For the past several decades, American Jewish historians and sociologists have analyzed the impact that immigration, demographic and economic mobility, marriage and child-raising, acculturation and assimilation, and schools and summer camps have had on the day-to-day lives of American Jews. Jewish Sunday Schools is a deeply researched and provocative contribution to this study of social history. Written by Laura Yares, a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University, the book reveals how the Jewish Sunday school movement was born of nineteenth-century American Jews’ efforts to both maintain their Jewish identity and become a part of the warp and woof of American life.
The first Sunday school was established in Philadelphia in 1838 by the prominent philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. Gratz and the other mostly female founders of Sunday schools realized that the cheders and yeshivas of Europe were not suitable for young American Jews. Instead, they modeled Jewish Sunday schools after the Sunday schools then being established by various Protestant denominations. Protestantism’s impact on Jewish learning manifested itself another way: Jewish Sunday schools defined Judaism as a religion rather than as part of a larger Jewish culture or peoplehood.
Yares notes that by emphasizing only the religious aspect of Jewishness, the Jewish Sunday school movement was engaging in the theological rapprochement between Judaism and Christianity that became popular in certain Jewish and Christian quarters in the nineteenth century. It was an attempt to comport with the postwar view that Judaism was simply one of America’s three great religions, along with Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Nineteenth-century Protestants argued that public schools should be the primary instrument for instilling patriotism and national unity, while Sunday schools should focus on teaching the Bible and ethical issues. (All-day parochial schools were divisive, given that the population was becoming increasingly heterogeneous — both religiously and ethnically — and spreading rapidly throughout the continent.) American Jews shared this faith in public schools; Gratz and others looked to Jewish Sunday schools to inculcate a sense of Jewish identity and a love of the Jewish religion and to protect Jewish youths from the enticements of Christian missionaries. By the 1880s, Yares claims, the Jewish Sunday school “had become the regnant institution for Jewish learning in Americas,” only to be soon replaced by afternoon Hebrew cheders and Talmud Torahs, Yiddish and socialist schools, and summer camps of diverse ideological orientations — all of which emerged as a result of the massive immigration of Jews from central and eastern Europe to America beginning in the late nineteenth century.
Another tension described by Yares is the conflict between the female founders of Jewish Sunday schools and their male critics, who claimed that Jewish Sunday schools were “feminized” and ineffective in conveying the basics of Judaism. These critiques were not totally misplaced. The majority of the founders and early teachers were female volunteers who knew little about traditional Jewish texts. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called these schools “a phantom affair” controlled by “good-hearted young women” who were incapable of conveying anything to their students beyond simplistic Bible tales, home rituals, and moral bromides. Defenders of Jewish Sunday schools recognized their deficiencies, but wondered what the alternative was.
Isaac Leeser, the religious head of Gratz’s home synagogue in Philadelphia, argued that the critics of Sunday schools would “deprive many of the only chances they will even have to obtain the least knowledge of religion.” Within a generation or so, the critics had, for better or worse, wrested control of these schools. For Yares, this struggle was part of a larger clash over the role of women in Jewish communal life, and rooted in the desire to define the nature of American Judaism.