Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy
An understanding of the changes brought about by the Holocaust in American Jewish life requires some knowledge about that which was changed. What was the history of Jewish Education in America during the centuries and decades preceding the war?

The educational historian Lawrence Cremin has noted that "with Jewish education better established and financed during the 1960s than ever before, American Jews seemed functionally illiterate with respect to their Judaism." And concludes by saying "it is a paradox that tells us much, not only about the nature and limitations of education, but also about the character of life in twentieth-century America...that extends far beyond the confines of the Jewish community." These words appear in the Foreword to "Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History" by educationist Lloyd P. Gartner. The work throws some light on the establishment and struggle of Jewish education in America. Gartner's introduction reveals the historical development of Jewish educational efforts:

"Scripture commands the Jew to 'impress upon your children' the revealed Divine teaching, and to think and speak of it day, and night...Every member of God's unique people had to be imbued with the Bible and with the oral traditions later committed to writing as the Talmud, which were also regarded as Divine in origin. Lifelong study and contemplation of the Torah became essential in the Jewish paideia...Social prestige and religious merit were thus ultimately linked in Judaism with intellectual effort...Nowhere did the zeal for pious study exceed the intensity it attained in Poland and Lithuania, the areas from which the greatest masses of Jews came to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries...'It is a positive commandment of the Torah to study the Torah...therefore ever Jewish person is so obligated...He must fix a time for Torah study, day or night...Until when is a man obligated to study? Until the day he dies.' (Hayyey Adam, Section 10, Parts 1 and 2.) The main content of all this study was law, as discussed in the tractates of the Talmud--civil, criminal, moral, ritual."

The fate of traditional Jewish education in the open, emancipated, enlightened and democratic American society is the subject of our present interest and of Gartner's book. Cremin has noted that "the settlement of America, had its origins in the unsettlement of Europe", and nowhere is this more true than in the transplantation of Jews from Europe to America.

First Jewish Settlers in America

The first Jewish settlers in America were fleeing from Christian persecution. Spanish and Portuguese Jews were the first to attempt to set up a "Jesiba" and hired a full-time teacher for their children: "a Suitable Master Capable to Teach our Children ye Hebrew Language; English & Spanish he ought to know,...to keep a publick school at the usual Hours of the forenoons on every Customary at our Jesiba," at Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese) Congregation, New York, 1760 that was the first synagogue established in the USA. The concern seemed to be about obtaining someone learned in "Hebrew", yet also worldly and well-spoken in secular matters.

Second Wave of Jewish Settlers to America

This trend continued with the arrival of the second wave of Jewish immigrants primarily from Germany and England. The historians Butts and Cremin have pointed out that while there had been a few Jews in America in the 1700s, and while their number had increased significantly with the German immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s, they had not exercised a particularly important influence on religious, educational or social thought. " Isidore Bush's "Advocacy of Public Schooling for Jewish Children (1855)" explains the position of the secularist Jew in America. The credo of the Reform movement that was an expression of the times is stated:

"After mature reflection and due consideration of all its bearings, I am utterly opposed to all sectional or sectarian schools, nor would I change my opinion if our means were as ample as they are deficient...Would the descendants of our Christian fellow-citizens be more liberal...or would they not rather be strengthened in their lamentable prejudice?...Which class of our children are in a better condition to meet and overcome the spectre of Intolerance?...Having thus refuted the standing arguments for sectarian schools, I cannot think of any object to be obtained by them to which full justice could not be done by establishing good Sabbath, Sunday, and evening schools for religious and Hebrew instruction only...Sending our children at the same time to our public schools for the acquirement of other branches of learning, the result would exceed our most sanguine expectations."

Whatever the expectations, this approach has proven to be a remedy for loss of Jewish identity. Historian Gartner puts it well when he says that the public school was viewed as the symbol and guarantee of Jewish equality and full opportunity in America. The deep American Jewish affinity for the public school lasted a full century, and "turned to disenchantment only in places subjected to urban school crisis in the 1950s and 1960s". We would add that the events of 1939-1945 and their consequences contributed to a re-evaluation of public schooling for Jewish children.

Third Wave of Jews Moving to America

Gartner states that the year 1880 marks the great divide in the history of American Jewry, as unprecedented numbers of Jewish immigrants began to pour into the United States. Prior to 1880 there were approximately 280,000 Jews in the U.S. By 1900 there were about 1,000,000. In 1915, there were 3,500,000. When mass immigration was shut off in 1925, by the Immigration Act of 1924, there were 4,500,000 Jews in America. Today, the figure stands at about six million.

These millions came primarily from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Galicia, and Hungary where pogroms, vicious anti-Semitism, and unstable economic and political conditions, made America a much desired haven. After all, America was free, and its streets were "paved with gold"! The fact that these new arrivals were generally of traditional Orthodox or Hasidic background and commitment, was testimony to the general efficacy of the traditional Jewish educational configuration in Eastern Europe.

But the impact of American culture added to the lack of any established vast-scale traditional Jewish educational networks, contributed to a severe break-down of accepted practice of Judaism. The industrial and commercial nature of American life forced most to compromise on Sabbath-observance, dress, schooling, and lifestyle to become Americans, or simply to eke out a living.

The already well-established brethren saw it as their mission to speed up the Americanization of the newly arrived Jewish masses. They entered into "kehillah experiments" together with the homely "greenhorns" in order to gain greater social control and influence amongst the "Ostyidden". Newspapers, settlement-houses, philanthropic and cultural groups provided sustained, systematic and deliberate instruction as to the best and quickest ways to give up the "old" ways and enter into the "new".

The surrender of the Jewish masses was not unconditional. Cheders, Talmud Torahs, and a few yeshivas were established, lasting well into the 1940s and beyond. "It expressed the determination to maintain the old ways rather than the new. It symbolized ethnic continuity in the ways of their fathers, especially yearned for when neither the fathers nor their ways were to be seen." The order of the day was now "cultural pluralism"; an expression of uniqueness in the face of conformity.

Two unique syntheses were born in America during this period: The Conservative Movement and Yeshiva University. Gartner reports that the traditionalist Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Yeshivath Etz Chaim (later to become a part of Yeshiva College) both opened in New York in 1886. Israel Friedlander (1876–1920), professor of Bible at JTS, provides an example of a Conservative view, when dealing with "The Problem of Jewish Education for the Children of Immigrants (1913)", as recorded by Gartner:

"The downfall of the central pillar that had supported the structure of Russian Jewish life, the ideal of religious knowledge or scholarship, involved the downfall of all those institutions which had served it. Hence the beth hamidrash and the yeshivah were doomed from the beginning, and, though attempts at reproducing them have been made they did not yield tangible results."

What then was needed? Friedlander reports that, under the auspices of New York's Bureau of Jewish Education:

The aim of Jewish education was formulated to be "the preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, existing and developing in the spirit of the Jewish religion". The plan of parochial Jewish schools was rejected, on the grounds that it was undesirable for the Jews from the civic point of view and was surrounded by insurmountable practical difficulties. The curriculum of the Talmud torahs...stands midway between the high and, in this country, unapproachable standards of Jewish education in Russia, on the one hand, and the meager requirements of the Jewish Sunday School on the other."

The difficulties were viewed as "insurmountable" and high standards were "unapproachable". There is a tone of pessimism and resignation. The "Russian" past appears to be unattainable in the American present. The hallmark of such thinkers and communal leaders was their rejection of the past with the rationale that it could never be recreated under modern American conditions.

Yeshiva University's ethos, a proudly self-declared synthesis, is aptly stated in the "Eulogy to Bernard Revel" by P. Churgin (1940):

"For the Yeshiva has never rejected secular studies...During recent generations restrictiveness grew dominant in the Torah world...on account of the dangers of the Haskalah movement the yeshivot began to close themselves in and lock all doors against those trends borne in on the clouds of science and secular activity...The area of Torah became increasingly narrow, and Torah more and more limited its illumination. Dr. Revel saw this, and set out to restore to Torah its power and untrammeled rule. He brought secular creation within--into the place of Torah, closing the gap and healing the rift...The College is not a world of its own, but is part of a whole. It and the Yeshiva are one unit...Very slowly its image, an image all its own, is becoming fixed, and through the College and the Yeshiva the blemish in Jewish creativeness will be healed."

The contribution of Bernard Revel (1885–1940) and Yeshiva College to the establishment of Orthodoxy in America is documented by Rabbi A. R. Rothkoff in "Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy" (1981).

He records the vehemence of the Reform movement in opposing the establishment of a "yeshiva college". In an editorial of the "American Hebrew" of New York (January 31, 1924) the antagonism is open:

"But, now comes something new and fraught with greater danger to American Jewry. This is nothing less than an abominable project for establishing Jewish parochial schools, not merely religious schools...for teaching the secular branches...It is difficult to write temperately on this subject. It is little short of exasperating to stand idly by while a band of fanatics, so blinded by religious bigotry as to the unavoidable consequences of their acts, are playing into the hands of the anti-Semites, the anti-immigrationists, the KuKlux and all other enemies of Israel."

It is revealing that this editorial had decided who were the "enemies of Israel", whilst overlooking those who abandoned time-honored Jewish religious practice. The language left no doubt about the rabid anti-traditionalism of its writers. Thus too, when the American Jewish leader Louis Marshall (1856–1929) was approached to aid Yeshiva College, he wrote: "Such a college would be nothing more than a Ghetto Institution. Under the circumstances, I would not be willing to do anything which would favor the creation of such a college."

In spite of such criticism, Rabbi Revel persevered, and sought constantly to reorganize the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University so that it would be "the equal of its East European [yeshiva] prototypes". Revel was troubled that yeshivas such as Mir and Slobodka were revered "while his Yeshiva was considered an inferior American institution". He therefore sought an accomplished European rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) to teach the highest class.

Rabbi Rothkoff records that several outstanding East European Talmudists took up permanent positions or gave guest lectures at RIETS: Rabbi Solomon Polachek (The "Meitsheter Illui") , Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop served as heads of RIETS. Rabbi Abraham Kahane-Shapiro, the chief rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania; Chief Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook of Palestine; Rabbi Moshe Epstein, the dean of the Slobodka Yeshiva; Rabbi A. Bloch of Telshe; Rabbi J. Hurwitz of Meah Shearim Yeshiva in Jerusalem; Rabbi J. Kahaneman of Ponevez; Rabbi A. Kotler of Kletzk; Rabbi B. B. Leibowitz of Kamenitz; Rabbi M. D. Plotski of Ostrov; Rabbi M. Shapiro of Lublin; Rabbi Y. Sher of Slobodka; Rabbi B. Uziel, Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine; and Rabbi M. Zaks of Radin--all delivered guest lectures to RIETS students. Each of these visitors gained impressions of Jewish education in America which influenced their own attitudes and policies.

During the late 1920s and the 1930s, "Orthodox ideals vastly different from those of the Yeshiva (College) were starting to germinate in America...The Yeshiva could no longer claim to be the only advanced American yeshiva, although it was the largest and most important." Rothkoff points out that Revel's course of action was no longer the only alternative for American Orthodoxy, and those who did not comprehend or approve of Revel's innovations could support other American Torah institutions.

In 1926 the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath opened an advanced yeshivah, or Mesifta, for high school and post-high school students. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886–1948), as principal of the Mesifta, was determined to continue the tradition of the famous Lithuanian yeshivas. In addition, other yeshivas, such as Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, established advanced divisions that rejected the "synthesis" notions of Yeshiva College.

In retrospect, the establishment of Yeshivath Etz Chaim in 1886 was a turning point. When a Jewish man by the name of Moses Weinberger exclaimed at the time: "Oh! What pleasant news! A yeshiva for the study of Mishnah and Gemara!...Is it possible, can it be? Here in New York? In America?"-- his euphoria was not unfounded. But it would take over eighty years before yeshivahs would become entrenched and a way of life for tens of thousands of Jews in America.

Fourth Wave of Jews Coming to America

Gartner's work understates dramatic changes in Orthodox life following the Second World War and the Holocaust. Asher Penn's excerpt on "Advanced Talmudical Academies" typifies the surprise that such intense Jewish phenomena can be found in America, in 1958. Gartner's words of introduction are that "full-time talmudic education, without college study, flourished at a number of extremely Orthodox yeshivot, mainly in the New York City area." The use of the word "flourished" is inaccurate, it should state "flourishes". Writes Penn:

"At the Beth Midrash Govoha [in Lakewood, New Jersey] I held lengthy discussions with a great many students. They were almost unanimous in demonstrating to me that 'here in Beth Midrash Govoha' everyone learns solely to deepen himself in Torah. One does not come to...acquire rabbinic ordination...they have come here to study for years. 'One sits and learns' – constantly...

At the Mirrer Central Yeshiva [in Brooklyn, New York] I walked down a very long corridor on the second floor, off which on either side are classrooms. At the end of the corridor I noticed a broad window. I looked down, and my surprise was really beyond description. Before my eyes there unfolded the scene of a bright, modern, vast hall filled with about one hundred young people, all swaying over their Talmud tractates."

In the early 21st century, the total enrollment at Beth Medrash Govoha was about 7,000--possibly the largest single concentration of Torah scholars in centuries. In addition, the yeshiva has established affiliated "branches" in other cities. At the Mirrer Yeshiva, not part of the "Lakewood" constellation, enrollment stands at over 1,000 students. Both Lakewood and Mir did not exist in America before the Second World War.

What amount to spectacular victories for Torah Judaism, and also the most underestimated and misunderstood, have been the establishment of yeshivas and Hasidic communities in America. The most glaring omission in Gartner's book is that nowhere do we find any mention of the Hasidic movement as transplanted and thriving in America. This is an unforgivable omission for a work purporting to deal with Jewish education in America. It ignores perhaps one of the most dynamic and widespread phenomena in Orthodox Judaism during the modern era.

The portentous visits to America of Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1892–1962) in 1935, and Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1875–1941) in 1938, showed the direction that Orthodox Jewish education was to take after the war. Rabbi Kotler, rosh hayeshiva of the Slutzker Yeshiva in Kletzk, Poland (later re-established as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J.) was reluctant to deliver a guest shiur (lecture) at RIETS requested by Rabbi Revel in 1935. Rabbi Wasserman, rosh hayeshiva of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranowitz, Poland, "refused to lecture at the Yeshiva (RIETS) and gave all his support to Mesifta Torah Vodaath."

Prior to his death in America in 1940, while the Holocaust was unfolding in Europe, Rabbi Bernard Revel wrote his final article entitled "Our Thought and Hope". In it he stated: "We behold the guiding hand of the Hashgaha (Divine Providence) in the fact that, before the spiritual sun of Israel has set in Europe, a sanctuary of the eternal soul of Israel has been established on this continent." He was aware that a profound change was taking place not only demographically, but spiritually as well.

Rothkoff maintains that it was Revel who was the first to wrestle with America and successfully established a beachhead for Orthodoxy in the New World. It was only that: a beachhead. Talking of Rabbi Revel and his times, Rabbi Rothkoff's conclusion is worth noting:

"An era ended with his death. Europe was now completely caught up in chaos and destruction. The historic European Jewish community which nurtured Bernard Revel was now ended. Its Torah centers, rabbis, and scholars were soon to be decimated by the Nazi hordes. American Jewry was to face a host of complex problems and responsibilities in the postwar era. American Orthodoxy, in particular, was to undergo rapid challenge and change, rejuvenation and revitalization, at the conclusion of the global conflict."

The tide of history and events following the Second World War and its cruel Holocaust, and a resourceful and uncompromising nucleus of Rabbinic leaders and roshei yeshiva (heads of Talmudical Academies), were instrumental in what amounted to nothing less than a firm reorientation of Jewish communities and educational institutions towards greater awareness of the importance of Jewish--Torah--education for Jewish survival in America.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.

He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.

Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]