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During the nineteenth century a large number of American Jews abandoned traditional religious observance. This led to the United States being dubbed “di treifene medina” (the irreligious land). One of the key factors in this defection from tradition was the lack of meaningful Jewish education for the young. Attempts to provide Jewish education were largely unsuccessful, because parents opted to take advantage of the free public school education that became available during the middle of the nineteenth century.
For example, in 1841 Baltimore Hebrew Congregation opened a day school that taught both limudei kodesh (religious subjects) and limudei chol (secular subjects). The school was fairly successful, and by 1851 it had an enrollment of about 200. Unfortunately, the establishment of free public school education led to a decline in enrollment and the school ceased to exist in 1870. Parents chose to send their children to public school rather than a Jewish religious school, not realizing that they were paving the way for their offspring to assimilate.
Jacob Jackson Noah Pages 359-370 of the 1870 Report of the Secretary of the Interior to the Third Session of the Forty-First Congress, Volume II, under the heading “Report of the Commissioner of Education,” contains a section titled Hebrew Education written by Jacob J. Noah. (This report may be downloaded from http://tinyurl.com/3j6x5g4.)
Jacob (1830-1897) was the second son of Mordechai Manuel and Rebecca Esther (Jackson) Noah. His father was a playwright, a distinguished journalist, a politician and a proto-Zionist who served at one time as Consul to Tunis. Mordechai was also an outspoken leader of New York Jewry during the first part of the nineteenth century who unsuccessfully proposed the founding of a haven for Jews in upstate New York.[i]
Jacob studied law. He settled in the Minnesota Territory not long after it was established by Congress in 1849. While residing there he served in various judicial and legislative positions. In 1857 he declined the nomination for Delegate in Congress to accept the position of Clerk of the Supreme Court of the State, to which office he was elected by a large majority.
When the [Civil] War broke out Judge Noah, who had settled in the West and become prominent in Minnesota, went to the front as Captain in the Second Minnesota Regiment, participating in several battles. In the Summer of 1862 he was connected with Andrew Johnson’s Provisional Government of Tennessee, and later was appointed one of the Attorneys General and Chancellors of the State by Gov. Brownlow. He removed to Washington subsequently, and was connected with the census of 1880 and of 1890. He was also correspondent for a number of Western papers. At the time of his death he was a member of the Board of Pension Appeals in the Interior Department.[ii]
The 1870 Report On Hebrew Education One can gain insight into the state of Jewish education in America in the 1860s from Jacob Jackson Noah’s report cited above. All quotes below are from this document.
Judge Noah begins his report by pointing out that, “It is safe to assert that, although the Israelites are of all nationalities, and scattered promiscuously over the face of the world, they are the only people who can fairly be classed as universally educated. There may be a few who cannot read or write, but this number is insignificant. Indeed, it is asserted by those who claim to know, that no Israelite can be found who cannot read or write, if not in their modern or domiciliary language, certainly in the Hebrew.”
He then goes on to give a long synopsis of Jewish history from ancient times to the present referencing Jewish education where appropriate. Noah points out that “An examination of Hebrew education presents six post-biblical developments: First, the schools of the Sopherim; second, the schools of the Mishna; third, the schools of the Talmud; fourth, the scientific schools of Spain; fifth, the exclusive talmudic schools of France, Germany, and Poland; and sixth, the modern schools of Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain, and America.”
Turning specifically to America during the latter half of the nineteenth century, he asserts that “The American Israelite undoubtedly rejoices in our system of free schools, and watches with anxiety and hope the progress of American education. He is grateful for the blessings of free government, and therefore is in accord with the wisdom of Aristotle, who asserts that ‘the most effective way of preserving a state is to bring up the citizens in the spirit of the Government; to fashion, and, as it were, to cast them in the mould of the Constitution.’ ”
American Jews paid a high price for their “rejoicing” in the public school system. Noah may not have realized the full implications of what was happening to Jewish children who had little or no Jewish education. Nonetheless, he did write:
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Last month’s column sketched the myriad of social programs in which the Orthodox American communal worker and leader Adolphus S. Solomons (1826-1910) was involved. Adolphus married Rachel Seixas Phillips (1828-1881), a descendant of colonial patriot families and together they had eight daughters and a son.
There are many observant Jews who contributed much to secular and Jewish life in America and yet have, unfortunately, been essentially forgotten. One such man is Adolphus Simson Solomons (1826-1910).
Cholera was officially recognized to be of epidemic proportions in New York City on June 26, 1832. The epidemic was at its peak in July and 3,515 out of a population of about 250,000 died. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) Sadly, in 1832 there were no effective treatments available for those who contracted this disease.
As this is our third column on the Reverend Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, we’ll begin with a summary of his life.
In last month’s column we traced the early career of Reverend Dr. Henry (Chaim) Pereira Mendes and described his extraordinary service to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York where he served as hazan (chazzan) and minister from 1877 to 1923 and then as minister emeritus from 1924 until his passing in 1937.
Beginning around 1840 the Reform movement began asserting itself as a major force in American Judaism. Indeed, with the rising tide of Reform during the nineteenth century it looked as if Orthodox Judaism might disappear. Many synagogues that had been founded by observant Jews and had remained for years true to halacha found their memberships increasingly calling for the institution of reforms and the abandonment of commitment to authentic Judaism.
Last month we sketched the life of Manuel Josephson (1729-1796), who immigrated to New York in the 1740s. Manuel was one of the few learned Jews residing in America in the 18th century. His talents were recognized by Congregation Shearith Israel, and he served on the synagogue’s bet din for several years and as its parnas (president) in 1762. He earned his living as a merchant.
The overwhelming majority of Jews who came to America before the Revolutionary War did not have an extensive Jewish education. One exception was Manuel Josephson (1729-1796), who was born and educated in Germany. His extensive knowledge of Judaism qualified him to serve on the beis din of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/jewish-education-in-america-circa-1870/2011/11/30/
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