Jew­ish Sun­day Schools: Teach­ing Reli­gion in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry America

By – August 3, 2023

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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

Jew­ish Sun­day Schools illu­mi­nates the evo­lu­tion of an insti­tu­tion that is a foun­da­tion­al part of the non-Ortho­dox Jew­ish world today. Most delight­ful is its explo­ration of the role of women in cre­at­ing the edu­ca­tion­al frame­work that shaped Jew­ish young­sters. When the first groups of teach­ers saw that scores of fam­i­lies were leav­ing Jew­ish life and being lured into the dom­i­nant Protes­tant cul­ture, they respond­ed by design­ing a cur­ricu­lum that would both com­pete with Chris­t­ian schools and affirm the Jew­ish iden­ti­ties of their stu­dents. In our cur­rent cli­mate, syn­a­gogues and Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions are still help­ing young Jew­ish fam­i­lies bal­ance their reli­gious iden­ti­ties and their place in the broad­er Amer­i­can land­scape. Jew­ish Sun­day Schools pro­vides a refresh­ing and hope­ful overview of how our fore­moth­ers answered that call