘Judaism and Americanism’ side by side.”
As in most new communities in Western societies where Jews arrived in the late 19th and then 20th century and then tried to integrate into the mainstream majority society, Joselit notes that “America’s Jews understood all too well that the public school was both the ticket to modernization and the price they had to pay to become full-fledged Americans.”
Not surprisingly therefore, public school education was embraced by the newcomers.
Some years later, as immigrants grew more accustomed to and secure in their surroundings, certain individuals decided to assert and preserve their religious identity by embarking on a new approach to education, in the form of intensive day school education.
“It took enormous vision, leavened by a giant leap of faith, to imagine a Jewish educational institution that could hold its own against the mighty public school and do right by American-born boys and girls, all the while offering first-rate instruction in Jewish subjects.”
Joselit describes the difficulties in initiating Jewish day schools and the opposition to doing so in certain circles. But despite the long odds in making day schools happen, Joselit writes: “Little by little, though, something started to give: Jewish day school education became an increasingly attractive option. Between 1917 and 1939, American Jews established 23 such institutions in the greater New York metropolitan area alone.”
Then Joselit makes note of one the key revelations that helped launch day schools throughout the United States: “What fueled their efforts was the sobering realization that hardly any committed or “sturdy Jews” emerged from the prevailing system in which Jewish education played second fiddle to the public school. (Our emphasis)
“In the years that followed, especially in the wake of the Shoah and the rise of the State of Israel, Jewish day schools gained in both number and collective esteem. Once marginalized and derided, they came to be seen, in the words of the Orthodox Union, as the “most exciting and hopeful phenomenon in Jewish life in America. Statistics bore out that optimistic assertion, as did the emergence of Conservative and Reform-affiliated day schools. By the late 1990s, according to one census, American Jewry could boast nearly 670 Jewish day schools; the most recent tabulation, in 2013-2014, puts that number at 861.”
Since Joselit’s essay is intended as a historical survey about the advent of day schools in the United States, she offers no conclusions about their importance or impact upon the generations of young and future Jews. Nor does she attempt to make the case for day schools.
Pointing to the obvious and widely acknowledged stumbling blocks to the further growth of days schools in our times, such as the “exorbitant costs” and the “decreasing denominationalism” among Jews, Joeselit concludes with a shrug.
“It’s anyone’s guess as to what the future holds.”
By making Jewish education in the GTA affordable––starting with day school education––we have the opportunity to actually determine what the future will hold in our community.
We have the opportunity to write our own history. It is imperative that we do so.
Shabbat Shalom. Mo’adim l’Simchah. Chag samayach.