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‘the End of the Matter, All Having Been Heard’

I have been pleased and somewhat amused by the outbursts which my editorial “The Beginning of Wisdom” evoked from a number of Jewish educators.

This editorial was in the nature of a comment on an article “Religion and Nationalism in Hebrew Education, written by a old and respected Hebrew educator and writer, Mr. Daniel Persky, which appeared in the Hebrew periodical, Hadoar, October 26, 1934. In it, this veteran Hebraist and Zionist expresses his complete disillusionment with the non-religious and secular Hebrew education of American Hebrew schools and appeals for a positive and maximum teaching of religion, as well as for religious ceremonies and rituals in these schools. This article of Mr. Persky’s was addressed to the Hebrew educators of America. It was commented upon extensively in the Yiddish press of New York. It seems strange that none of the educators who hastened to answer my editorial took the trouble to answer the article of Mr. Persky or the writers who commented on it. It is only after I lifted Mr. Persky’s article out of its comparative obscurity in a Hebrew periodical and brought it to the ##tention of t## English-reading Jewish public that these educators became excited about it. Why? Is it because they feared that those who largely support the bureaus might finally become aware of the problem which Mr. Persky raised and might begin to ask embarrassing questions?…

I question whether Dr. Jacob S. Golub director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Cincinnati, who rushed to the defense of Hebrew schools, really read Mr. Persky’s article or, for that matter, my editorial. Nowhere in my editorial did I assert that “most of the Talmud Torah graduates have gone over to the ranks of Communism,” and nowhere did I “charge Talmud Torahs with being breeding places of Communism.” It is Mr. Persky who expressed himself on this subject and even he did not use the word “most.” “Especially hundreds (not most!) of the graduates of Hebrew schools and teachers’ training schools in New York… turned their backs upon us and became fiery Communists who despise us and our sanctities.” Dr. Golub is either guilty of irresponsible writing, or has difficulty with simple Hebrew and English texts.

Somehow all the letter writers who felt called upon to reply to my editorial overlooked the plain fact that nowhere in the article did I criticize all the Hebrew schools and bureaus. I was much more conservative than Mr. Persky. I stated that “this type of education (the secular and nonreligious) was fostered in quite a number of Hebrew schools and bureaus of Jewish education during the last few decades.” It appears that each one of these gentlemen took this criticism to apply to himself, to his school, or to this bureau. Why? There is an old Yiddish proverb, “Aufn Ganef brennt die huetel.”…

Dr. ediden of Buffalo thinks that the criticism of Mr. Persky and mine can be answered by turning the tables and launching an attack upon the Sunday schools. He even draws upon his luxurious imagination for a fictitious picture of my particular religious school to drive home his point. But this is an old and sorry dodge which used to work but which works no longer. The inadequacies of the present-day Sunday schools do not necessarily make for the adequacies of present-day Hebrew schools. The deficiencies of the one do not establish the proficiencies of the other. Each system of Jewish education must be judged on its own merits. I frequently have been outspoken in my criticism of the shortcomings of the Sunday school system, and have time and again called attention to its lack of emphasis on the study of the Hebrew language, to its very short study period, its lack of adequately trained teachers, proper textbooks, etc. So have many other Rabbis. Rabbis who have Sunday schools have taken this and similar criticism (much of it coming with great gusto and overweening self-righteousness from the same sources which have criticized my editorial) in good grace and have attempted to profit from it. But evidently some Hebrew school educators and directors can dish it out but can’t take it!…

Dr. Ediden states: “The actual time devoted to instruction (two hours a week) is an insult to the four-thousand-year-old Jewish heritage.” The implication of this is that children who attend Hebrew schools devote much more time to their Hebrew studies. This, of course, is not true. Those who have read Mr. Israel Konovitz’s illuminating study, “My School” published, 1934, by the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York), which is based on actual records which he accumulated as principal of the Downtown Talmud Torah of New York City, one of the largest Hebrew schools in the country, know that “about seventy per cent of the pupils, even in such a well organized school as the Downtown Talmud Torah, are found in the classes of the first three years” and that “the annual turnover is still very grea so that the majority of those attending the Talmud Torah do not have the opportunity of remai#no for three years.” (From Dr. Benderly’s Introduction). Inasmuch as most children attending Temple religious schools stay on until they complete an eight or nine-year course (of two or three and, in some higher grades, of four hours per week) it does not require much figuring to arrive at the conclusion that Hebrew school children do not receive more hours of instruction, all told, than religious school children.

A few more facts brought out by Mr. Konovitz are apropos of our discussion: “Ninety-nine per cent of the pupils of the Talmud Torah and perhaps more, do not get to a point where they read Hebrew literature nor will they ever write or speak Hebrew.”

“Only two per cent of the pupils ever reach the seventh grade of the Talmud Torah.”

“During the first four years, from eighty to ninety per cent of the children drop out.”

“Because of the linguistic, and literary objective, Jewish education became secondary with us to language study and, quite naturally, all subjects taught became merely a stepping stone to language. The Torah and the Prophets, History, and even an abstract of the Shulchan Aruch, in fact, everything became in the hands of the Hebrew teacher a chrestomathy for the study of language and literature. As a result the great majority of our pupils leave school without any proper knowledge of Torah and Judaism, without any proper Jewish education and, also—without any literature and Hebrew.”… (“My School,” p. 59).

Mr. Konovitz, unlike those educators who are more concerned with apologetics than with truth-finding, has the courage to put on the cover of his book of honest stock-taking: “We have gone astray. We have led others astray.” He suggests a radical revision of the curriculum of Hebrew schools whereby the course of study in the first four school years, wherein most of the Hebrew school population is found, will be centered almost entirely around the synagogue, public worship and the study of the meaning, ceremonies and observances of the Jewish festivals and Holy Days! The study of the Hebrew language would be only a means to this end. The main objective would be not “the teaching of a vocabulary” but the integrating, as far as possible, of Jewish children into the full religious life of the Jewish people.

Mr. Konovitz quotes another Hebrew educator, Dr. M. Z. Lavie, who, writing in the “Hadoar,” said: “The Hebrew teacher foresook the synagogue, and this defection deprived him of the last vestige of his influence.”…

Dr. Golub defends his uncertain position on the teaching of religion in Jewish schools by saying, “We seek a realistic (sic!) religion that can sincerely express us as moderns and Jews and if we have not yet found it we refuse to drape our uncertainty with the patriotic mantle of the fathers.” Quite so. But why become teachers of religion and directors of Jewish education if you have not yet found that realistic religion? Why not wait until you have found it before you set about teaching it to Jewish children? If, on the other hand, you are not teaching this realistic religion which you have not yet discovered, then Mr. Persky’s criticism and mine and those of others, that religion is not being taught in quite a number of Hebrew schools, is clearly not “slander.”…

Dr. Golub thinks that he makes a point by asking me why the Jewish Welfare Fund campaigns in Cleveland fail to reach their quotas. Does the gentleman really wish to suggest that the success of similar campaigns in Cincinnati is to be attributed to the generation of Hebrew scholars which he, Dr. Golub, raised in that stronghold of Reform Judaism?…

There is nothing to be gained by beclouding a real, even if unpleasant, issue by misrepresentation, partisan polemics, or by dragging in unrelated matter. My editorial was not written in any spirit of hostility to Hebrew schools or to bureaus of Jewish education. I helped to found the Cleveland Bureau of Jewish Education ten years ago and was its first president for nearly eight years. During that time I devoted almost as much time to the problems of the Hebrew schools of Cleveland, especially their financing, as I did to my own religious school. I made the study of Hebrew compulsory in all grades of my religious school in the face of considerable opposition. I established week-day periods of Hebrew instruction for children who desired additional Hebrew study. In my editorial I merely sought to call attention to a phase of Hebrew education in America which, in my humble judgment, needs rectification. Judging from the numerous letters which I have received, there are many other people throughout the country who feel as I do….

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