Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Origins of Formal Jewish Education in the United States

Today, thankfully, there are hundreds of Jewish elementary schools in the United States that teach both Judaic and general studies. The paradigm for this movement was the founding of Yeshiva Etz Chaim on the Lower East Side of New York City, on March 15, 1886, corresponding to the 8th of Adar II (both of which fall this coming Friday).

Prior to the founding of Etz Chaim (Tree of Life in Hebrew), all Jewish education in the United States was supplementary, serving Jewish students after the conclusion of their public school studies in mostly synagogue-affiliated afternoon schools. As Torah-observant Jews began immigrating to the United States in greater numbers (approximately 2,000,000 Jews immigrated to the United States from 1881 to 1924, the vast majority of whom came from Eastern Europe), the need grew. Some parents wanted the supplementary Hebrew schools to teach Talmud, and their request was rejected. The founders of Etz Chaim Yeshiva identified boys with the requisite advanced background and rented a space at 47 East Broadway, one of the tenements on the Lower East Side, which was the mecca of Jewish immigrants at that time. Their budget was so tight, they bought only one volume of the Talmud for 90 cents and ripped it into three sections, so that each of the three teachers would have a text. They placed tzedakah (charity) boxes in homes and synagogues in order to generate funds for the school.

The curriculum mirrored that of the cheder (room in Yiddish), the parochial Jewish elementary schools that were found in all the shtetls (small towns) of Eastern Europe, except that Etz Chaim offered secular studies as well, including English, although limited at first. Eventually, Etz Chaim featured a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies, partially due to New York State law. The students studied Judaic studies from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. From 4:00 to 6:00 pm, the students learned English and from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm, they learned to read and write Hebrew and Yiddish, their mother tongue.

In 1915, Yeshiva Etz Chaim merged with the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), which was established in 1896 as the first high school and rabbinical seminary in the United States. The two institutions became the first institution of higher Torah learning in the United States, from pre-bar mitzvah, through rabbinic ordination. In 1916, RIETS created Talmudical Academy, the first Jewish high school in the United States, which also taught a full curriculum of secular studies in the afternoon. In 1928, the schools created Yeshiva College, the first accredited college under Jewish auspices in the United States.

Today, Yeshiva University and its affiliate, RIETS, enjoy tremendous success as one of the premier educational institutions in the United States. It continues to simultaneously ordain rabbis at RIETS and graduates thousands of students, including doctors, lawyers. social workers and Jewish scholars through its multiple graduate schools.

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