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After a Long Time in the Running, Sunday-School Society Set to Close

May 18, 2006 By:
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Janice Spivack shows off the first Confirmation class she taught.
As a young girl, Marilyn Rosenthal Baltz really had no ties to Judaism. Her parents - Russian immigrants - owned a candy store in Kensington, where they worked seven days a week, and didn't belong to a synagogue.

When she was in third grade, in the 1940s, someone told her about the Hebrew Sunday School Society - which sponsored sessions in locations throughout the area, from synagogues to individuals' homes - and once a week, she'd go to the Love of Israel Synagogue in North Philadelphia to learn about her religion, heritage and culture.

But after 160 years of educating young Jewish Philadelphians like Baltz, the school is set to close its doors.

"It was an outreach organization, always trying to bring in those who didn't have a strong Jewish tie, who did not have a Jewish education," said Louise Cohen, a board member of the society since 1959. "We gave as much as we could to the students in just one morning per week."

The weekly sessions date back to 1838, when proselytizing ran rampant throughout the Philadelphia area. According to Cohen, Rebecca Gratz and the women of Congregation Mikveh Israel were fearful that Jews - especially immigrants unfamiliar with the language and culture - would be drawn into surrounding church communities. These women envisioned a place that would counteract the proselytizers, a place where Jewish children could learn about their own particulars.

The group went door to door - looking for Jewish families to inform them of the school's existence. Soon, the idea of a co-educational, once-a-week Jewish program became a model that would spread across the country.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, at which time the Hebrew Sunday School Society merged with the United Hebrew Schools and Yeshivos - a multiday program started 100-plus years ago - to form the Community Hebrew Schools of Greater Philadelphia

"It's our understanding that we are the last community school for the unaffiliated in the country - at least, the last Federation-funded one," said Elana Rivel, director of education and outreach for the Jewish Outreach Partnership. "It used to be Community Hebrew Schools developed a community, but we are seeing that less and less."

In this, its final year, Community Hebrew Schools is a non-denominational program of the Jewish Outreach Partnership, an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; it aims to attract children from families unaffiliated with synagogues. The school does not provide training for a student's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, though it does provide on-site tutoring, and will help a family find a rabbi and location for the right of passage.

In the past, according to Rivel, locations of the schools could be found all over the area.

Currently, the school has just two sites - at the JCC Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia and at the JCC Kaiserman Branch in Wynnewood. Recently, the board decided it couldn't even sustain these locations.

"The population of those areas do not have enough children to support the school," reported Cohen. "The history of the Sunday School Society is that it would move around, renting quarters where they thought there were students."

Helping to Place Students
Rivel said that about 40 students will be affected by the closing at the end of this school year.

"We are working with each family, helping to direct them to people that can help them continue their education," said Rivel. "A number will be doing private tutoring; a number will be joining synagogues. There are some who are interested in home-schooling or a private teacher."

The school celebrated its legacy and tradition on May 7 at a dessert reception for teachers, principals and alumnae, held at Gratz College in Melrose Park.

"I feel very, very sad to be part of the closing," admitted Cohen. "The school itself got wonderful attention - the curriculum and programs were top-notch. It was always a school where most of the time, children were eager to come and happy to be there."

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