The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy



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The outbreak of World War II permanently altered the nature of these institutions as rabbis and students died by the thousands and those able to escape, mostly via Vilna, Lithuania, eventually made their way to Israel and the United States. One of the most productive eras in Jewish scholarship and leadership ended in the flames of Hitler's holocaust against the Jews. But the flight of the survivors and their determination to preserve their heritage meant that the long and ancient history of the yeshiva would continue in still another country. 1
Thus, in the section, "The Postwar Period: A Time of Unparalleled Growth", Helmreich states that with the Allied victory over the Nazis in 1945, "a new era began for the yeshiva world. Between 1947 and 1951 almost 120,000 Jews arrived in the United States." This group had a considerable impact on Jewish education:
The death of thousands upon thousands of yeshiva leaders and students during the Nazi era represented an intellectual and spiritual loss to the Orthodox community that is incalculable. Yet those who came to America to rebuild the yeshivas were a priceless asset to those interested in reinvigorating Orthodox Judaism. They brought with them not only knowledge, memories, and experiences, but a Weltanschauung that challenged and ultimately overcame the prevailing trend towards compromise with secular American values that existed in the Orthodox camp. Although their uncompromising positions often polarized the community, they succeeded in raising the level of debate concerning its future to one that had not been present before. 2
Thus began an era of building yeshivahs, day schools, and kehillahs. Helmreich is accurate in saying that the "Holocaust uprooted them and turned them into reluctant immigrants". Bland "Americanization" did not appeal to a group of people who had survived the phenomenon of "Auschwitz":
Those who survived the Nazi horrors and retained their faith must have been even more determined not to allow their standards of religious life to disappear or even be eroded in America. As Rabbi Yaakov Kamenecki put it: "Post-Holocaust parents were not satisfied with the quality of Jewish education they found when they came here. They came from the land of the gedolim." 3
The "gedolim", literally means the "great ones", the phenomenal rabbinic scholars who headed Orthodox Jewry in Europe and were usually also the heads of the yeshivahs. The war did not halt the history of the yeshivahs, it did however change their primary geographical location. What lay at the "heart" of the yeshivah that gained it the loyalty of those who were part of it, in spite of a world war? The answer to this, would be the same as to the question: "What is a yeshivah?"
A yeshivah is a place where a Jew studies Torah which is its primary curriculum. For the Jew it was axiomatic that this was the same Torah that God gave the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai as recorded in Exodus 19-20. The Torah consisted of: The "written" Torah or law (the "Pentateuch") or the first five books of Moses (meaning, recorded by Moses), called in Hebrew Torah SheBechtav; And the "oral explanations" or Oral Law, in Hebrew: Torah SheBe'alpeh, which was subsequently written down and recorded in the Talmud, which contained the Mishnah and Gemorah.
It was viewed as the religious obligation and function of each and every Jew to acquaint himself with the Torah to the best of his abilities and transmit it to his son and the next generation. Rambam (Rabeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) known as Maimonides (1134-1204), in his halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, declared unambiguously that: "Every man of Israel is obliged to learn Torah, whether he be poor or rich, healthy or sickly, . . . ". It was essentially the father's task to transmit Torah to his children. Thus the family was the "primary", and even sole, educational "institution" for a great part of Jewish history. When it became evident to the Jewish sages that this was no longer possible, it became the duty of teachers, rebbaim, to take over a function which primarily belonged to the father. Hence the birth of yeshivahs as primary transmitters of the Torah heritage. It was thus the function of the traditional yeshivah to continue the transmission of Torah in its purest and most elevated form.
For the traditional yeshivah in the modern era, education began in early childhood, continued through adolescence, into manhood, which should have ideally been carried over by the graduate into married life, middle age, and down to the last days of life. An aim of lifelong Torah education was to create that level of Torah consciousness called da'as, meant to denote intellectual maturity, acumen, and the awareness of God's greatness. The Torah cemented the unity of God and the Jews. Thus, Israel, Torah, and God became "One". Indeed,Helmreich writes that the shema ("Hear 0 Israel the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One"), one of the holiest Jewish prayers, states succinctly: "And these words . . . thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children . . . " (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). This exhortation, and others like it, "was presented by Moses in the name of God to the Israelites, . . . the commandment to learn was of divine origin, as was knowledge itself." 4
Judah Pilch in A History of Jewish Education in America (1969), has noted that the Talmudical Academies in America concerned themselves primarily with the teaching of "talmudic literature". Pilch places on record that most of these schools were so organized as to afford opportunities for traditional Jewish studies on the elementary and secondary levels for large numbers of students and "rabbinic training" for the graduates of the mesivta (the secondary department) who manifested an interest and capacity for advanced talmudical studies. Pilch correctly points out that "the chief aim of these academies is 'lernen', the study of 'Torah for its own sake' (Torah lishma) ." 5
Alvin I. Schiff in The Jewish Day School in America (1966), has presented the curriculum of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and Mesivta, an early established traditional yeshivah. 6 What emerged was the emphasis on Talmud--Torah SheBe'alpeh, as the heart and core of the traditional yeshivah curriculum. Helmreich goes into some detail concerning the formal function of the yeshivah in the chapter: "In the Path of the Lord: Teachings of the Faith", which includes "mastering the Talmud", "content and method of the Talmud", "the purpose of Talmud Study", "the teaching of ethics", and "prayer and meditation". 7 In an earlier section he sums up the main characteristics of the advanced yeshivahs as:

1. Having programs in which the students spend most of their time in talmudic study. Subjects such as ethics and Bible also being taught.

2. Having goals, such as the transmission of tradition "at the highest levels", training rabbis and teachers, bringing Jews closer to Judaism.

3. Having a hierarchy, with a rosh yeshivah at the head of each institution.

4. Having "European antecedents".

5. Having leaders who "tend to move in the same social circles, sharing a common system of norms and values." 8


However, the broad world of Jewish education in America contained types of formal educational institutions that differed greatly from the pattern outlined above. Frequently, schools that were established in America after the Second World War differed radically from the time-honored traditional European models. What emerged in America was a grouping of schools. one strongly identified with the traditional models and generally called "yeshivahs" (or mesivtas), and another under the label "Hebrew Day Schools". Both groups shared similar goals, and often shared a symbiotic existence. But, there were major differences in methods, educational policies, and results. Jewish education in America remained a multi-dimensional domain.
The Second World War and the Growth of the Day Schools
The period 1940-1964 has been called the "Era of Great Expansion" in Jewish education by Alvin I. Schiff in The Jewish Day School in America (1966). When Europe was at the threshold of its darkest hour, America was about to witness a rapid increase of Jewish all-day schools. Schiff has noted that the year 1940 marked the beginning of the period of phenomenal growth for the Jewish day school movement. "Two hundred and seventy-one yeshivot, 91 percent of all existing day schools, were established after this date. In 1940, at the beginning of the Era of Great Expansion, there were thirty-five yeshivot with an approximate enrollment of 7,700 pupils . . . . By 1964 the enrollment grew to approximately 65,000 students in 306 schools and departments." 9 Helmreich has updated these figures to 613 schools catering to 100,150 students, including high school students, in 1978. 10
Prior to the Second World War, Jewish immigrants relied primarily on the American public schools to provide a general education, which was viewed as an essential steppingstone and key for entry into American life, business and culture. Jewish education was provided in separate institutions, mainly in the afternoons and Sundays at Talmud Torahs or hedorim. The roles of the synagogues, temples, and the family as educators were weakened, and even neglected, when compared to the emphasis placed on secular education. At the higher education level, there were few Jewish institutions that provided anywhere as intensive a program of Torah education as could be found in Europe.
The public school curriculum, and the system as such, was too powerful a force for the average Jewish child. The Talmud Torahs had the unenviable task of playing "second fiddle" to the public schools. The result was massive alienation from Jewish roots. Norman Podhoretz in his autobiographical work Making It (1967) has described the workings of this process upon himself. He describes the immigrant Jewish milieu from which he derived as "having been driven by an uninhibited hunger for success". The first step towards success was to receive a broad public education. It was in high school that Podhoretz came under the tutelage of an English teacher, "Mrs. K.", who "was also famous for being an extremely good teacher". From the age of thirteen to sixteen Podhoretz was her "special pet", as an intense relationship developed between them:
She flirted with me and flattered me, she scolded me and insulted me. Slum child, filthy little slum child, so beautiful a mind and so vulgar a personality, so exquisite in sensibility and so coarse in manner. What would she do with me, what would become of me if I persisted out of stubbornness and perversity in the disgusting ways they had taught me at home and on the streets. 11
Podhoretz writes that in retrospect, he is struck by "the astonishing rudeness of this woman to whom 'manners' were of such overriding concern". His assessment is that "good manners" meant only one thing to "Mrs. K.": "Conformity to a highly stylized set of surface habits and fashions which she took, quite as a matter of course, to be superior to all other styles of social behavior." The real purpose of this education was meant to achieve an acknowledgement of the superiority of "a better class of people". "I had to signify by my general deportment that I acknowledged them as superior to the class of people among whom I happened to have been born. That was the bargain--take it or leave it." 12
And what of Podhoretz's parents and home environment? They were immigrants from Eastern Europe who were raised in "fanatically Orthodox homes". His father, whilst "not especially observant himself . . . respected observance in others" and encouraged it in his son. He was a "Jewish survivalist, unclassified and eclectic . . . . outraged by any species of Jewish assimilationism, whether overt or concealed." 13 There was thus the inherent drive for self-preservation that sought to somehow accommodate itself to modern life in America:
The point was to be a Jew, and the way to be a Jew was to get a Jewish education; never mind about definitions, ideologies, justifications. There were, to be sure, limits; he would not, for example, yield to his father-in-law's demand that I be sent to a yeshiva: had he cut off his own earlocks in order that his American son should grow a pair? And his son, make no mistake about it, was and would be an American. On the other hand, he was determined not to settle for the usual course of instruction leading to an ending with the bar mitzvah ceremony at the age of thirteen. 14
Thus the home that was committed to things Jewish and therefore ensured "Hebrew school" extra-curricular education, also relished that general education which would create an "American". For the average child this was, and has in many instances remained, an intolerable conflict of "interests". As Podhoretz writes: "I didn't mind going at first, but after a while I began to resent what more and more seemed a purposeless infringement on my freedom. Everyone else could fool around in the streets after school and on Sunday; why did I alone have to miss out on all the fun?" 15 For a child this was a powerful question, and as the history of that age shows, Jewish education suffered. In the face of "Mrs. K.'s" cultural offensive, parental vacillation about Jewish education, and the attractiveness of "fun" on the streets, Jewish "afternoon-schools" were doomed in the long run.
Given that predicament, and following in the aftermath of the Second World War, new impetus was given to revise prevailing attitudes towards Jewish education. Men such as Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, a leading figure in the yeshivah of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, founded Torah Umesorah during the war years. This "National Society for Hebrew Day Schools" was dedicated to the aim of establishing a day school in every town and location that had a Jewish community. As Rabbi Mendlowitz had envisaged, the curricula of day schools were ideally meant to imitate those of the traditional yeshivahs. In reality however, this was not as simple as it may have sounded, for the cultural forces described by Podhoretz were still predominant.
Thus, even though Jewish day schools grew and even flourished all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico, to over 600 schools with over 100,000 full-time students--each was unique. Many of these schools named themselves, "Yeshivah", or "Mesivta", or "Jewish", or "Hebrew", but very fundamentally the Jewish curriculum varied from school to school. In many cases, the Torah and Jewish studies curriculum was very far removed in both content and intensity from that of the traditional yeshivah. It is ironical that whilst the elementary and high-school divisions of traditional yeshivahs fall under the broad label of "day schools" they are vastly different to the usual day schools found in America's Jewish communities.
The day school movement has been curtly analyzed by Helmreich, precisely because the average day school is greatly different from the traditional yeshivah. Helmreich states: "Only a minority of children in the day schools are observant (just how many is not known) or continue in religious high schools, and an even smaller number go on to advanced yeshivas." Calling the high-school division of the traditional yeshivah "mesivta", he concludes that "it is the day school and the mesivta that provide the basic education for almost all of those who study at the beis medrash level." The beis medrash referring to the post-high school division of the traditional yeshivah. He adds that there has always been a good deal of "crossing over" between schools characterized as "modern" and those that are "traditional": "Parents may find a particular emphasis not to their liking at the elementary school level and compensate for it by sending their children to a different type of high school." 16 There is thus a fundamental difference in types of day schools. Those day schools that seek to emulate the traditional yeshivahs differ greatly from more "modern" day schools.
Several writers have noted that it was the advanced yeshivahs that played a crucial role in the development of the day school movement. As stated by Helmreich:
It was their leaders who anticipated both the need for and the importance of such education to provide a steady stream of students to the higher schools. The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools (Torah Umesorah), which is involved in almost every aspect of day school education, is staffed primarily by graduates of advanced yeshivas, and is strongly influenced by a board of rosh yeshivas with respect to policy matters. 17
It was during the height of the European catastrophe that the push for day schools began in earnest. In 1941, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948) fulfilled a long sought dream: He established a school called Esh Das (the "Fire of Faith") which would be dedicated to the development of a type of Torah worker who would make the self-sacrifice of exclusive devotion to the perpetuation of Torah in America. Rabbi Mendlowitz chose a select group of students to spearhead this movement. They were to play a key role in fulfilling another of his ideals: the establishment of Hebrew day schools throughout America. The operation began in earnest in June 1944, when "at a conference of leading religious- and lay-leaders at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, was born." 18
Samuel C. Feuerstein, a lay leader of Torah Umesorah has written of Rabbi Mendlowitz's vision and "blueprint" for a "national agency" of Jewish education:
The war in Europe was over. The allies were victorious. . . . Our defeat was written large in the smokestacks of the crematoria and in the devastated Torah centers of a European community . . . which for a thousand years gave us scholars, saints, and sages.....
And now that link . . . was in the balance.......
Reb Feivel Mendlowitz . . . took this vision and planted it in the soil of the practical dimensions of the American community. 19
Through Torah Umesorah, Rabbi Mendlowitz ensured a link between the larger traditional yeshivahs, and the variegated day schools which were springing up. There was thus also a link between what was lost in Eastern Europe and the new educational institutions founded in America. This linkage took on greater proportions with the arrival of men such as Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1891-1962). Rabbi Kotler exerted direct influence on all major developments of Torah Umesorah and on its founder. During a war-time encounter between the two men, Rabbi Kotler is reported to have convinced Rabbi Mendlowitz that "in view of the on-going annihilation of European Jewry, he should reorder his priorities. Hitler was destroying Torah centers of Europe and systematically wiping out their leaders in the process . . it was time for America to seriously plan on producing its own outstanding scholars to create in America and to maintain for the entire world the highest possible levels of Torah scholarship." 20 The day schools were only the means to such an end.
There was a national climate that made such goals seem possible. Marshall Sklare in America's Jews (1971) asks how can the rise of the day school be explained? He replies that one significant influence is the character of the Jewish immigrants who came to America as a result of World War II. The Orthodox Jews who came to America did so out of necessity rather than choice:
In fact, their version of the American dream was that they should have the freedom to reestablish the way of life they had enjoyed before the Holocaust. Thus without hesitation they proceeded to organize their own schools--schools that would give primacy to Jewish culture and shield their children and others from the influence of the secularism of the public schools. 21
In addition to this, adds Sklare, there was widespread disillusionment with the results of "Hebrew School education", the Talmud Torahs and hedorim, on the part of "moderate and centrist Orthodox elements, as well as some traditionally minded adherents of Conservative Judaism." 22 Alvin Schiff in The Jewish Day School in America (1966) confirms this view, providing a brief summary of the reasons for the growth of the Jewish day schools:

1. Pioneer efforts of earlier institutions.

2. Inspired Orthodox leaders who were devoted to the ideals of intensive Jewish education.

3. The changing.international Jewish scene, particularly the destruction of the European Jewish community, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

4. The changing American Jewish scene, namely the nature of post-World War II immigration and the rise of native American yeshivah exponents. There was also the deterioration of supplementary Jewish education as provided by the communal Talmud Torahs and the afternoon Hebrew schools.

5. Changes in the general community with a wartime and postwar upsurge in religious sentiment, and prosperity. However, conditions in the public schools worsened with the increase of "blackboard jungle" conditions.

6. There were special features, such as the prestige of private schooling and the advantages for working mothers of the all-day school.

7. Organized promotion by Torah Umesorah, the National Council for Torah Education of the Mizrachi (Religious Zionists), the Lubavitchers, and others.

8. Encouragement from Jewish leaders; amongst the lay and even non-religious Jewish personalities.

9. Good timing and motivation, which meant that underlying the individual factors that encouraged the expansion was the unique combination of the right circumstances: "The need for intensive Jewish schools, the readiness of many sectors of the Jewish community to accept and support the day school idea, the proper timing of the pioneer efforts, the continuing external forces catalyzing the development, and the stubborn zealousness of Jewish Day School leaders." 23


No historical phenomenon can be attributed to one factor. There are always a number of factors at work on various levels and in various dimensions. The establishment and growth of Jewish day schools in America has been no exception. The factors which contributed to growth, were also the ingredients of complexity and conflict within the day school program.
Resistance to Total Jewish Education: Dissonant Configurations
Alvin Schiff has stated that there are no hard-and-fast rules to categorize the various types of day schools: "Although the Jewish Day Schools are generally regarded as communal schools with a traditional program, it is not good practice to consider them as one group of schools or one form of education." He stresses that even the majority-type Orthodox-oriented day school is divided into a number of categories. In general terms there are two broad Orthodox groups:

1. European or traditional, including Hasidic, day schools or yeshivahs.



2. Modern or modified,often co-ed,Hebraic day schools or yeshivahs. 24
Concerning the second group of more modern schools, Schiff cites a study involving parents by Louis Nulman: "The Reactions of Parents to a Jewish All Day School" (1955). The study showed that many parents did not have a complete understanding of the school program. Very few of the parents had attended an all-day school themselves, and they were confused "as to their own positions regarding Jewish belief and practice". One group of parents were found not fully accepting of the day school's emphasis on the teaching of ritual observance. Another group were parents "who do not usually exhibit strong Jewish identification and activity...Although they do not object to the school's teachings, they endeavor to transmit to their children the idea that the home and school operate in two unrelated spheres." 25
Even though Schiff concludes that it is impossible to generalize from the results of one study, for there are a wide variety of "characteristics and interests", there is still the problem of the home and school having to "operate in two unrelated spheres". The notion of two elements of a broader configuration, in this case home and school, conveying two different "educations", is dealt with by Lawrence A. Cremin in Public Education (1976). He states that "the relationships among the institutions constituting a configuration of education may be complementary or contradictory, consonant or dissonant." 26 In the case of the modern day school's, albeit moderate, emphasis on "ritual observance", as opposed to the home environment's indifferent, and often hostile, attitude towards religious practice, a "dissonant" and even contradictory configuration arises.
The differing interests of home and day school reflect the "dissonance" between the aims of the day schools' rabbinical pioneers, and the more entrenched Jewish population of the United States. Quite often even those American Jews who were receptive to the idea of all-day schools in the emotional aftermath of the Second World War, were not willing to accept the implications of total Jewish education. Jewish education as perceived by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the "father" of Torah Umesorah, meant that the ultimate objective would be to educate the young in becoming Torah-observant Jews. This was manifest in struggles over the day schools' curricula. Whilst rabbis and Orthodox rabbinical leaders urged an increase in the quality of the Jewish studies curriculum, specifically Torah and Talmud studies, parents emphasized secular studies and often denigrated Jewish studies. Cremin touches upon such a phenomenon when he writes that "the teacher may attempt to liberate (by proffering intellectual, moral, or vocational alternatives) at the same time as the parent attempts to constrain." He cites the countless instances in which parents prefer the immediate earnings of a dependent child to the continuance of a school career that would defer earnings." 27
It is not surprising that observers of day school education write in skeptical tones. Milton Himmelfarb's "Reflection on the Jewish Day School" (1960), faults the day school for not connecting with the rest of culture: "The general and the Jewish are at best put side by side mechanically, not combined organically." Himmelfarb therefore states that "I am not sure that they ordinarily provide a sound education". He faults the day school curriculum which aims to educate people "among whom talmide hakhamim may arise. Their curriculum, like their aim, is the one sanctified by tradition. . . . That will not do." Why? The answer is because "the children in the day schools are going to be well educated. . . . The air they breathe will be the air of the American variant of Western culture. The vice of the day school is that it ignores Western culture. " 28 Himmelfarb is therefore both skeptical and scornful of what he perceives to be the narrow and isolationist aspects of the day schools' Jewish curriculum.
Another perspective is that of Elchonon Oberstein in "Community Controlled Day Schools: The Way Things Are" (1977), who says that the average day school parent is "firmly acculturated and to a large extent assimilated into the mainstream of American life. Their yearning for tradition should not be interpreted as a willingness to adopt an 'alien' life style." Oberstein would no doubt indirectly reassure Himmelfarb that the child within its home setting is well entrenched in general American culture. Oberstein admits that:
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