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A Man in the Street and a Jew in the Clasroom

Tue, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua Salon C


“Hebrew School” remains the regnant form of Jewish education for the majority of Jewish parents in America today. The first Hebrew Sunday school opened its doors in 1838, the creation of a pioneering Jewish woman who sought to protect Jewish children from Christian missionizing by gathering them on Sunday mornings to teach them elementary Jewish traditions, and show them that Judaism was, just like Christianity, a “religion” that could be learned in a Sunday morning school room. While Hebrew Sunday school may seem like an intuitive model for Jewish learning, therefore, it emerged in America at the intersection of a very precise project: to redefine Judaism as an American religion. This paper examines sources from late 19th century Hebrew Sunday schools to illustrate how American Jews rhetorically constructed understandings of the intersection of religious and public schooling in the creation of this formative educational institution. It focuses on sources that describe Jewish educational settings as places where young Jews were expected to learn not only the art and architecture of being Jewish, but also of American citizenship. This religious construction of American belonging was adopted by Jewish educators to make a case for the importance of Jewish commitments in an age of increasing opportunity for secular citizenship. By equating being a “good Jew” with being a “good American,” the pioneers of American Jewish Hebrew schools sought to underscore Jewish education as a value proposition in an age of public educational opportunity. Yet by describing Judaism as a “religion,” a domain specific to leisure time, private commitments, American Jewish educators also minimized the historic reality of Judaism as a cultural, ethnic, national, and communal identity. This paper will illustrate the constructed nature of defining Judaism as a religion for educational purposes, and the ambivalences inherent in the process of constructions of the value of public-school education for 19th century American Jews.


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