Stu­dent at the Moses Mon­te­fiore Hebrew School in Duluth, Min­neso­ta, 1916

Ste­in­feldt Pho­tog­ra­phy Collection

Sun­day school is an Amer­i­can Jew­ish rite of pas­sage that chil­dren love to hate. While com­plain­ing about forced atten­dance and bor­ing lessons, and yearn­ing for week­end soc­cer prac­tice, gen­er­a­tions of young Jews have spent their Sun­day morn­ings in syn­a­gogue class­rooms. As one par­ent mem­o­rably recalled, quot­ed in an arti­cle for Anthro­pol­o­gy & Edu­ca­tion Quar­ter­ly, his child told him that hat­ed going to Sun­day school, and he replied Edward, that’s won­der­ful. You’re car­ry­ing on a Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Because when I went, I hat­ed it, too.”[1]

It seems as though few Jews have any­thing good to say about Sun­day school. In pop­u­lar cul­ture, it has been derid­ed — mocked by Philip Roth in his short sto­ry Defend­er of the Faith, and sat­i­rized by the Coen Broth­ers in their film A Seri­ous Man. Is this real­ly the full sto­ry? Has such an indeli­ble insti­tu­tion real­ly offered noth­ing of val­ue to gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can Jews?

These are the ques­tions that I set out to explore in Jew­ish Sun­day Schools: Teach­ing Reli­gion in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. It seemed to me that there was more to say about this insti­tu­tion, dis­dained by so many, yet so ubiq­ui­tous in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life. There was undoubt­ed­ly a gen­dered com­po­nent to these cri­tiques too. Ever since the first Jew­ish Sun­day school was found­ed by Rebec­ca Gratz in 1838, the teach­ers who have giv­en up their Sun­day morn­ings to teach young Jews about Judaism have over­whelm­ing­ly been female. Schol­ars of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion have pulled no punch­es in their gen­dered appraisals of the women who taught Sun­day school. As I leafed through his­to­ries of Amer­i­can Judaism, I read that the cur­ric­u­la taught in Sun­day schools was thin,” fem­i­nized,” and an act of sur­ren­der.” One archivist looked at me in dis­be­lief when I came to him one day to use the mate­ri­als in his institution’s col­lec­tion. Why on earth would you want to study that?” he asked me. There’s noth­ing worth learn­ing there.”

He was wrong. 

What I found, when I took Sun­day schools and their teach­ers seri­ous­ly, was that the women who taught in Jew­ish class­rooms across the coun­try dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry were skilled edu­ca­tors. They wres­tled with the pre-emi­nent ques­tions of Jew­ish life in moder­ni­ty: what did it mean to be Jew­ish in a world where it was also pos­si­ble to live as a cit­i­zen of broad­er soci­ety? What would a Jew need to know in order to main­tain a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and a sense of belong­ing to a Jew­ish community?

These were ques­tions that nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry rab­bis and philoso­phers debat­ed exten­sive­ly. They wrote lengthy philo­soph­i­cal trea­tis­es con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the impli­ca­tions of moder­ni­ty for Jew­ish thought, and they devised the­o­log­i­cal state­ments of mod­ern Judaism in doc­u­ments like the Pitts­burgh Plat­form. These texts are well-known today, taught reg­u­lar­ly in col­lege class­es on mod­ern Jew­ish thought, and the sub­jects of numer­ous aca­d­e­m­ic books and dis­ser­ta­tions. Yet few have tak­en note of the work of the women who, at a grass­roots lev­el, had to bring these ideas down to earth and fig­ure out how to teach these con­cepts to children.

Few have tak­en note of the work of the women who, at a grass­roots lev­el, had to bring these ideas down to earth and fig­ure out how to teach these con­cepts to children.

Part of the rea­son why the edu­ca­tion­al labor of these women has been dis­missed so con­de­scend­ing­ly is that, admit­ted­ly, they had lit­tle Jew­ish train­ing of their own to bring to the task. Most of the women who taught at Jew­ish Sun­day schools had received lit­tle Jew­ish school­ing of their own as girls. Few could read or write Hebrew, or nav­i­gate a sid­dur (Hebrew prayer book).

Many of them did, how­ev­er, have oth­er kinds of exper­tise that they brought to the work of teach­ing their young charges. Jew­ish women in the mid- to late- nine­teenth cen­tu­ry trained as teach­ers in record num­bers, and they brought this train­ing to their Sun­day morn­ing class­es. They might not have had Jew­ish exper­tise, but these women knew ped­a­gogy, and they were at the fore­front of ped­a­gog­i­cal inno­va­tion in Jew­ish education.

Anoth­er rea­son that these women have been ignored is that Sun­day schools ulti­mate­ly became con­trolled by men. Rebec­ca Gratz’s school in Philadel­phia was found­ed by women and led by women. It was a com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tion open to all Jew­ish chil­dren, regard­less of their abil­i­ty to pay. But when Sun­day schools were cre­at­ed beyond Philadel­phia, and par­tic­u­lar­ly when they were cre­at­ed under the aus­pices of con­gre­ga­tions, male rab­bis and all-male edu­ca­tion boards typ­i­cal­ly took on admin­is­tra­tive con­trol. Women con­tin­ued to play impor­tant roles as vol­un­teer teach­ers in the class­room, but rarely did they have posi­tions of lead­er­ship. Con­gre­ga­tion­al schools were orga­nized for the chil­dren of syn­a­gogue mem­bers, though some efforts were made to pro­vide schol­ar­ships for chil­dren whose par­ents could not afford the expense of a syn­a­gogue seat. Ulti­mate­ly what was found­ed as a com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tion, open to any­one irre­spec­tive of finan­cial resources, became, with­in a gen­er­a­tion, incor­po­rat­ed into insti­tu­tions that only some Amer­i­can Jews could afford. 

In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Sun­day schools became bet­ter known as Hebrew schools, reflect­ing a shift towards a more exten­sive Jew­ish cur­ricu­lum, yet retain­ing the part-time, week­end mod­el pio­neered by Rebec­ca Gratz. Jew­ish edu­ca­tion became co-opt­ed as a lucra­tive source of income to prop up con­gre­ga­tion­al dues, and a car­rot to entice prospec­tive B’nai/B‑Mitzvah fam­i­lies to com­mit to syn­a­gogue membership. 

Paint­ing of Rebec­ca Gratz by Thomas Sully

As a mil­len­ni­al par­ent of two Jew­ish chil­dren, I think often about how dif­fer­ent this mod­el of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion is from the vision of Rebec­ca Gratz. While Gratz’s mod­el may have been thin from a cur­ric­u­lar per­spec­tive, it was acces­si­ble and afford­able for a gen­er­a­tion of most­ly immi­grant par­ents who had few finan­cial resources to expend. Her genius was to use the vol­un­teer resources of her local com­mu­ni­ty to ensure that every Jew­ish child could attend a Jew­ish school. Like so many oth­ers of my gen­er­a­tion, I did not have access to gen­er­a­tional wealth and had to take on sig­nif­i­cant debt to attend col­lege. As I con­tem­plate what my own children’s Jew­ish learn­ing will look like, it strikes me that Gratz’s mod­el offers food for thought indeed.

[1] David Schoem, Explain­ing Jew­ish Stu­dent Fail­ure,” Anthro­pol­o­gy & Edu­ca­tion Quar­ter­ly 13, no. 4 (1982): 312.

Lau­ra Yares is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Reli­gious Stud­ies at Michi­gan State University.