- The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965
Carol K. Ingall has edited a collection of eleven essays about an overlooked but nonetheless worthy group of women who contributed significantly to the modernization of Jewish education. Ingall argues that almost all of these women who “reconstructed American Jewish education” were disciples of two men: Mordecai Kaplan and Samson Benderly (1). These gifted educators were close friends who brought very different but complementary talents to the development of Jewish education in America. In 1908, Judah Magnes, leader of the New York Kehillah, embarked on a mission to Americanize Jewish education. In 1909, he called for a study of the current deplorable educational conditions and named Kaplan, the newly appointed head of the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to undertake the assignment. A year later, Magnes chose Benderly to head up the Bureau of Jewish Education to address the problems detailed in Kaplan’s report, which revealed that many Jewish children were not receiving any religious education, and the ones enrolled in Jewish schools were not receiving adequate instruction. The Bureau was formed to train better teachers and staff in Jewish schools, to reach out to parents, to inform them of the lamentable state of Jewish education, to get them involved, and to help Americanize them. In a summation of the shared philosophy of the Magnes- Kaplan- Benderly triad, Ingall writes, “they believed that American values and Jewish values were harmonious” (9). Kaplan was the visionary in this endeavor; Benderly was the implementer. The eleven women foregrounded in Ingall’s anthology became the practical applicators. Over the course of the twentieth century, these heretofore “unheralded women planted the seeds of social reform and progressivism in the soil and soul of American Jewish education” (1).
The eleven chapters in the book are uneven and often repetitive, and not all of the attempts to elevate the subjects are successful. Some of the chapters suffer from too much chattiness or too little critique. Most convincing are the chapters by Miriam Heller Stern, Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Jonathan Krasner and Carol Ingall.
Most of the portraits, or “life histories” (a theoretical term Ingall prefers), make a case for Kaplan’s and Benderly’s powerful influence on these women. In fact, Ingall goes so far as to say that the Teachers Institute, where most of the subjects were educated, was “a laboratory for Reconstructionism” (15). Kaplan held that Judaism was more than [End Page 93] just a religion, that it was the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, including the arts, Jewish languages, and an attachment to Eretz Yisrael. Under Benderly’s energetic direction, students were exposed to a variety of unusual courses in the use of art, music, dance, theater, and literature in Jewish schools as well as in Jewish summer camps. Inspired by Kaplan and Benderly, such influential women as Jessie Sampter, Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, Mamie Gamoran, Sadie Rose Weilerstein, Temima Gezari, Tzipora Jochsberger, and Sylvia Ettenberg, among others, did a great deal to enliven and put into practice the field of creative pedagogy.
Most of these professionalized female educators appear to have been strangely silent about the place of women in Jewish life. Although Kaplan had not written more than a few scattered sentences on the subject until 1948, his system was coherent and clear. The subject of women is simply an illustration of his larger scheme: if one studies the general principles of Reconstructionism, one logically can deduce Kaplan’s position respecting women and vice versa. Kaplan’s 1948 book The Future of the American Jew contains his full analysis in the chapter “The Status of Women in Jewish Law.” The first paragraph virtually sums up his argument.
Few aspects of Jewish thought and life illustrate so strikingly the need of reconstructing Jewish law as the traditional status of the Jewish woman . . . If the Jewish woman is to contribute her share to the regeneration of Jewish life, and if in turn Jewish life is to bring out the powers for good that...