The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education

Brandeis University Press  2011

 
Samson Benderly inaugurated the Bureau of Jewish Education in 1910, seeking to modernize Jewish education and professionalize the field by training a younger generation of teachers, principals, and bureau leaders. These young men became known collectively as the Benderly Boys and, from the 1920s to the 1970s, they were the dominant force in Jewish education in the United States. In this study Jonathan Krasner captures the essence of both early twentieth century educational thinking and the nature of life for the new immigrants who were arriving from Eastern Europe. Benderly and his protegés understood the importance of making Judaism come alive in the classrooms for the children who were growing up American and Jewish on the Lower East Side and other areas of New York City. Footnotes, index.

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Shortly after completing my dissertation on the representation of insiders and outsiders in American Jewish schoolbooks, I received an unusual but welcome piece of fan mail from Dr. Gil Graff, the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. It is always gratifying to hear that your work has found a receptive audience, so I was more than happy to accept Gil's invitation to join him for coffee during the upcoming Association for Jewish Studies Conference in L.A. Gil was working on a history of American Jewish education, so we naturally found a lot to discuss.

As we talked shop on the patio of a Century City Starbucks, the conversation turned to the outsized impact on Jewish education of Dr. Samson Benderly and his students. Benderly, the wunderkind from Safed, professionalized American Jewish education and transformed the Talmud Torah—the afternoon Hebrew school -- into a modern, Americanized institution. From his perch at the Bureau of Jewish Education in New York, where he served as the founding director from 1910-1939, Benderly raised a generation of disciples. These men and women, known as the "Benderly Boys," dominated the field of Jewish education for the next half-century, directing education bureaus, operating schools, and founding the first Jewish culture camps. Animated by the desire to bring about an American Jewish renaissance through Jewish education, they were inspired in equal measures by the cultural Zionism of Benderly, the Reconstructionism of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and the progressive educational theories of philosopher John Dewey. Los Angeles, in particular, had felt the influence of the Benderly revolution through the personality of Dr. Sam Dinin, who was instrumental in building up institutional pillars in the community, including the BJE, the University of Judaism (now AJU), Camp Ramah in Ojai, and the Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

One tidbit of information that Gil shared was particularly intriguing. Did I know, he asked, that Sam Dinin was alive and lucid and living minutes away in Westwood, near UCLA? If I wanted to talk with him I shouldn't wait. Dinin had just celebrated his one hundredth birthday.

A few weeks later I was sitting in Dinin's living room. He was a frail but genial host. I had done my homework, read virtually everything he had published in advance, and was armed with dozens of questions. I wish I could say that he regaled me with stories about his glory days in New York and LA, and provided me with great insights into his mentors and colleagues, but the truth was that his memory was dim; the stories he told were already familiar to me, and he tired easily. By the second hour of my visit I was beginning to squirm. Much as I enjoyed meeting him, I could not help but feel like my visit ended up being about paying homage and providing an elderly gentleman with some welcome company.

Just when I was about to write off the visit in my mind, I asked a question about his efforts to promote the study of modern Hebrew using Ivrit b'Ivrit, the so-called natural or direct method of teaching Hebrew language. Did not his opponents in the 1930s have a point when they charged that the Benderly Boys' single-minded, almost fanatical devotion to modern Hebrew not only failed to produce the desired educational outcomes but diverted them from consistently and wholeheartedly reshaping Jewish education along the progressive lines espoused by John Dewey? Dinin abruptly sat up and looked me in the eye. It was as if the smoldering embers had suddenly reignited; the mild-mannered man in front of me was momentarily transformed. “Let me tell you something,” he began. “The men who made that charge were traitors to the cause of Jewish education and the rebirth of the Jewish people. We knew then that Hebrew and Zionism were the keys to the Jewish future, in America as well as in Eretz Yisrael.” These critics were "assimilationists," he sputtered, spitting out the word like a curse. After a few more minutes of animated conversation, Dinin sank back into his armchair and his placid demeanor returned. (This last surviving member of Benderly's coterie died of natural causes at the age of 103, in December 2005. May his memory be a blessing.)

Shortly thereafter, I got into my rental car and drove to Santa Monica. As I walked along the beach I reflected on my meeting with Dinin. I wasn't sure whether I agreed with him about the efficacy of Ivrit b'Ivrit (particularly in a supplementary school setting) or the motives of his detractors, but I was stirred by his passion. Benderly and his disciples were on a holy mission to safeguard the future of the Jewish people in America at a time of great dislocation and change. Their conviction fueled a veritable revolution that remade the landscape of American Jewish education. And the dilemmas they confronted are still very much with us today: Is Jewish education an individual Jewish right, a community responsibility? Should our education system focus on training future leaders or infusing Yiddishkeit in the amcha, the Jewish folk? Can a book-centered culture be transmitted utilizing child-centered educational methodologies? And, finally, should Jewish education emphasize Jewish peoplehood and unity or celebrate pluralism, denominationalism, and individual Jewish expression?

From 1910 to 1967, the Benderly Boys (and girls) were the dominant force in Jewish education in the United States—both formal and informal—yet their story had not adequately been told. By the time I returned to my hotel that evening I was determined to remedy that omission. With the publication of The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education, I hope the voices of these pioneers will inform our twenty-first century conversations about Jewish education.


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