A Success Story?: Prussia’s Jewish Educational Policy in the Aftermath of the Emancipation Edict (1812–1870)
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A Success Story?
Prussia’s Jewish Educational Policy in the Aftermath of the Emancipation Edict (1812–1870)
Translated by Bill Templer

As an educational project, the Haskalah in German lands has always been acknowledged to mark a watershed in the history of German Jewry. However, the immediate social impact of the Jewish Enlightenment turned out to be far less significant than its advocates had desired. Between 1780 and 1810 the modernization of Jewish schooling did not go much beyond a small number of promising young ventures.1 Aside from the Jewish Reform schools that were established in Berlin and other German cities starting in 1778, the system of traditional Jewish schooling proved to be difficult to change. The sense of crisis shared by the maskilim was alien to many parents, who generally tended to mistrust secular trends,2 and the great majority of Jewish boys and girls continued to attend the conventional educational institutions at hand, if they received a regimen of regular instruction at all. Indeed, the traditional ḥeder continued to fulfill all the key expectations of Jewish society, even if it withheld knowledge of general culture from the children in attendance. More important was that the younger generation learn how to perform flawlessly as members of traditional Jewish society.

Given this conservative constellation, as long as the state authorities did not intervene, comprehensive Jewish educational reform seemed beyond reach. In Prussia in the late eighteenth century, the government [End Page 412] administration took measures to place schooling under its own jurisdiction and supervision for the first time.3 The new regulations de facto targeted only the Christian schools, however, and thus initially nothing much changed for the local Jews, who retained certain privileges of communal autonomous administration. Even though enlightened officials considered the amelioration of the civil status of the Jews, their bürgerliche Verbesserung, as a project closely entangled with educational reforms, at first no program for restructuring Jewish schooling was implemented. Even the March 1812 Edict of Emancipation, which granted Prussian Jewry extensive betterment in legal rights, explicitly excluded any settlement of the Jewish educational system, postponing all “necessary regulations” to a later date.4

The first inklings of a partial new policy on Jewish education emerged only in May 1824, when a rescript from the education ministry issued concise instructions designed to establish a Jewish elementary school system under state control and modeled on contemporary criteria. This ministerial decree constituted a normative turning point in Prussian Jewish school history. Jewish children from the age of five were now required to attend school. Although one could legally fulfil the obligation through the hiring of private tutors in the parental home, as a rule instruction was to take place in the general local schools. If Jews decided to set up their own parochial schools, these were under the supervision of the same authorities responsible for Christian educational institutions. Further paragraphs of the edict dealt with qualifications for Jewish educational personnel, who, like their Christian counterparts, had to be able to demonstrate an ability to provide elementary instruction if they wished to obtain the necessary licensure as teachers.5 Thus, the edict aimed to remove all those professionals from the system who, due to their lack of training, appeared to stand in the way of progress, to impede, that is, “an improvement of the moral and civil condition” of the Jews.6 [End Page 413]

The government had expressly extended its examination regulations to embrace all groups of teachers in Prussia. Even those teaching personnel who did not teach any elementary school subjects, restricting their instruction solely to Jewish religious content and the Hebrew language, were required to pass an official examination that specifically excluded religious subjects. Jewish schoolmasters achieved at least temporary success in their effort to circumvent this required state examination: not only did a certain segment of the teachers in early childhood education initially elude the formal attention of the authorities but the supervising bodies did not insist in all cases on strict adherence to the new regulations. Initially a number of teachers were actually exempted from taking the state exam; in other localities, the examination commissions sufficed with simple questions...