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If the Jewish community in these decades had only a few outstanding scholars, what then was the level of general Jewish knowledge? What did Jewish children learn? If then there were no diplomate rabbis serving the Jewish community during the years 1654–1840, who taught Hebrew to the youngsters? They were taught by rebbes. Rebbe—a Yiddish term—simply means “teacher.” There is no reason to doubt the existence of rebbes in New York City at least since the late seventeenth century. Often they were the cantors, who were given an additional stipend for instructing the children of the community’s indigent. At times, the rebbe was not the hazzan but the beadle or shohet or a scribe. Part of the job of the rebbe, whose class was under congregational supervision, was to keep an eye on the children in the synagog where they were usually herded into a corner of their own. The teacher was also in charge of their “morals”—whatever that may have meant (one suspects it was an admonition not to spare the rod). If the rebbe was reasonably comfortable with English and knew Hebrew grammar, he could increase his income by teaching Christian laymen or clergymen interested in the language which God thundered forth from Sinai. Thus Isaac Seixas, Richmond’s minister, taught Hebrew to George Wythe, student of the classics, distinguished jurist, and teacher of John Marshall and Henry Clay. Some of the rebbes were excellent teachers—others were pitifully incompetent. It must constantly be borne in mind that teaching was too often the last resort of an otherwise unsuccessful immigrant. Some were not versed in English. The Rev. Mr. Keys of Philadelphia, was one of the good teachers, Rebecca Gratz informs us. He had been induced to come from the West Indies by the promise of a fabulous income teaching children: the promise was never fulfilled.

The local reader’s contract generally required him to teach the children of the poor without charge, for practically all Jewish schools were tuition institutions. The determination of the synagogal leaders to provide instruction for children without means is one of the few instances of communal interest in the education of the young. In the postrevolutionary period, if not earlier, girls, too, were admitted to the classes. The teachers were often only part-time instructors who taught boys and girls individually in their parental homes, or met them as a class in the rebbe’s house or in a room provided by the community. What was taught? Boys and girls learned to read the Hebrew prayer book, a skill considered basic, and some boys learned to chaunt their biblical and prophetic portions when called to the Torah as bar mitzvahs. Some rebbes and parents were more ambitious; the youths were taught grammar, translation, the standard blessings for all occasions, and given an informal but extensive knowledge of Jewish laws and ceremonies. The Richmond banker Joseph Marx wanted the children to be taught “religion,” which was—and is—more a Protestant than a classically Jewish concept. Jews in a school were not taught religion as such; religion and ethics were not specific disciplines. The children were taught to be practicing Jews—which encompassed all the basic teachings of Judaism in the widest and most inclusive sense.1


The Jews who settled here had been influenced by the school system prevalent at home, in Europe. For the Sephardi, the schools in London were to a degree prototypes; the Ashkenazim harked back to those they had attended in Eastern and Central Europe. Jews with English traditions had witnessed the beginnings of an all-day school system in the kingdom, a system concerned primarily to educate the poor without charge. The London Ashkenazim, more recent arrivals, were slow to open formal schools with secular studies until they were driven to do so by fear of the free schools established by the missionaries. By that time, 1817, New York Jewry, a potpourri of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, had already been enjoying the benefits of parochial schools for two generations. In Germany, Jewry under the influence of the French and German Enlightenment had begun to modernize its schools. German émigrés arriving here in the early 1800’s were quite aware of the innovative schools back home, but they accomplished nothing comparable in the first few decades of the new century. Lack of money and of interest on the part of the typical Jew here hindered any pedagogical advances on this Jewish frontier. Most schools operated on the lowest level. The community, the congregation, intervened only because of the subsidies and fringe benefits granted to the hazzan-teacher or the rebbes. On the whole, this is the history of the elementary Hebrew school from the late seventeenth until well into the nineteenth century. Only Hebrew was taught at first in a half-day or all-day school. It should not be forgotten that instruction in America’s free schools was generally also of low quality.

By 1755, New York could boast of a Jewish day school in which both Hebrew and secular studies were taught. Indeed there may have been earlier schools of this type but there is no evidence to bolster the supposition. These religiosecular elementary academies lasted for about a century until the rise of public schools and the tendency of these new schools to exclude Christological teachings. Jewish day schools never made any substantial advances in this country in antebellum days because the Jews—unlike the Catholics—were unwilling to make sacrifices for an all-Jewish religiocultural environment. The successes of such schools were minor; their best years were the decades from 1840 to 1860. There was always some congregational supervision, but it was not very effective or continuous. The quality of instruction in the schools varied; good teachers refused to stay on the job and sought other opportunities. Some individuals, influenced by the teaching of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and their disciples, pointed to the excellent Christian academies that abounded. But these modernist Jewish educators were exceptional; none of their proposals was ever adopted in any community before 1840. Such as they were, day schools and late afternoon Hebrew schools barely managed to stay alive. In general, their quality was poor, their existence desultory. There were times when there were no schools whatsoever, even in the larger towns. But, since “Israel hath not been forsaken” (Jer. 51:8), there were always rebbes for hire.2


Completely private secular-studies schools conducted by Jews were not unknown in the early nineteenth century. Simha C. Peixotto, of Philadelphia, the Pallache sisters of New York, and Isaac Harby of Charleston, operated such junior academies quite independently of the local Jewish communities. Harby’s school seems to have catered chiefly to Gentiles; there is no reason to believe that any Jewish courses were taught. The other two institutions, young girls’ schools, were open only to Jews. The little ones were given instruction in Judaism and the Hebrew language.3 Most Jewish schools did have a relationship to the local synagog. In 1838, possibly even earlier, the Cincinnati congregation, now almost twenty years old, sponsored a Hebrew school in the vestry rooms (basement) of its building. A town with good private and public schools to which the Jews could turn for general studies, Cincinnati was culturally forward looking; it boasted that it was the Queen City of the West. The 1828 constitution of New Orleans’ Gates of Mercy congregation (Shanarai-Chasset) deliberately spoke of establishing schools for the education of Israelites, but it would seem nothing was done. Savannah was equally quiescent; it was, in any case, not a strongly “Jewish” community.

Charleston, far more active, was between the years 1800 and 1820 the most important Jewish town in the country. Children without means there were educated by the Hebrew Orphan Society; instruction is believed to have included both Hebrew and general studies. Major Raphael J. Moses who grew up in Charleston, recounts in his memoirs how he went to a private school and to a Catholic academy for his general studies. This grandson of a “rabbi” says nothing about his Jewish education, yet he was an ardent defender of his people and his faith. Moses, like most Charleston Jews, was probably sent to a rebbe; a good day school was conducted in the town from 1811 to 1814 by the minister, the Rev. Mr. Emanuel Nunes Carvalho. Later years may well have seen a Hebrew school, but the documentation is missing. From 1836 to about 1838 the Rev. Gustavus Poznanski conducted a Hebrew school. Possibly more than any other Jewish community, Charleston was America-oriented; there seems to have been very little talk about Jewish education. Richmond’s hazzan taught Hebrew in a congregational room; the Baltimore synagog, too, made some provision for Hebrew instruction, especially for the children of the poor. About the year 1841 or 1842, a special association was set up, bearing as its grandiose title, “The Hebrew and English Benevolent Academic Association.” Judging from similar titles, this society was interested more in charity than in schooling.4

Ever since 1802, Philadelphia had sheltered both a Sephardic and an Ashkenazic community. The German newcomers, clustered around Rodeph Shalom, followed the pattern of all recent immigrants; they were more observant, more traditional, than the native-born and earlier settlers. In 1819, this young organization employed Jacob Lippman as its minister. A humble congregational servant and of no demonstrable intellectual calibre, he may have conducted a Hebrew school, though there are no documents to confirm this conjecture. During the years that Lippman was Rodeph Shalom’s factotum, the congregation established the United Hebrew Beneficent Society. (Its Hebrew name was Hevrah Gemilut Hasadim ve-Hinukh Nearim, literally, the Society of Loving Kindness and the Education of Youth.) Founded in 1822, this hevrah was open to all Jews in the community. It was primarily a relief and burial society. Though it spoke of encouraging Hebrew studies and apprenticing Jewish boys to masters who would permit them to observe the Sabbath, it is very doubtful whether the society ever did anything to further Philadelphia children culturally.5

Philadelphia’s Sephardic congregation was two generations older than the Ashkenazic Rodeph Shalom. Its roots went back to the eighteenth century. No later than 1776, the members employed a reader and teacher. During the Revolution, with the British in and out of the city, Jewish schools probably fared badly; there is no evidence that Seixas, the minister from 1780 on, remedied this situation, but in 1784, after Seixas returned to New York, Mikveh Israel did build a schoolroom, and there can be little doubt that a Hebrew school was opened. In 1789, the new congregational constitution made provision for the employment of a rebbe; obviously the community was conscious of its obligations to untutored children whose parents had no means. Years later, in 1815, Mikveh Israel was fortunate in enlisting the services of Carvalho, who was brought up from Charleston. It is reasonable to assume that, as an experienced pedagogue, he established some sort of fee school in town, but he died in 1817. In 1818, an immigrant Jew, H(artwig?) Cohen, wandered in from Richmond and for a brief period taught Hebrew on a private basis to children—and to adults too—at the home of Rebecca Gratz. Apparently even before the year was up, he left for Charleston where he officiated as a minister for a few years. Bernard M. Baruch, the twentieth-century American financier and friend of presidents, was one of his descendants. In 1824, seven years after the death of Carvalho, a new “rabbi” was secured from Barbados—Abraham Israel Keys, who served until his death in 1828. An excellent Hebrew teacher and with no ambition but to please his employers, he was very popular.6

After Keys’s death, Mikveh Israel offered the job as minister and teacher to Isaac Leeser, whose goals, problems, and achievements have already been described. This ambitious young man, inspired by what the Christians already had, wanted a good all-day Jewish school. As early as 1831, he held classes in his boardinghouse, but the students damaged the furniture and the synagog board would give him no subsidy. Two years later, he proposed that Mikveh Israel help him open a Hebrew-English communal school; the elders disdained even to acknowledge his appeal for a subvention; he was a youngster and a hireling. The congregational elite remained unmoved by his appeals. The affluent were content with the private (Christian) schools at their disposal; the poor, seeking no charity from Leeser, attended the public schools despite their Christian character. These schools were “American,” after all, and cost nothing. Leeser fell between the stools of the socially ambitious Sephardic congregants and the poverty and pride of the Ashkenazic newcomers. Unreconciled, the new minister persisted in his conviction that only a synagog-sponsored school could save the younger generation.

Once again in 1835, he made an appeal for help. If the European Jews, oppressed though they are, have good schools, why can we not have them in free America? We need democratic institutions where rich and poor study together, he argued. In March, Leeser opened an all-day Hebrew and English-studies school. Very few of the students paid full fees; some were on scholarship. His new venture was Pestalozzian only to the degree that he decried unnecessary punishments, and he was willing to take children of preschool age. Initially he took only boys, not because he objected to education for girls, but because his resources were so limited. It was his (mistaken) boast that the new school was the first of its kind in the United States. Alas, this academy was short-lived; it dragged on its wretched existence for less than two years. His board—on which he had few friends—remained deaf to his almost piteous pleas for help. The new constitution Mikveh Israel adopted in 1841 made no mention of education, school, or teacher.7


While Leeser was struggling unsuccessfully to create a communal all-day school where Hebrew along with Judaism and general studies would be taught, New York was almost floundering in its efforts to build a Jewish educational institution. New Yorkers had the same problems as the Philadelphians; if anything, their difficulties were compounded, for by 1840 there were at least five different communities in the city. Shearith Israel, in sole possession of the field to 1826, was satisfied with minimal goals, but the efforts of Protestants and Catholics to create good denominational schools was certainly a silent reproach to the Jews; hence, the attempts to improve Jewish education. New York Jewry had been enjoying tuition schools, Hebrew and all-day academies, since at least 1755—probably earlier—with heartening results. Seixas is an example of what a student could learn in such surroundings. The parochial school of the 1750’s, one of the first in the Jewish world of the Atlantic basin, was coeval with the faint efforts of London’s Sephardim.

Though American Jews, free and equal, were fairly well integrated into the general community, they were by no means happy with the Gentile schools, public or private, since all of them were inevitably Christian in their orientation. Even the federal ordinances of 1785 and 1787 countenanced and encouraged the teaching of religion at the expense of the government—which is to say, the taxpayer. After the Revolution, when New York’s exiles returned and the Jewish community was reconstructed, it set out to find a man who would keep school for them. Hebrew had to be taught; it was unthinkable that a Jew not be able to read the Hebrew prayers. Progress was painfully slow. A semi-private day school was opened in 1792; there is reason to believe that it was an unsuccessful venture. Seixas the following year found himself teaching Hebrew to boys and girls (the girls were among the best students). Thus, maybe for the first time, girls were formally admitted to classes. Instruction included translation. Bar mitzvah boys were trained and when the students trouped into the synagog to take their places in their allotted seats, it was his job to keep an eye on them. Seixas was willing to teach; he needed the extra income; his family was constantly increasing in size.8

In 1801, Myer Polonies, a New York Jew, left the congregation a legacy for the establishment of a Hebrew school. It was with the interest from this fund that Shearith Israel inaugurated the Polonies Talmud Torah, a free school. Tuition students undoubtedly were permitted to attend when this academy finally opened its doors in 1803. Seixas continued to teach, at least for a time. The supervisors of the new school, three of the most dedicated men in the congregation, set up goals for the children. It was important, they said, that the children understand Hebrew; Judaism is a rational faith; Jews must know what they are saying when they address the deity. This was in 1804; yet it was in this very year that the school seems to have closed and to have remained shut for several years.9

Carvalho, who had been in town since 1806, certainly taught students, at least privately; during the years 1808–1811, he was in charge of an all-day school. Because Seixas was now ailing, Carvalho was occasionally called upon to assist him. Carvalho’s Jewish school prospered; inasmuch as the Lancasterian method of teaching was employed—monitors were appointed—it may be assumed that the number of students was large. Medals were handed out to encourage the ambitious and the bright. No impracticable visionary schemes of education were tolerated—an anti-Pestalozzian gesture! Yet there was emphasis on morality and religion, on an understanding of the meaning of the text. Three men were very much interested in the school: the scholarly Kursheedt, Judah Zuntz, later a follower of M. E. Levy, and finally Mordecai Myers, destined to emerge as a hero of the War of 1812. (Today Myers and his Christian descendants are memorialized in a monument on the grounds of the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C.)10

There does not seem to have been any school in Shearith Israel during the years 1805–1808. It was in this period when class instruction was at such a low ebb, and may not have existed at all, that the congregation appealed to the state for funds to educate its poor. Protestants and Catholics had been receiving grants; the Jews saw no reason why they, too, should not be helped. They were finally given government funds in 1811 and continued as late as 1840 to seek public subventions. The arguments used by Jews—and Christians, too—are of interest to latter-day civil libertarians concerned to maintain the wall between church and state. The poor, said the Jews petitioning for public funds, have to be taken care of or they will make trouble. Educate them. Self-respecting citizens do not ask for aid; they have means and seek no alms from the government. Religion is the foundation of all social happiness and of every republican institution. The Free School Society is nondenominational. It does not, unfortunately, further a specific religion. We do! Since religion is so necessary for the welfare of the state, it would be ill-advised to deny churches public monies. Church schools (read synagogal schools) rescue children from vice and ignorance. A nondenominational Free School Society and a similar Public School Society had been established since the early nineteenth century, educating impoverished children and providing them with a nondenominational, but of course Christian, type of religious education. Because it was inconvenient for the government to supply the needs of every denomination, the state finally decided that it was the better part of wisdom to deny all religious grants and to encourage a new species of public school in which religion would not be taught and thus would not constitute a divisive factor. By the 1840’s, the New York public school system was well on its way; by 1860, the schools were largely nonsectarian. Jews could now patronize them without fear of Christian indoctrination.11

After Carvalho left New York for Charleston in 1811, the day school system in New York was continued, but not successfully. Until 1821, the English-Hebrew school could brag of no effective achievements. Instruction was often bad; children increasingly turned to the so-called public schools for their secular studies. From 1823 on, Shearith Israel sheltered no all-day educational institution; from 1827 on, afternoon Hebrew schools were given some help, if only to make provision for the children of the poor. There were periods when this congregation could not even keep a Hebrew school open. Some of the Hebrew instructors during the years 1823–1840, native Americans, were competent and, it would seem, related well to the youngsters. The Society for the Education of Poor Children and the Relief of Indigent Persons of the City of New York paternalistically talked of educating the brilliant, but did little more than provide a subvention for the Hebrew education of its charges. The number of such clients was pitifully small; only three boys were given help in 1833. Desperate to secure a competent Hebrew teacher, Shearith Israel in 1839 published a Circular, making a national appeal for an instructor with a good English education, one capable of teaching his students to read and translate Hebrew texts. He was also to serve as an assistant hazzan. The salary promised was a very generous one.12

Congregation Bnai Jeshurun of New York came into existence in 1826 as a Shearith Israel rump group concerned with the education of the youth and of adults, too. Although this enthusiasm for the furtherance of Jewish culture speedily waned, the new congregation did throw open its doors to a private Hebrew school which met on the premises. The original protestation of the need for educating the youth had been, to a degree at least, but a pretext for an Ashkenazic secession. Only two years after these English, Dutch, Polish and German Jews opened the first Ashkenazic synagog in town, another group, Central and East Europeans, established another congregation, Men of Love, Anshi (Anshe) Chesed. A year later, in 1829, as if to justify its existence as an educational pioneer, Anshe Chesed proudly announced the creation of a new school, Those Who Study the Law, Lomdi (Lomde) Torah. The founders set out with high hopes of establishing an exemplary coeducational day school, and some of the best men in the city voiced their approval. The school, however, does not seem to have opened until sometime in the 1830’s, and there is very little evidence to indicate that it was a successful enterprise. The actual educational accomplishments of Anshe Chesed, Bnai Jeshurun, and Shearith Israel never matched their intentions.13


A superficial view suggests chaos in formal Jewish education: schools were few; most of them could boast of no continuity; good teachers were scarce; congregational supervision was lax; learned European scholars refused to come to America, culturally for them the Ultima Thule of the Jewish world. Since all schools were fee institutions, poverty and thrift, exacerbated by lack of interest, determined enrollment. Formal education for all on a congregational or communal basis existed neither in the afternoon Hebrew school nor in the occasional all-day Hebrew-English school. Although every Jew stressed the need for Jewish education, congregational constitutions and bylaws rarely took note of this matter; Jewish education was simply not deemed a communal obligation. Orphans and the children of the impoverished? That was different. Because they required help, provision was invariably made for them. Congregationally supervised semi-private Jewish schools were subsidized, if only to make sure that no Jewish child was left without instruction in the Sacred Tongue. Most parents were quite content if their children could read Hebrew; their demands were very few, and they had no truly intellectual goals. In any event formal Jewish instruction was over by thirteen when the son, bar mitzvah, was called to the Torah. By that time boys—and girls, too, sans ceremony—had been indoctrinated and, with exceptions, were to remain loyal the rest of their lives. The school, the synagog, the home had stamped them irrevocably as Jews, although religious instruction was not primary in the economy of their lives. Secular education, by contrast, was all important, for by 1840 a large number—possibly a majority—were immigrants determined to acculturate. Their problem, as they envisaged it, was not Judaization but Americanization or de-Europeanization. They were very ambitious, keen to get ahead.14


Despite the fact that Jewish education was secondary for congregations—and it certainly was—the communal leaders were not content with the current school systems. They realized their inadequacy. Intelligent, devoted leaders wanted to do more than keep the younger generation nominally Jewish. Something different was needed. A new type of school did come into being; it was both American and Jewish; the innovator was a woman, Rebecca Gratz, of Philadelphia (1781–1869). A great deal is known about this woman, for she loved to write letters. Many, very many, are still extant. Because they were not written with an eye to posterity they are excellent sources for the history of the first half of the nineteenth century. To be sure, the correspondence does not necessarily betray Miss Gratz’s innermost thoughts. A “lady,” she was nearly always careful of what she wrote. Her family was upper middle class; Thomas Sully and Edward Malbone painted portraits of her. In politics, she was a conservative, a Federalist, even after this group was out of power. It was during the presidency of Jefferson that she deplored the current indifference to the memory of George Washington. The daughter of a prosperous merchant, she had been well-tutored, reading the best in English and American literature and whatever Jewish books she could lay her hands on. Grace Aguilar’s writings appealed to her; Rebecca admired the brilliant Sephardic Jew, who wrote so well and praised the noble heroines of the Old Testament. Miss Gratz, too, was a great admirer of the biblical Deborah and Ruth.15 The Philadelphian had read an English translation of Mendelssohn’s letter to Lavater, not easy to understand. Everything Jewish was grist for her mill: the sermons of Gotthold Salomon and the Jewish apologias that now began making their appearance. In 1841, reading an English translation of a German book, she wrote: “I… believe that in a few years the name of Jew will rather be a distinction than a reproach.”

For most of her life she was a “housewife”; she, herself unmarried, kept house for her unmarried brothers and raised the children of her late sister Rachel. Marriage, in a way, was almost impossible for her. She would marry a man only if his culture and social status were comparable to her own. He must be a person acceptable to her Gentile friends and would have to be an observant Jew. The German newcomers were all out of the question; they were aliens; many were uncouth. Under no circumstance would she wed a Christian. It was rumored that she was in love with a Christian, but there is no reliable evidence to confirm this. Intermarriage? As she saw it, there could be no happiness in a family if a husband and wife had different religions; faith must triumph over affection. Having a full life, she was reconciled to spinsterhood. At forty, she said: “a ball room seems more like a memorial of lost pleasures than an incitement to new ones.”16

At the age of twenty-one, she began her career as a social worker. Maybe she realized that she would never marry. At first, she devoted herself solely to philanthropic work in the general, the Gentile community. She was elected the secretary of the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances; later she helped found the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum and served as its secretary for four decades. This able welfare worker was forty before she employed her organizing skill to aid fellow Jews. Only in 1819 did she begin devoting her energies to Jewish philanthropic work, sponsoring Jewish organizations patterned on earlier Christian ones. In matters religious, Rebecca was unequivocally Orthodox. Judaism was the best of all faiths, superior to Christianity, but she never engaged in polemics with Christians; she was not unsympathetic to the otherworldly Jesus. Winning converts to Judaism did not appeal to her, and by the same token she blandly waived aside all efforts of her Christian friends to lead her to the baptismal font. Her kitchen was kosher, and she frowned on those Jews who traveled on the Sabbath and the holidays. The Reformers of Charleston shocked her; she had no sympathy whatsoever with their radical departures from tradition. Yet though she never deviated from the old paths which her faith had hewed out for her, many, if not most, of her closest friends were Christians. The non-Jews respected her for her welfare activities, her education, her social position. Washington Irving and James K. Paulding, both literary figures, were her friends.17

Miss Gratz wrote well, though her letters were somewhat formalistic and stilted. But she never set out to polish her paragraphs. Her ethos is most often typically American, Protestant-like, moralistic. She was garrulous. Everyone agreed that she was charming, lettered, well-read, a fine conversationalist, a superior, intelligent person. Only occasionally was she profound. This daughter of German immigrants had studied no philosophy, knew no classical languages, and had played but a modest part in the larger world of books and ideas. She was not comparable culturally to her older contemporaries, the salon women of Berlin and Vienna. She had no salon; in no degree did she exert the influence which marked the careers of those Central European Jewish women who were recognized leaders in the effort to throw off the shackles of a feudal provincialism and to create an independent Germanic culture. The distinguished European women embraced Christianity; Rebecca, a proud Jew, had no desire to escape her past by becoming a Christian. Though a local social worker of prominence, she never ventured into the national realm of social reform. She was no abolitionist, but no racist either; Miss Gratz was convinced that a “noble spirit” could inhabit “a sable skin.” This Philadelphia Jewish woman was a humanitarian, generous but parochial.18

Through the Jewish and Christian societies in which she was destined to play so important a role, she comforted many, Jews and Gentiles. Historically she is important because she proved that a Jew, as Jew, could be accepted in the best American Christian circles. She was recognized and acclaimed as the outstanding American Jewish woman of her time. In her own day she was to become a tradition, almost a myth. The myth, in turn, would enlarge her repute and extend the influence which she already exercised. It was, therefore, easy for popular fancy to make her the original of Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe, though no sound documentary evidence exists to support this commonly held belief. Miss Gratz, concerned about Jewish education for the young, finally decided to take action. In 1838, she initiated the Hebrew Sunday School movement in this country. But what had she in mind? Why was the movement created?


It was Rebecca Gratz and the women of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society who established the first permanent Jewish Sunday School in the United States. Leeser helped, probably with mixed feelings. His heart was set on an all-day school, but his hopes were dead for the time being. He wanted something better and in less than four years he and a rabbinical colleague were to come out with a proposal for a national system of all-day religiosecular schools. Miss Gratz’s new Jewish school, the Sunday School, was patterned slavishly on a Christian model. America’s first (Christian) Sunday School had been brought to this country from England in the 1790’s. Originally, in England and at the very first in the United States, it was a welfare institution designed to aid poor children without education or church affiliation. They were to be taught to read, to be kept off the streets on Sunday. When, however, better secular public schools developed, the Sunday Schools became religious institutions. They were no longer dedicated to the eradication of illiteracy; the emphasis was on religion, faith, and morals.19

In a way it is surprising that Rebecca Gratz waited so long before she sponsored this Jewishly new religious institution. She made a feeble attempt in 1818 to establish a one-day school for children; in Richmond, too, there was a Saturday-Sunday academy of sorts in the late 1820’s. It was during those years that Moses Elias Levy, addressing the Philo-Judeans in London, spoke of the need for Jewish Sabbath schools for the young. In 1838 when Rebecca and her cohorts finally decided to go ahead, there were already about 8,000 Christian schools of this genre in the United States. Large numbers of Christian textbooks and periodicals were literally pouring off the presses, but, one suspects, it was not the example of the Christians that actually triggered the rise of the Jewish schools. The country was then in the throes of a devastating depression; there was unemployment and the new Jewish immigrants and their children were in distress; the youngsters needed Jewish schooling, training, if they were to remain loyal. Thus, the first schools were communal mission schools, to a degree, and were open to every Jewish child in the city. If necessary, those children in dire need were to be clothed. Recall that it was the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, a charity, that called the first school into being.20

The school was born in a day when the Jacksonian rhetoric of democracy and equality was heard in the land. Many were persuaded of the importance of education for the masses. Rebecca was convinced that religious instruction for all Jewish children was imperative. Parents looked with favor upon this new departure in education. It was American, calling for assembly on Sunday when Christians (Americans!) gathered together. It was an institution common to millions, important because the language employed was intelligible; it was free; it was not compulsory. The fact that the school met but once a week—a radical departure in Jewish education—only served to enhance its popularity.21

When the first school met in rented quarters, seven teachers and about fifty children greeted Rebecca Gratz—an auspicious beginning: eight-nine children to a teacher; no need here for Lancastrian monitors! Some of the pupils were very young, probably of nursery and kindergarten age. Classes began at 10:00 and were dismissed at 12:00. Physical cleanliness was insisted upon; discipline was strict. In this latter respect, the teachers did not genuflect in the direction of Pestalozzi. School was opened with a prayer; Hebrew and English hymns were sung, and a chapter was read from the Bible. A contribution box was a guarantee that there would be pennies for the poor of Palestine. The most important school event was the annual examination. It was not held at the end of the academic year but on a Sunday close to the festival of Purim. Usually that was in March. Purim was selected because it was the gift holiday. Then it was that visitors and proud parents came to beam as the little ones were called up to recite. It would seem that the school never lacked for money; it was the only Jewish institution so blessed. Abraham Hart, the publisher, and Rebecca Gratz supplied large numbers of textbooks. The Christian Female Bible Society gave them copies of the Bible which were gladly accepted. The New Testament gospels and epistles included in the standard King James version were of course ignored.

The 1840 examination was typical. Leeser prayed (four printed pages!). Rebecca, too, paid her devoirs to the Holy One Blessed Be He in which she reminded the tots and youngsters to be dutiful, honest, grateful to parents, attentive to teachers, and of course, devout. Then the children were called upon to recite monologues, sing hymns, and to answer the formal questions that were put. They recited from memory the portions they had been taught. A full-length sermon was preached by the Rev. Moses N. Nathan, a Jamaican minister visiting the States. It was said that he had come up from the Islands to recuperate in a more salubrious climate. It is equally true that he may have been looking to succeed Leeser at Mikveh Israel: Leeser was always in hot water with his board; that was an open secret. In his talk, directed to the large numbers who thronged the place, Nathan flung down the gauntlet to the missionaries and told his audience that the youngsters must be prepared to answer the conversionists. In this age of indifference, conversions, intermarriages, and defection, much depends upon the mothers. Social barriers between rich and poor Jews must be removed; the Sunday School must include children of all classes.

Like a number of his contemporaries, the preacher wanted more than a Sunday School. He, too, was thinking of a Jewish academy and a college. Sad, he said, some youngsters who attend Christian academies even go so far as to conceal their faith. The United States can develop scholars even as Europe has done. A Jewish name can become a passport to admission to a Jewish college, not a bar to acceptance in a Christian school. Before the children were finally dismissed on that joyous occasion, they were given prizes for attendance, an English Bible or the Ten Commandments printed on white satin. Leaving, each was enriched with an orange and a pretzel.

For a time at least, the very young were taught to read English. More consistently, the effort was also made to teach Hebrew. Leeser in 1838 published his Hebrew Reader for use in the new Sunday School. He called it “An Easy Guide to the Hebrew Tongue,” and it was certainly useful, containing as it did Hebrew prayers, blessings, hymns, and even the Maimonidean creed. It went through four editions, but a second, more advanced book, was never published by him. Obviously there was no demand for such a work. Indeed one wonders how much Hebrew could be taught in a one-day-a-week school with a maximum of two hours of instruction for the entire curriculum. Hymns, both Hebrew and English, were sung, some of them borrowed from the Protestants. The children were taught to pray in English; they employed the vernacular for almost all occasions. Biblical instruction was stressed; the basic facts and events recounted in the Scriptures were memorized.

Ceremonies and rituals were not neglected. All formal textbooks employed were in English, though a few of them contained quotations in the original Hebrew. The centuries-old Hebrew prayer book was not used for purposes of instruction—a radical departure from past practice. Learning and pedagogical aids, actual textbooks, too, were borrowed from the American Sunday School Union. The Americanization of the children was one of the chief goals of the school. It was considered important that youngsters exposed to Old World folkways at home be completely acculturated; the constant emphasis on English made for identification with the new land. This was welcomed by the students and, probably, by most parents.22

The Sunday School started out with very few textbooks, but Rebecca and her helpers made shift. At first they leaned very heavily on the Protestants, from whom they borrowed the King James Old Testament and the hymns of the Christian theologian Isaac Watts. Some non-Jewish texts of the American Sunday School Union were borrowed and adapted; objectionable Christian passages were pasted over with slips, frustrating the curious children who tried to see what was underneath. However, some Jewish books were already available. Two editions of Shalom Cohen’s Elements of the Jewish Faith had already appeared in the country by 1823. Elements was an English translation of a Hebrew catechism written by one of the early European Jewish “Enlighteners.” The English translation made in London was endorsed by the Ashkenazic chief rabbi. It was obvious that this work, first published at London in 1815, would be critical of the conversionists then very active in that city. Jews are not a missionary people, said Cohen; Jesus was not a true prophet, his miracles notwithstanding. As a devotee of the new French “Enlightenment,” Cohen emphasized the Ten Commandments. In marriage, he said, Judaism insists on a single standard of marital fidelity. The writer dwelt on immortality, prayer, repentance, and rewards and punishments, but rejected old-fashioned concepts of Hell and Heaven. Our rewards are spiritual. Circumcision is the mark of the covenant between God and his Chosen People, the Jews. The text was so organized that it could have served as a confirmation manual, though there were to be no confirmation rituals in this country before 1830 at the earliest. Cohen’s catechism was undeviatingly traditional, yet also dedicated to universalism. All religions share the same great basic principles; love of our fellowman is important. Any Gentile who acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with his God is assured of salvation.

Available also was Leeser’s catechistic Instruction in the Mosaic Religion (1830), a translation and reworking of a popular book by the German pedagogue, Joseph Johlson. This was the first of a series of children’s textbooks which Leeser hoped to produce. He was compelled to pay for its publication himself and employed his friends throughout the country as his agents. Because this book was hardly adapted for use by youngsters, Leeser came out in 1839 with a Catechism for Younger Children, a work dedicated to Rebecca Gratz and designed for use in the Sunday Schools, although he had already written it as early as 1835 when he realized that the Instruction was not sufficiently popular. This Manual, as it is often called, was also an adaptation of an earlier German work. Leeser borrowed heavily from a book written by the Hamburg preacher Eduard Kley. It is a tribute to Leeser, an evidence of his pragmatism, that he was willing to use this catechism of the Reformer Kley. Leeser’s text is a good survey of Judaism, its theology, beliefs, and practices. As does Cohen’s Elements, Leeser’s Manual, too, breathes a spirit of reconciliation with all religions. One must not hate his fellowman because of religious differences; everyone is entitled to his own theology. All early American Jewish textbooks were apologetic, motivated by caution as the Jews emerged from their “ghettos,” from a world of political oppression into a new world willing to accord them political rights and to tolerate them personally.

In answer to the demands for more and better texts, Miss Simha C. Peixotto prepared a Bible catechism that borrowed heavily from the Christian Child’s Scripture Question Book. Called Elementary Introduction to the Scriptures for the Use of Hebrew Children, this work was published in 1840; by 1875, it had already enjoyed thirteen reprintings. Obviously popular, it covered the entire Bible, every word of which, for her, was divinely inspired. The child was expected to memorize the portion assigned to him or her; no one was expected to learn the complete text by heart. Simha’s sister, Mrs. Eleazar Pike, also published a very popular Sunday School book, Primary Catechism of the Jewish Religion for the use of Infant and Other Schools. Questions and answers were in rhyme:

Q. Have you an evil heart within?

A. Yes, or I should not often sin.

Mrs. Pike, however, spared her tots the type of plaints found in a child’s book published at Boston in 1714: “Oh, Children of New England, Poor Hearts! You are going to hell, indeed: But will it not be a dreadful thing to go to hell from New England?” By 1840, French and German catechisms were being translated and adapted for American use; one or two were widely used.23

By 1841 Louis Salomon(s)’s The Mosaic System in Its Fundamental Principles was also available as a text. Salomon’s original German draft was translated into English by another Philadelphian, a man of culture. Leeser, too, carefully checked the translation. The learned author, serving as “rabbi” at Rodeph Shalom, knew very little English. Inasmuch as he himself was not at home in English, the children of his congregation attended Miss Gratz’s school. Why then this English catechism of over 200 pages? Leeser and Salomon were at this very time talking of a national union of American Jewish congregations and the establishment of schools in all towns where Jews resided. Dr. Salomon may have hoped his book would be used. He called himself “Dr.,” thus becoming the third Jewish congregational functionary in this country to assume this title. Like Cohen’s Elements of the Jewish Faith, Salomon’s Mosaic System was designed for use as a confirmation manual. Confirmation classes in Germany were by this time no longer a novelty. Salomon’s work stressed the creed, the Ten Commandments, and Judaism’s ethical imperatives. It reflected erudition; almost every page cited a quotation in the original Hebrew. Salomon, like Leeser, emphasized the importance of the Mosaic Code, which had not been abrogated even by Jesus; Moses was the greatest of all prophets. Following a distinctive trend of that generation, Salomon, something of a rationalist, shows that religion, nature, and science constitute one congruent whole. It is hard to believe that his book, or indeed that any of the catechisms of that day, could have been intelligible to children, or that any of them were at all effective. As early as 1819, Joseph Marx of Richmond, suggested that Jews publish an anthology of the best in their literature; Judaism must put its best foot forward, otherwise the Jew will disappear in a generation or two. Apparently he saw no salvation for Jewry in the literary product, such as it was, of his own day.24

“A new era has dawned on the House of Israel,” said Rebecca Gratz. She was right. Judging by the standards and the achievements of that day, the Hebrew Sunday School was a success. By the end of the first year, it had about 100 pupils. Miss Gratz, too, looked forward to the establishment of an academy, a trade school, where youngsters could become master craftsmen and where apprentices could lead a Jewish life and thus guarantee their survival as Jews. Why were these Sunday Schools accepted? Because—in addition to the reasons cited above—the teachers were kind and considerate, women who were drawn to children and evoked their affection. The youngsters were rewarded for coming to class and for their scholastic achievements. They were motivated. As far as Judaism was concerned, this was the only good, appealing instruction they would ever get. They were taught “religion,” morality, ethics, the amenities of their neighbors—this last was very important. When Rebecca spoke of religion, she was employing the idiom of the Christians about her. Indeed to a considerable extent, the Protestant theological schema did make its impress on the Jewish Sunday School, for it accentuated theology, the credo. Actually, the total pedagogical gestalt made for effective indoctrination. How pleased the Jews were when some Seventh Day Baptists visited their Sunday School and told the eager Jews that they, the Baptists, also knew oppression because of their religious beliefs.25

The almost immediate acceptance of the Sunday School idea in Charleston, Richmond, New York, and Savannah attests to its appeal and success. Special societies of women were established in Charleston and in New York to make sure that the new first-day institution would receive communal support. The New York female organization came at an appropriate moment, since systematic instruction for the Jewish young in New York City in the late 1830’s was almost nonexistent. The post-Jacksonian depression caught the new German “wave” of poor immigrants at a very inopportune time. To relieve the poverty of the incoming immigrant children—and possibly some of the native-born as well—the young ladies of Shearith Israel created a special society to clothe needy Sunday School youngsters. This Sunday School Association for the Moral and Religious Instruction of Children of the Jewish Faith even had the beginnings of a library. Its purpose, it would seem, was to lend textbooks to the children, inasmuch as needy parents had no money to buy catechisms. As in Philadelphia, New York’s Sunday School flourished, but—and this is very difficult to comprehend—this metropolitan school and its patron society soon disappeared. Did the polyglot Ashkenazic immigrants refuse to accept help from the Sephardic elite? Yet, and this, too, is interesting, all the Sunday Schools of the pre-1840 period were started and maintained by Sephardim.

If all the sponsors were not natives by birth, they were all America-oriented, ardently so. By 1840, there were at least fifteen Ashkenazic synagogs and conventicles. None of them had a first-day school, but in later decades they too accepted the Sunday School. By that time, they had psychically dimmed their European origins; they, too, turned passionately to America; they were less fearful of cultural loans, more realistic in their educational goals. All this was a growing up in America. Again it merits repetition: the Hebrew Sunday School, first and last, was the work of women. There can be no question that here, too, there is an element of female consciousness-raising.26


Culturally, Jewishly, what had American Jews produced in the years 1776–1840? Compared to Jews abroad, what had they accomplished? By 1840 in Europe, among Jews who were concerned with Jewry, there was cultural and intellectual ferment. More than this, there was an intellectual revolution that radically modified every expression of traditionalism. Beginning with Moses Mendelssohn, a number of men, brilliant, learned, scholarly, led Jews out of the Middle Ages. Some were traditionalists, others were religious reformers. Most of them lived in the German and Austrian lands; a few were Italians. For the first time in Jewish experience, critical methodology became the distinguishing characteristic of many university-trained European Jews who engaged in the study of rabbinical literature. In Europe, therefore, these are the crucial decades that witnessed the rise of modern Jewish scholarship, the writing of important books, the beginnings of religious Reform, the coming into being of the first rabbinical academy prepared to meet the challenges of the new intellectual approaches.

In method and in learning, English Jewry was in no sense as advanced as that of Central Europe. After a fashion, England was Europe’s cultural frontier. London did have a number of Hebraists and writers who were producing an Anglo-Jewish corpus of apologetics put to good use here in the United States. American Jewry was growing rapidly; it had increased about 600–700 percent in the years since the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. But, compared to Europe, America’s achievements were of little significance. In reading matter the Jews here leaned heavily on England and Germany. America was no land for traditional or for modern scholars; there were no jobs for them, no opportunities. At first, Jews borrowed their Hebrew-English prayer books from abroad: a Pentateuch translation, catechisms, apologias, and works to confound the evangelicals, the missionaries, the Deists, the infidels. Jews here turned to the rabbinical authorities in London and Amsterdam for legal advice. Culturally, America was European Jewry’s remotest frontier.

Religioculturally, were the Jews more advanced, more innovative than their Christian neighbors? In a way, any comparison would be meaningless, for the Jews were outnumbered 1,000 to 1. Christianity was beginning to prosper here as it had never prospered here before. Christian orthodoxy was alive, vigorous. There was an evangelical upsurge, an interest in missions, a religious efflorescence that would entrance myriads of the faithful. Religious publications, sermons, tracts, books, flooded the country. There were over 3,000 academies in the land, over 47,000 primary schools, over 170 colleges, practically all avowedly Christian. There was a number of eminent Christian clergymen of culture and distinction in the Protestant churches. Despite prejudice and disabilities, the Catholics, too, pushed forward resolutely. They opened an academy, a seminary for priests; they established a religious community for women, a normal school for training teachers. By 1840, there were already about 200 Catholic parochial schools and classes.27


The Jewish cultural level in the United States was not impressive. In 1840, the American Jewish communities, all of them, so it would seem, were predominantly immigrant in origin. They were not poor, but they were not affluent, though there were men—and women, too—in every town who were wealthy. There were intellectuals, but their number was limited. The extant congregational minutes demonstrate that the Jews knew very little Hebrew; the Hebrew words that they wrote out were frequently misspelled. Many of those who landed here were untutored, village folk from Central and Eastern Europe. The schools back home were not good; the schools that they created here were often no better. Most newcomers here, and many natives, too, could not afford to attend the better Christian academies even if they were willing to swallow the Christian teachings which permeated practically all of them. Were the religioliterary accomplishments of the Jews comparable to those in middle and lower class Christian circles? Probably not. It was not until 1826 that, for the first time, a Hebrew-English prayer book was edited and published in this country. By that year, Jews had been living here in an Anglo-Saxon world for over 160 years.28

Why was so little accomplished religiously by American Jewry? The immigrants who came here, all from lands where some disabilities were imposed on them, brought little Jewish or secular learning with them. In a cultural sense, they were not creative; they were humble, westward-moving pioneers set on making a living and remaining Jews. Like most Americans, they wanted to get ahead; education as such was not a prime concern. The few Jewish schools, afternoon or all-day, were not much good; often there was no continuity; with few exceptions, the teachers were incompetent; the curriculum was inadequate. In the area of religious instruction, parents followed the line of least resistance; their goals were easily achieved, for they were quite content if the boys could rush through the Hebrew. Except for the Sunday Schools, educational funds were always in short supply, although the community did respond to the need to educate the children of the impoverished. If education was an issue, then the prime concern of the Jew was secular schooling, which was identified with Americanization.29

Jews were fully aware that they could make careers only through secular learning. Knowledge of the three R’s was important; English was the language of the land; opportunities could bear fruit only when there was a command of the vernacular. Jewish immigrants did not have the means to insist on an advanced Jewish education for their children; often they had no desire to do so. Many had no basic interest in pursuing Hebraic studies; that would butter no parsnips. Even the salaried Jewish officiants were not picked for their scholarship. Not one secondary school was ever established in the United States during this period. The affluent? Some of them, acculturated to be sure, had little interest in Judaism as an academic discipline; a number were secular in inclination. Newcomers, still rooted in age-old practices, blamed the native-born for educational indifference; they, in turn, inaugurated but few cultural institutions; they did not even maintain those they had started.

Pursuing further the question—why was so little achieved in view of the fact that Jewish schools were essential for any cultural development of the group as a whole?—it is well to bear in mind that the general American need for communal schools was a concept not fully accepted in any American state at this time. Jewish communal schools—truly communal, religious or secular—were never to take root in any American town of size, not even in the late twentieth century. It may be heresy, but it is certainly good history, to ask how important were schools in the schema of any American Jewish community before 1840. Of course the schools they had were preferable to none at all. In the larger cities, the “communal” schools never really had any impact except for some of the one-day schools. Even so, what percentage of the children did the Sunday Schools embrace? Philadelphia was gleeful in 1838–1839 when it had 100 students! And Philadelphia sheltered a large Jewish community. Leeser always worked towards communal schools—even though on a tuition basis—but he was egregiously unsuccessful.

One is tempted to exaggerate by saying that the children of the typical Jewish householder went to the local Jewish semi-private schools riding—for a price!—on the coattails of the impoverished. Tuition pupils always outnumbered the charity clients. During the entire early national period, religious education was not communal, not compulsory; it was ultimately a private concern. Education is not stressed, often not even mentioned, in the constitutions and bylaws of contemporary congregations. In a manner of speaking, a school was not an absolute need for the individual Jew; identification through the synagog, even if one attended only two or three days a year, was a guarantee of religiocultural survival. Emotional allegiance, not knowledge, was held imperative.30

In every community, there were always individuals aware of the challenges of a good Jewish education. They were eager to further study and learning for all, particularly the youth. In every generation, these men and women have constituted the saving remnant. Individuals, devotees, had an ideal program which they had charted. One of these men with a plan was Dr. Daniel Levy Maduro Peixotto (1799–1843). Peixotto, like M. E. Levy and Jacob S. Solis before him, suggested the founding of a rural or suburban school where Hebrew and the arts and sciences would be taught. Rich and poor were to be reared together in this institution; ethics were to be emphasized. For him, the pattern of perfection which he held up to his auditors was Moses Mendelssohn, loyal Jew, scholar, modernist. He suggested that New York Jewry create a city-wide organization to fund and educate a talented young man who would return to lead the academy and edify tomorrow’s generation. It was at this very same time that Charleston Jewry, too, thought of financing the training of a young future leader.31

The reality achieved? American Jews began—it has been pointed out—with borrowing from England the liturgies, texts, and apologias they needed. But borrowing and adapting is also a form of creativity. What did they themselves produce? They wrote Hebrew grammars and language studies, printed prayer books which they had edited and translated, and began to write sermons which reflected their theologies. Programs for Jewish academies were solemnly announced; polished appeals to aid the poor were broadcast; Hebrew and English poetry began to appear in print; congregational administrative documents abounded. Apologetic and polemical works were the most important literary products of the generation. The missionaries goaded the Jews to think, to write, to defend themselves. Mayhap the Jews overreacted. Fearful of conversion, they fought for the religious integrity of their families; in a way, they were fighting for their liberties also; they dreaded the attempt of the conversionists to baptize the federal and state constitutions. The Jews learned to do battle; this, too, was American: the right to fight back. American freedom also produced a new type of Judaism, the revolt in Charleston that gave birth to the Reformed Society of Israelites. It was not in itself successful, but it was a beginning, a form of intellectual emancipation, this turn to the left. There was another revolt when the Ashkenazim seceded from Sephardic Shearith Israel, ostensibly to intensify Jewish education. Both revolts are a manifestation of cultural pluralism. Revolts such as these constitute an ethnic or cultural declaration of independence; they testify to the recognition of Jews that they had a right to live their own intellectual, spiritual, and religious lives.

The individualism now evident had resulted in part from exposure to Americanism. Protestant piety and theology impinged on traditional Judaism. Calvinistical Jews spoke of predestination, original sin, grace, salvation. (They may well have given these concepts interpretations of their own.) Decorum was stressed; there was constant emphasis on the vernacular through the sermons, the textbook, the Sunday School. Education for girls was taken for granted. This push for education surfaced in the 1830’s in a decade when social reformers and politicians talked of the need to educate the common man. The American interest in all types of cultural institutions is reflected in the feeble attempt to establish afternoon and all-day schools at a time before there was a substantial immigration of tradition-minded Central European Jews. The Sunday Schools were successful, for, adhering to the common Christian pattern, they dwelt on “religion” and prayer; they catechised the youngsters on the English Bible and, what was of equal importance, harped on manners. Well over 1,500 years old, the rebbe system successfully made the Atlantic crossing, and its importance cannot be exaggerated. These teachers taught individual children either in their parents’ homes or in their own humble quarters; classes were held in synagog building or in the teacher’s house. It was the rebbes, encouraged or tolerated by dedicated religionists and the synagogs, who helped keep alive an interest in Hebrew. Jews knew that the Holy Tongue was a bond linking them all together. There were many individuals who cultivated this language, probably more than the hard evidence reflects. There were always some youngsters able to cope with the Hebrew text of Sacred Scripture.


American Jewish intellectual and theological development was discernible on two levels: a higher and a lower one. There were individuals who had liberal political—and cultural—concepts which they managed to fuse and harmonize with a devotion to traditional Judaism. The number of people in this category was probably extensive. Jeffersonian leftwingers of the early 1800’s, men like Solomon Simson and Benjamin Nones, served as presidents of essentially rightwing Sephardic congregations. Quite a number of Jews were aware of the threat of the sciences to biblical cosmogony. Jews with libraries always had some Jewish books. True, there was no extensive Jewish literature in this country, but there was a literary awareness of the inherited faith and the challenge it faced from Christianity. (If no sharp distinction was made between Judaism and Jewish culture, it is because none exists.) There were always men here—a few women, too—who were Hebraically, Jewishly knowledgeable. These people were stimulated by modern educational concepts to investigate and attempt to regenerate Jewry and Judaism. There were always men and women in every town who had strong Jewish interests. Jacob Mordecai, Mordecai M. Noah, and Rebecca Gratz are notable examples.32

Most Jews who lived through the American Revolution and the early decades of the new century had no academic, no literary knowledge of the faith to which they were committed. They could read the Hebrew service, but few understood the meaning of the text. Reading it was an emotionally rewarding experience. Those children who attended the Sunday Schools at the end of this period could recite the blessings; they knew the customs, the traditions; they were bar mitzvah; they had learned a great deal about the Bible in their catechism classes. These youngsters of the late 1830’s were thus able to secure a good Jewish education because their Sunday School texts were very detailed, dealing with almost every aspect and phase of the Jewish way of life. Thus these boys and girls experienced no difficulty in aligning themselves intelligently, knowledgeably, loyally, with their fellow Jews. Despite the inadequate school system, Jewish education was not a failure if its essential criterion was to orient the Jew toward his people and their Weltanschauung. On all levels, education during these years made for identification. Jews were becoming one with their people through formal schooling, through the prayers, through the mystical power of the Hebrew text, through outer pressures, through resentment, through dread of evangelical Christianity. The spiritual support brought to Jewry and to Judaism by all these media and these fears was reinforced by the teachings of the home and the sanctuary. The power of the synagog lay not in its religious but in its ethnic appeal. The religion, the sociocultural complex that is inadequately defined as “Judaism,” was no longer the very faith and philosophy of their European fathers. By 1840, the emerging Jewish culture of the United States was an amalgam of traditional Judaism and the American Anglo-Saxon way of life. The Old World order had survived the challenge of the New World.33


What part did the “leaders” play in Jewish education in the early years of the new nation? Rebecca Gratz stands out as the founder of the Sunday School system. Who were the men who led other cultural enterprises? What was the nature of their influence? To compare the Jewish elite to the Christian elite is not very helpful. When faced with a Francis Asbury, an Isaac Backus, a John Carroll, a William Ellery Channing, the Jews do not loom very large. True, there were 1,000 Gentiles in the United States for every Jew; multiply Isaac Leeser by 1,000 and the tiny Jewish community looks much better. Jewish cultural achievements here are admittedly very modest, if one counts teachers, classes, students, books written, but what was accomplished was due to “leaders.” Most of these men were not outstanding; with few exceptions, the hazzanim were not significant personages. Yet the hazzan who chanted the service was important enough. In every community, he was the visible core, the embodied symbol, around which the congregation agglomerated. Richmond once said that, if its hazzan left, the synagog could not survive. New York’s Gershom Seixas was something of a leader: he came from a good family, he was a native in command of the vernacular, he had learning of sorts, he was dignified, he was respected by the Gentiles; many Jews could and did look up to him.

On the other hand, Jacob Lippman, of Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, part-time hazzan, second-hand clothes dealer, dues collector, circumciser, was certainly not a man whom the cultured and affluent could admire—but he was better than no hazzan. There were periods when the largest communities were without a hazzan. On such occasions, the lay leaders carried on. Every community had at least one man who devoted himself to its spiritual welfare: Joseph Jonas in Cincinnati is a classical example. The Occident subscription list for 1843 shows that there were Jews in many towns and villages. They were interested, concerned. These are the men, the handful, who guaranteed that Jews would take root and survive on American soil.34

What did these men who assumed leadership believe? What were their spiritual, cultural goals? There were probably as many credos as there were individuals. Among the native-born Jews there were some who were completely acculturated, intellectually indistinguishable from their Protestant fellow citizens except for their rejection of Jesus as God. There was no dearth of religious liberals in this country, agnostics and atheists, too. There were also the affluent businessmen who ran the synagogs and adhered to tradition, although they were fully aware of existing radical religious doctrines that were soon to be reinforced by university trained German émigrés. Most American Jews of older stock and most immigrants adhered in principle to the rabbinic Judaism which went back for almost 1,500 years, the religion known today as Orthodoxy.


Traditional Judaism’s sociocultural religious concepts of man’s place in the world and his relationship to the deity found their classical exemplification in the life, activities, and writings of Isaac Leeser. To understand him is to understand the customary conventional Judaism of this age and to gauge its leadership. Prior to the Civil War, this Philadelphia “rabbi” was the country’s most representative exponent of the Jewish faith. His culture and beliefs were typical of its thinking elite. What he did for American Jewry is discussed in an earlier chapter. Leeser stands out as a defender of his people and their beliefs.

In practically all of his writings, Leeser appeared in the role of an apologist. He had a job to do: to see to it that his ancient Oriental faith was tolerated by his fellow Americans. This was difficult, for over ninety-nine percent of all Americans, Gentiles and Christians, preached a civil and a denominational religion at variance with the Judaism fixed in Mesopotamia over 1,500 years earlier. The Jews were torn between acculturation in an Anglo-Saxon world and loyalty to an inherited European Jewish self-contained way of life. The tiny Jewish minority felt a compulsive need to fit into the world of the vast majority. American Jews, led by Leeser and others, were forced to adopt an apologetic stance. Conscious that Christians were set on destroying them with love, apprehensive Jews created an apologetic literature, a press of sorts, and Sunday Schools where Jewish children could be taught to understand Judaism and to defend it intelligently. Leeser wrote two works defending his people against attacks that appeared in the London Quarterly Review in 1828 and in 1839 and were reprinted, in part, here in the United States. Both of Leeser’s responses were republished in book form in the Jew and the Mosaic Law (1833) and in the Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights, etc. (1841).

In his two rejoinders, Leeser emphasized the political disabilities under which Jews labored all over the world. Even here, full equality was honored in the breach, though on paper Jews seemed to enjoy privileges and immunities. Leeser could have pointed out that, as late as 1840, five states still refused to emancipate their Jewish citizens. There is no place in this country for such prejudices, he argued. “It is time to discard the word Jew as a term of reproach.” Sunday laws are unfair, since they compel the Sons of Israel to observe the Sabbath of the majority. Philadelphia’s proud hazzan was angry that a distinguished New York Calvinist clergyman had publicly declared that Scott in his Ivanhoe had presented “The Jewish character in too favorable a light.” What right had the Quarterly Review polemicist to malign Jews and Judaism, to pray for them as infidels, to stigmatize them as a degraded people because they had rejected Jesus? Such attacks, Leeser pointed out, only retarded the granting of rights to Jews in England. (It would be another fifteen years at least before a Jew could sit in Parliament). Jews are good citizens, not gamblers or drunkards. When given a chance, Jews can excel in the arts and the professions; the roll of distinguished Jews in Europe fully demonstrates this contention. Leeser in his apologias insisted on political and religious liberty for everyone, everywhere. The humblest individual must be secure in his personal freedom. Ours was the first code to proclaim liberty throughout the land. Our religion honors God and preaches love for our fellowman. What we ask is justice, not pity. Convert to Christianity? God has promised us a great future; we are the guardians of the Law, a Law that will ultimately govern the world.


Convinced that American Jewry was threatened with dissolution because of apathy, Leeser set out to save it; his essential instrument to that end was education. If a new generation of Jews was to survive, it would have to be educated Jewishly. He moved forward on several fronts. Textbooks were imperative. The young hazzan began publishing texts in 1830; by 1840, his bibliography included seven works. The Hebrew language was very important; children must know the meaning of the prayers they read; ours is a rational faith. To teach Hebrew he printed a Hebrew primer, which sold fairly well, but lack of interest precluded the publication of a more advanced work. Intent on building a Jewish library for those who shared his concerns, he republished here in America the edifactory works of Grace Aguilar. Leeser, the educator, was aware of the pedagogical philosophies of his day. He was not uninfluenced by the Pestalozzians, but he did not believe that a school should be child-centered. Discipline, decorum were essential; brutal punishment was frowned upon. Like most Christian clergymen of his day, he insisted on memorization of passages in the catechism. The keystone of his proposed Judaic renascence was the all-day school with its blending of religious and secular studies. He frowned on the Gentile private academies and the public schools of antebellum America because of their Christian teachings. In the Jewish schools which he envisaged, religious studies would take precedence. Once established, these institutions could serve as normal schools to educate teachers, lecturers, and preachers. In the classes where rich and poor would meet on common ground, there would be a leveling upward; the “better” families would influence the humbler, the newcomers. The problem of social distinctions was still a basic one in the 1830’s among the Gentiles and probably among the Jews, too. Was Leeser influenced by Jacksonian trends? Possibly.

At any rate, Leeser was eager to provide impoverished children with a good education. He never forgot that he had once been a poor orphan and that he had been helped by others. Children were to be taught trades; peddling was bad. Fortified with a craft of their own, Jews would not have to work on the Sabbath for Gentiles; Jewish artisans would take on apprentices and give them an opportunity to live Jewishly. In 1841, sticking doggedly to the hope for communal all-day schools, he and the Rodeph Shalom minister appealed to American Jews to establish a national teachers’ training academy and local non-tuition schools which would welcome every child in town. The curriculum would embrace religious and secular disciplines. For the time being, this was an unreal hope, and Leeser had no choice but to accept the Sunday School. He had tried desperately in the 1830’s and 1840’s to establish a school system that would bring him closer to his goals. He failed because, as has been pointed out, the more affluent Jews preferred the non-Jewish private schools for social or for pedagogical reasons. The less affluent and the poor were content with the constantly improving public schools. At least, they did not carry with them the taint of pauperism.

Leeser’s religious and moral interests were not the same as those of many notable Christian leaders. The concerns of the Philadelphia rabbi were narrower. He gave no time to abolition, woman’s rights, pacifism, communitarianism and utopianism, the care of the insane, the plight of criminals. These causes did not attract him. As a typical conservative American, these issues did not move him deeply, though he was fully aware of them. He could not afford the luxury of social reform. What disturbed him and touched him immediately was the apathy of the Jewish affluent, the misery of the poor, the Jewish illiteracy of their children. Leeser was an evangelist, albeit a rational one; he was a “Reformer,” too, for he sought to improve Jewish society socially and religiously by emphasizing tradition and its ethical imperatives. No obscurantist, he made every effort to meet the challenge of the new knowledge. This man was ready to accept the nineteenth century, but always in the framework of the rabbinic code. Religion must always take precedence. He had a simple, old-fashioned formula for saving Jewry from the seductive appeal of America’s permissiveness. Pestalozzian-like academies in the hinterland were not the answer. If Jewry was to be reached, it could only be through the home, the synagog, the sermon, the rites and the rituals, and above all Jewish schools.

External factors worked against the acceptance of his educational programs. To a large degree, however, he was the architect of his own misfortune; his refusal to stoop, even to conquer, hampered him.

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