The Ben­der­ly Boys and Amer­i­can Jew­ish Education

  • Review
By – October 31, 2011
Sam­son Ben­der­ly inau­gu­rat­ed the Bureau of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion in 1910, seek­ing to mod­ern­ize Jew­ish edu­ca­tion and pro­fes­sion­al­ize the field by train­ing a younger gen­er­a­tion of teach­ers, prin­ci­pals, and bureau lead­ers. These young men became known col­lec­tive­ly as the Ben­der­ly Boys and, from the 1920s to the 1970s, they were the dom­i­nant force in Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States. In this study Jonathan Kras­ner cap­tures the essence of both ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry edu­ca­tion­al think­ing and the nature of life for the new immi­grants who were arriv­ing from East­ern Europe. Ben­der­ly and his pro­tegés under­stood the impor­tance of mak­ing Judaism come alive in the class­rooms for the chil­dren who were grow­ing up Amer­i­can and Jew­ish on the Low­er East Side and oth­er areas of New York City. Foot­notes, index.

Read about Jonathan on the ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Jonathan Krasner

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by Jonathan B. Krasner

Short­ly after com­plet­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion on the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of insid­ers and out­siders in Amer­i­can Jew­ish school­books, I received an unusu­al but wel­come piece of fan mail from Dr. Gil Graff, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Bureau of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion in Los Ange­les. It is always grat­i­fy­ing to hear that your work has found a recep­tive audi­ence, so I was more than hap­py to accept Gil’s invi­ta­tion to join him for cof­fee dur­ing the upcom­ing Asso­ci­a­tion for Jew­ish Stud­ies Con­fer­ence in L.A. Gil was work­ing on a his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, so we nat­u­ral­ly found a lot to discuss.

As we talked shop on the patio of a Cen­tu­ry City Star­bucks, the con­ver­sa­tion turned to the out­sized impact on Jew­ish edu­ca­tion of Dr. Sam­son Ben­der­ly and his stu­dents. Ben­der­ly, the wun­derkind from Safed, pro­fes­sion­al­ized Amer­i­can Jew­ish edu­ca­tion and trans­formed the Tal­mud Torah — the after­noon Hebrew school — into a mod­ern, Amer­i­can­ized insti­tu­tion. From his perch at the Bureau of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion in New York, where he served as the found­ing direc­tor from 1910 – 1939, Ben­der­ly raised a gen­er­a­tion of dis­ci­ples. These men and women, known as the Ben­der­ly Boys,” dom­i­nat­ed the field of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion for the next half-cen­tu­ry, direct­ing edu­ca­tion bureaus, oper­at­ing schools, and found­ing the first Jew­ish cul­ture camps. Ani­mat­ed by the desire to bring about an Amer­i­can Jew­ish renais­sance through Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, they were inspired in equal mea­sures by the cul­tur­al Zion­ism of Ben­der­ly, the Recon­struc­tion­ism of Rab­bi Morde­cai Kaplan, and the pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion­al the­o­ries of philoso­pher John Dewey. Los Ange­les, in par­tic­u­lar, had felt the influ­ence of the Ben­der­ly rev­o­lu­tion through the per­son­al­i­ty of Dr. Sam Dinin, who was instru­men­tal in build­ing up insti­tu­tion­al pil­lars in the com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing the BJE, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Judaism (now AJU), Camp Ramah in Ojai, and the Los Ange­les Hebrew High School.

One tid­bit of infor­ma­tion that Gil shared was par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing. Did I know, he asked, that Sam Dinin was alive and lucid and liv­ing min­utes away in West­wood, near UCLA? If I want­ed to talk with him I should­n’t wait. Dinin had just cel­e­brat­ed his one hun­dredth birthday.

A few weeks lat­er I was sit­ting in Din­in’s liv­ing room. He was a frail but genial host. I had done my home­work, read vir­tu­al­ly every­thing he had pub­lished in advance, and was armed with dozens of ques­tions. I wish I could say that he regaled me with sto­ries about his glo­ry days in New York and LA, and pro­vid­ed me with great insights into his men­tors and col­leagues, but the truth was that his mem­o­ry was dim; the sto­ries he told were already famil­iar to me, and he tired eas­i­ly. By the sec­ond hour of my vis­it I was begin­ning to squirm. Much as I enjoyed meet­ing him, I could not help but feel like my vis­it end­ed up being about pay­ing homage and pro­vid­ing an elder­ly gen­tle­man with some wel­come company.

Just when I was about to write off the vis­it in my mind, I asked a ques­tion about his efforts to pro­mote the study of mod­ern Hebrew using Ivrit b’Ivrit, the so-called nat­ur­al or direct method of teach­ing Hebrew lan­guage. Did not his oppo­nents in the 1930s have a point when they charged that the Ben­der­ly Boys’ sin­gle-mind­ed, almost fanat­i­cal devo­tion to mod­ern Hebrew not only failed to pro­duce the desired edu­ca­tion­al out­comes but divert­ed them from con­sis­tent­ly and whole­heart­ed­ly reshap­ing Jew­ish edu­ca­tion along the pro­gres­sive lines espoused by John Dewey? Dinin abrupt­ly sat up and looked me in the eye. It was as if the smol­der­ing embers had sud­den­ly reignit­ed; the mild-man­nered man in front of me was momen­tar­i­ly trans­formed. Let me tell you some­thing,” he began. The men who made that charge were trai­tors to the cause of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion and the rebirth of the Jew­ish peo­ple. We knew then that Hebrew and Zion­ism were the keys to the Jew­ish future, in Amer­i­ca as well as in Eretz Yis­rael.” These crit­ics were assim­i­la­tion­ists,” he sput­tered, spit­ting out the word like a curse. After a few more min­utes of ani­mat­ed con­ver­sa­tion, Dinin sank back into his arm­chair and his placid demeanor returned. (This last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of Ben­der­ly’s coterie died of nat­ur­al caus­es at the age of 103, in Decem­ber 2005. May his mem­o­ry be a blessing.)

Short­ly there­after, I got into my rental car and drove to San­ta Mon­i­ca. As I walked along the beach I reflect­ed on my meet­ing with Dinin. I was­n’t sure whether I agreed with him about the effi­ca­cy of Ivrit b’Ivrit (par­tic­u­lar­ly in a sup­ple­men­tary school set­ting) or the motives of his detrac­tors, but I was stirred by his pas­sion. Ben­der­ly and his dis­ci­ples were on a holy mis­sion to safe­guard the future of the Jew­ish peo­ple in Amer­i­ca at a time of great dis­lo­ca­tion and change. Their con­vic­tion fueled a ver­i­ta­ble rev­o­lu­tion that remade the land­scape of Amer­i­can Jew­ish edu­ca­tion. And the dilem­mas they con­front­ed are still very much with us today: Is Jew­ish edu­ca­tion an indi­vid­ual Jew­ish right, a com­mu­ni­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty? Should our edu­ca­tion sys­tem focus on train­ing future lead­ers or infus­ing Yid­dishkeit in the amcha, the Jew­ish folk? Can a book-cen­tered cul­ture be trans­mit­ted uti­liz­ing child-cen­tered edu­ca­tion­al method­olo­gies? And, final­ly, should Jew­ish edu­ca­tion empha­size Jew­ish peo­ple­hood and uni­ty or cel­e­brate plu­ral­ism, denom­i­na­tion­al­ism, and indi­vid­ual Jew­ish expression?

From 1910 to 1967, the Ben­der­ly Boys (and girls) were the dom­i­nant force in Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States — both for­mal and infor­mal — yet their sto­ry had not ade­quate­ly been told. By the time I returned to my hotel that evening I was deter­mined to rem­e­dy that omis­sion. With the pub­li­ca­tion of The Ben­der­ly Boys & Amer­i­can Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion, I hope the voic­es of these pio­neers will inform our twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry con­ver­sa­tions about Jew­ish education.
Paul A. Flexn­er, Ed.D., is an Instruc­tor in Edu­ca­tion­al Psy­chol­o­gy at Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty, a vet­er­an of 35 years as a Jew­ish edu­ca­tor and a mem­ber of the Board of Direc­tors of the Jew­ish Book Council.

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