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From generation to generation, Jews have always instructed their children about their religion and history. The three primary institutions where formal American Jewish education takes place — synagogue schools, Jewish day schools and colleges — all have their roots in Philadelphia. While not all of the original institutions are in existence today, their collective and individual histories reflect the changing nature of transmitting Jewish knowledge over time.
In 1782, Congregation Mikveh Israel elected to build a sanctuary and, along with it, a schoolhouse. Educational content was furnished by the cantor, who was paid directly by parents in the congregation, and was short on “systemic curriculum and pedagogic infrastructure,” according to authors Jonathan Rosenbaum, president emeritus of Gratz College, and Helene Z. Tigay, former executive director of Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, in their 2002 article, “Jewish Education in Philadelphia.” The action nonetheless indicates the desire of early American Jews to formally educate their offspring about their religion.
In an effort to widen the scope of Jewish education, the Hebrew Sunday School Society was established in 1838, offering religious education to all children, regardless of their affiliation with a congregation. Rebecca Gratz, who was deeply involved in the social and intellectual issues of her time, served as superintendent and president of the school, and assisted in the development of its curriculum, which featured biblical history and religion but no study of the Hebrew language. Even members of the first Ashkenazi congregation in the Western hemisphere, Rodeph Shalom (established in Philadelphia in 1795), sent their children to the Hebrew Sunday School Society or employed private tutors.
Isaac Leeser, the influential cantor of Mikveh Israel from 1829 to 1850, used his pulpit as well as the pages of his newspaper, The Occident, to champion the cause of Jewish education, specifically the concept of the Jewish day school. Under his leadership, the Hebrew Education Society was founded in 1848 (chartered in Pennsylvania in 1849), with the purpose of teaching religious as well as secular studies in the same school. The first elementary school under its auspices opened in Philadelphia in 1851, although by the 1870s, this day school had closed.
In 1868, Leeser and Moses Dropsie turned their attention to Jewish higher education by founding Maimonides College in Philadelphia, the first Jewish theological seminary in America. Maimonides featured a challenging curriculum devoted to the study of classical languages, philosophy, comparative theology and Jewish studies. Students studied Hebrew, Aramaic, German, French, Bible, Mishnah and Gemara. Some believe that the academically challenging nature of the curriculum led to the institution’s short life. It closed in 1873.
The closing of Maimonides, however, paved the way for the opening of Gratz College in 1895, with the specific mission of educating Jewish teachers and communal leaders, as well as Dropsie College in 1907, which became one of the country’s top educators of Judaic scholars. In 1986, Dropsie College became the Annenberg Research Institute and, more recently, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Judaic Studies. Gratz continues to train Jewish as well as secular educators. One of the reasons that the Reconstructionist movement chose, in 1968, to locate their educational arm, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in Philadelphia, was proximity to other Jewish institutions of higher education.
The arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe also meant the arrival of the traditional cheder form of instruction, small classes usually taught by rabbis to boys only, focusing on reading Hebrew. These classes were in addition to the boys’ secular schooling.
By this time, Jewish higher education was firmly established in Philadelphia, and so a “feeder” system of Jewish day schools could take root. In 1892, the first Talmud Torah opened in Philadelphia; by the 1930s, there were eight elementary and two secondary schools and, by 1943, there were two Orthodox yeshivot in Philadelphia. In 1946, Akiba Hebrew Academy, a transdenominational Jewish day school, started in a room at the YMHA at Broad and Pine Streets. Solomon Schechter, the Conservative movement’s day school, opened in 1956. Stern Hebrew High School, affiliated with the Orthodox movement, opened in 2000.
Today, the Jewish day school landscape in Philadelphia is diverse and fluid. Currently, Jewish day schools serving the Philadelphia area include the pluralistic, college preparatory Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (the former Akiba), the Conservative Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School (a Solomon Schechter affiliate with two elementary campuses and a middle school) and the Orthodox Torah Academy, Abrams Hebrew Academy, the Modern Orthodox Kohelet Yeshiva High School (the former Stern Hebrew High School), Politz Hebrew Academy and the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia.
In addition to Jewish day schools, there are over 45 synagogue-affiliated religious schools, most of which generally require family membership. Many offer infant care, toddler and preschool classes as well as special needs programs. The Jewish Children’s Folkshul is a secular, humanist supplemental educational program, as is the traditional Community Torah Center of Bucks County. Chabad runs five Hebrew schools, and the Jewish Community High School, affiliated with Gratz College, has 10 branches. There are several non-synagogue early childhood education programs throughout the city, as well as multiple branches of the Federation Early Learning Service programs and those affiliated with Jewish Community Centers.
Philadelphia is home to a vast spectrum of adult education programs. Some of these programs are affiliated with synagogues and organizations; others are more grass-roots programs, like LimmudPhilly, which presents an annual “learning fest” as well as ongoing programming throughout the year.
The diversity of Jewish educational programming in the city demonstrates the consistency of the desire to transmit Jewish knowledge from one generation to the next, as well as the overriding belief in lifelong education. As it is written in the Talmud, “None is poor save him that lacks knowledge.”