Re-imagining Jewish Education in the United States: Lessons from a 20th Century Visionary

By Dr Gil Graff

In his superbly researched and elegantly written book, The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education, Jonathan Krasner describes the vision and work of Samson Benderly and his “boys” in developing a progressive supplementary school model, beginning 1910. The “Benderly boys” were committed to what Benderly described as a double school system: “We must have a system of Hebrew schools which our children can attend after their daily attendance in the public schools,” Benderly affirmed. For fifty years, the Benderly boys and the model of Jewish education they promoted was a dominant force in Jewish education in the United States.

Krasner observes that, notwithstanding their pre-eminence in the field, the Benderly boys (and girls) were by no means the only voices or actors in Jewish education. Benderly, Krasner notes, was an “unreformed opponent” of Jewish day school education until his death (1941). Day schools were, to be sure, a marginal phenomenon in the United States during the first half of the 20th century; in 1940, there were but 30 such schools in the U.S., serving a total of 7000 students.

Among the actors operating outside the framework of Benderly and his proteges and the Talmud Torah system that they championed was Joseph Lookstein, who served as rabbi at New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun, 1923-1979. Lookstein’s initial appointment at KJ was as English speaking rabbi (while yet in rabbinical school), serving under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Zebulun Margolies – known by the acronym RaMaZ. It was Lookstein who, in 1937, one year after the death of RaMaZ and his appointment as senior rabbi of the congregation, founded RaMaZ Academy under the auspices of Kehilath Jeshurun.

In an interview published in the American Hebrew in 1940, Lookstein described the overarching goal of Ramaz. “The principal aim of the Ramaz Academy is to build a well-integrated Jewish personality, one which should experience no emotional or intellectual clash between being a loyal Jew and a loyal American at the same time.” Responding to those who questioned the attention accorded general education at Ramaz, Lookstein noted that knowledge “is an emanation of the Divine.” The Talmud avers that “the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth.” Accordingly, “study is a form of worship;” there is no dichotomy between “sacred” and “secular” knowledge.

Recognizing the need for well-qualified Jewish educators, Lookstein helped establish the Hebrew Teachers Training School for Girls, and served as its (volunteer) principal for ten years. Though championing the model of the “integrated yeshiva,” Lookstein was well aware that a majority of children involved in Jewish education attended complementary (Lookstein’s term) religious education programs. In a talk on “Strategies for Religious Education” (1953), he suggested efforts in support of ending the (public) school day at 2:00 or 2:30, affording the opportunity for as many as 5 days per week of complementary religious instruction, in addition to Sunday.

Ever the optimist, it is jarring to read Lookstein’s concern expressed at a Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) convention, in 1975. Lookstein pointed to an emerging trend toward Orthodox isolationism from collective engagement with Jews of other streams. He likened contemporary, ill-conceived rabbinic prohibitions against cooperation with other Jews to earlier, pointless and detrimental bans against Hasidism and Zionism. Lookstein observed that the great Orthodox rabbis in America in the first half of the twentieth century – no less zealous about halakhah or less learned than the present generation – had refrained from creating such cleavages; he urged “understanding and solidarity.”

That, today, more than 200,000 students are enrolled in 750+ day schools – among which schools are many committed to the “integration” that Lookstein championed – is testimony to the power of his vision. That he recognized the importance of imagining alternative frameworks of Jewish learning and experience to the setting that he considered most promising, to meet people “where they were” in thinking about their children’s education, is instructive. That Joseph Lookstein urged (and shared in) a coalition of Jews of diverse perspectives to strengthen the vitality of Jewish life is likewise part of the inspiring legacy of a Jewish educator for the ages.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.