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The vast majority of Jewish children in the U.S. who receive Jewish education, attend Jewish school after public school hours. It is estimated that between 60% and 70% receive some kind of Jewish education during their school years, quite remarkable considering that Jewish education is voluntary in the U.S. No one can force parents to send their children to a Jewish school. But the vast majority of American Jews do so because they believe, as Jews have always believed, that a Jewish education is essential for their children to understand what it means to be a Jew and respect themselves.

While almost all American Jews agree on the need for Jewish education, they differ as to the kind of Jewish education that is best for their children. Thus, different types of Jewish schools function on the American scene.

Congregational Schools. The majority of American Jewish children attend synagogue schools conducted by various Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations. The synagogues conduct two types of schools.

Week-Day Afternoon Schools. Children attend from three to five days a week after public school hours and receive from three to eight hours of instruction weekly. These are conducted largely by the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues. The Hebrew language, prayers, Jewish customs and ceremonies, Jewish history, and the Bible are the major subjects studied. These schools conduct their own children’s services on the Sabbath and holidays, and many of them also conduct a variety of club activities. The course of study covers four to six years.

The One-Day-A-Week School (Sunday School). Children attend either Saturday or Sunday mornings and receive from one to three hours of instruction. These are conducted chiefly by the Reform synagogues, and more than 35% of the total number of children attending Jewish schools are enrolled in this type of school. Jewish history, Bible, and Jewish customs and ceremonies are the major subjects studied. More and more synagogues are adding one or two sessions a week for Hebrew studies. Most of the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues also have one-day-a-week departments attended by young children before they enter the weekday Hebrew school. In the Reform religious schools, the course of study usually leads to confirmation at age sixteen.

The Yeshivot Ketanot, or All-Day Schools. This fulltime program combines Jewish studies and all subjects covered by the general public school. This type of school offers the most thorough Jewish education. Pupils receive about fifteen hours a week of instruction in Jewish studies (in the Hebrew language or Yiddish, in some instances), prayers, the Bible in its original Hebrew, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish history, and Jewish laws and customs. This has been the fastest growing type of school in recent years. In 1935, there were 17 such schools in three communities. In 1959, there were over 230 such schools in more than 50 communities. Today, there are more than 500 such schools in the U.S. Most of these day schools are Orthodox institutions, but in recent years the Conservative movement has developed its Solomon Schechter Day School program, the Reform movement has begun to establish its own day schools, and there are non-denominational day schools in many large Jewish communities, some of which rival the best private schools in the U.S. Many consider the day school the best hope for Jewish survival outside Israel.

The Communal Talmud Torah is a non-synagogue weekday Hebrew school that children attend five days a week after public school hours and receive from six to ten hours of instruction weekly. The subjects covered are similar to those in the congregational weekday afternoon school. The communal Talmud Torah, the most flourishing type of school a generation ago, has declined rapidly in recent years and been replaced largely by the congregational school and the all-day school. It is still found in the larger Jewish communities.

Yiddish Schools are sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle and the Sholom Aleichem Folk Institute, national organizations which originated among Jewish socialists. In these schools, Yiddish is the language of instruction. Children attend three to five afternoons a week and study Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and the Bible in Yiddish. In some of these schools, Hebrew is taught in the upper grades. The Jewish National Workers Alliance (Labor Zionists) conducted similar schools, except that in these schools Hebrew as well as Yiddish was taught from the outset. These are generally small schools, and only a small percentage of the total number of Jewish children attend them.

Yeshivot. During the 20th century, especially with the destruction of European Jewry, yeshivot, or Talmudical academies or rabbinical colleges, have assumed a place of increasing importance in American Jewish religious life. Some of these institutions were transferred to the U.S. from Europe. Among the most prominent American Yeshivot are the Yeshiva of Mir, the United Lubavitcher Yeshivot, Yeshiva and Mesivtah Chaim Berlin, Yeshiva and Mesivtah Tifereth Jerusalem and Yeshiva and Mesivtah Torah Vodaath (all in the New York area), the Yeshiva of Lakewood, N.J., the Yeshiva of Spring Valley, N.Y., the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland., and the Yeshiva of Telz in Cleveland.

History. The various systems of Jewish education now existing in the U.S. did not come into being all at once, but rather developed gradually with the growth of the American Jewish community. Jews came to this country from different countries, each group bringing its own traditions and ways. The schools they set up at the beginning followed the patterns of their homelands, but soon these schools were modified to conform more closely with the type of schools that were growing up on the American scene.

The first Jewish school in the U.S., the Yeshivah Minchat Areb, was founded as an all-day school in 1731, and was associated with the first synagogue established in New York City. At first, only Hebrew subjects were taught, but later general subjects, such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and Spanish, were added. At this time, the Jewish community was responsible for the education of its children just as other religious groups provided education for their children. As time went on, these schools became private schools where the attention was given mostly to general subjects and little to Hebrew subjects. In the early 1800’s, synagogues began to provide some instruction in Hebrew subjects after school. For a brief period from 1845 to 1855, a number of all-day schools similar to present-day yeshivot began and flourished, but they went out of existence soon after that. After 1850, the free public school became the generally accepted type of school, attracting the greater proportion of American children. Almost all Jewish children attended public schools for their general education, and the Jewish school became largely supplementary.

In 1838, the first Sunday school was established in Philadelphia and became the most widely accepted type of school by Jews during the last half of the 19th century. The majority of Jews who immigrated to America during this period came from Germany, from where they brought Reform Judaism. They minimized the importance of Hebrew and considered one day a week of instruction sufficient. They patterned their Jewish religious schools after the Protestant Sunday Schools which had grown up in America.

After 1880, when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe swelled into the millions, the heder entered the American scene. This was a private one-teacher school, conducted by poorly trained teachers. Gradually the heder gave way to the Talmud Torah, also an East European type of school, but on a much higher plane. The Talmud Torah was well organized and provided a rich program of instruction. Its teachers were well trained, its textbooks challenging, and its school buildings new and substantial. Hebrew was taught as a living language. The Zionist goal of establishing Palestine as a Jewish homeland was an important part of its program. Talmud Torah became the heart of intensive Jewish education in America and held that position until recently. Shortly before World War II the congregational and all-day schools supplanted the Talmud Torah to a large extent. During the period after 1880 the Yiddish schools were also organized.

As schools grew and became better organized, the demand for American-trained teachers increased. In 1867, the first teacher training school, Maimonides College, was established in Philadelphia. Thirty years later, Gratz College was established in Philadelphia for the same purpose. There are now fourteen recognized teacher training schools throughout the country.

In 1910, New York City’s Jewish community established the Bureau of Jewish Education, the first of more than 40 community bureaus of Jewish education which now exist in the U.S. These central bureaus were established to meet the problems that the individual schools could not handle alone. In many instances, these bureaus of Jewish education give subsidies to schools to enable them to provide more scholarships. They help schools get qualified teachers; they prepare better textbooks and other teaching materials to improve instruction; they offer expert guidance to help teachers improve their methods; and they provide other services through which the community helps its Jewish schools to improve.

In today’s Jewish school, teachers use well prepared and colorful textbooks, workbooks, filmstrips, records, movies, and other modern teaching aids. In today’s Jewish classroom children learn not only from books, but also through play, art, dance, and other activities.

Jewish education has spread to the summer camps. In various parts of the country there are camps where Hebrew is spoken as a matter of course, and children actually attend classes for part of the morning. Other camps provide a rich program of Jewish educational activities, such as Sabbath services, Jewish music, dance, arts, and drama. Thousands of Jewish children today take their Jewish education with them on vacation and make camp life a richer and more meaningful experience. (See also Education in Jewish History.)

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