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United States Jewish Education

Jewish Day Schools, Synagogue Education, Informal Education, Conclusion

Throughout history, the Jewish people have been a minority culture and religion. In times of peace, Judaism thrived; in times of hostility, Jews protected themselves from outside forces. In the United States today, Jews face relatively little hostility. Jews are allowed to live wherever they please, they can study and engage in any profession, and they may practice their religion openly. Fighting anti-Semitism is no longer the rallying cry that it once was for the Jewish community. The state of Israel, another center of Jewish cohesiveness, now stands strong in the Middle East and American Jews no longer worry about Israel's permanence as a nation. Furthermore, most Jewish people in the world today are free to leave their countries and move to Israel. Jews cannot rally around the cries to free Soviet Jewry as they did in the late 1980s. Those Ethiopian Jews who dreamt of immigration to Israel are already being resettled. While small pockets of Jews still live in countries that do not allow them to leave, the vast majority of Jews around the world are free.

The multitude of issues that propelled Jewish communities in the United States to come together–and drew individual Jews to work together for the good of the Jewish people worldwide–no longer have the urgency that they once did. Jews in the United States can live without Judaism; many immerse themselves in their secular lives without feeling the loss of the richness of their Jewish heritage. Many Jewish parents are failing to pass their Jewish religion and heritage to their children. In fact, less than half of all children born to at least one Jewish parent (or a parent who was born Jewish) are being raised as Jews, according to Alice Goldstein and Sylvia Fishman's 1993 study. Furthermore, the rate of intermarriage is at an all time high. Almost 50 percent of American Jews married since 1985 did not marry within the Jewish faith. Thus, the overriding concern for American Jewry in the twenty-first century is Jewish continuity–the continued existence of the Jewish people, its culture, traditions, practices and beliefs.

There are three main denominations in the U.S. Jewish community: the Orthodox, who strictly follow the traditions of Jewish life and the basic code of Jewish law; the Conservative, who embrace the central rituals and laws of Judaism but adapt them to modern life; and the Reform, who preserve the spirit of the law, with the letter of the law as a guidepost for modern decision-making. Across all denominations and movements of Judaism, the response to threats of total assimilation and continuity is education. Jewish education is an important tool as community leaders look to ways to ensure the survival of Judaism for generations to come. Jonathan Sarna maintained in 1998 that "Jewish education serves as the vehicle through which we train successive generations of Jews to negotiate their own way as Jews, in the American arena" (p. 10). This mission is achieved through numerous educational frameworks: day schools, afternoon religious schools, Sunday schools, informal educational programs, university-based programs, and extensive adult education.

Jewish Day Schools

Day schools are private, independent schools that teach Jewish and secular education subjects, similar to other parochial schools in the United States. The Jewish subject matter typically focuses on Hebrew language, prayers, the Bible, customs, ceremonies and rituals, Jewish history, and the state of Israel. Most day schools are not affiliated with any particular congregation or synagogue, although most are connected to one of the three main denominations of Judaism.

Reform and Conservative Jews have long been ardent supporters of public education. Public schools have typically been seen as a place where children of different backgrounds could mix with–and learn about–each other in a safe environment. Jews have often been at the forefront of efforts to oppose educational options that would lead to segregated schools. Furthermore, many Jews have long felt that Jewish day schools are outdated and not appropriate for Jewish children brought up in the modern world. For instance, in 1870, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a prominent Reform Jewish leader declared, "Education of the young is the duty of the State and that religious instruction…is the duty of religious bodies. Neither ought to interfere with the other" (quoted in Sarna, p. 11).

In contrast, for Orthodox Jews, day schools–including yeshivas–where Torah and other religious subjects are the primary curricula, continue to be the sole avenue for educating children. Most Orthodox day schools belong to an umbrella organization called Torah Umesorah that provides curricula, teacher training, placement services, and special education supports to the Orthodox educational community. Some Orthodox day schools continue to use Yiddish as the language of instruction, while most day schools rely heavily upon Hebrew.

At the end of the twentieth century, day school enrollment–including that of non-Orthodox day schools–increased dramatically. A census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States conducted by Marvin Schick in 2000 calculated that 185,000 students were enrolled in Jewish day schools across the United States. About two-thirds of these students were in either New York or New Jersey, which strongly correlates to the large percentage of Orthodox Jews who live in these states. In fact, Orthodox schools accounted for 80 percent of the total enrollment in Jewish day schools during the 1998 to 1999 school year.

In all day schools, enrollment is higher in the younger grades. For Orthodox schools, this is true because of increased–and high–birthrates in their communities. In non-Orthodox day schools many parents believe that better opportunities exist in public or other private, non-Jewish schools for their older children when college admissions becomes a key decision factor. Furthermore, many communities do not have non-Orthodox Jewish high school options.

For Reform and Conservative Jews, day schools are seen as a solution to the multitude of Jewish youth growing up without knowledge or commitment to Judaism or a Jewish identity. Seen as a response to the Jewish continuity crisis, new day schools are cropping up across America. Goldstein and Fishman's 1993 research indicates that youth who receive Jewish day school education are less likely to intermarry and are more likely to raise their children as Jews.

Synagogue Education

While attendance at Jewish day schools increased markedly in the ten years prior to the beginning of the twenty-first century, most non-Orthodox Jewish children still receive the majority of their Jewish education in supplemental religious schools run by local synagogues. This mode of education allowed parents to avoid the fears of "ghettoization" of the day schools. Synagogue religious schools have long been given the task of educating Jewish youth in a wide range of subjects, including history, culture, holidays, Hebrew language, prayer, and Torah. Students in some congregations attend supplementary religious school one day per week, called Sunday school. Other students, especially those affiliated with the Conservative movement, attend approximately six hours per week, one and one-half hours on two days after "regular" school and three hours on Sunday morning. Much of the focus of supplementary school education is on preparing youth for the bar or bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen. Hence, enrollment often declines after bar/bat mitzvah age.

Attendance at synagogue religious school is the central mechanism for children to learn about Judaism. Because of the part-time nature of these educational programs, numerous challenges confront these schools. One is the obvious lack of time and sustained focus available to educators. Children attend with low levels of motivation and commitment after a long day in their secular school. An even bigger challenge is the personnel crisis in Jewish education. These supplementary school classes are often taught by teachers who, although committed Jews, know little about the subjects they teach. A study of Jewish educators in three communities in the United States found that close to 80 percent of the teachers in supplementary schools have neither a degree in Jewish studies nor certification as Jewish educators. In preschools, 10 percent of the teachers are not even Jewish. In one community the figure was as high as 21 percent according to the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education. Professional development opportunities are relatively scant as well.

However, a new generation of supplemental religious schools is emerging to refocus on both the personnel and continuity crises. Educational efforts are geared toward learners of all ages, including families. Teachers are participating in expanded educational opportunities. Synagogue communities are recognizing that if supplemental education is to be successful it will have to (1) span all age groups and (2) allow students to enter a "Jewish existence that they will recognize to be existentially, intellectually, and spiritually meaningful" (Pekarsyky, p. 39). Successful supplementary schools tend to be housed in synagogues where the educational programs are a high priority for the congregation as a whole, have favored status and commitment from all stakeholders (especially the rabbis and lay leadership), and are linked to the culture and mission of the synagogue.

Informal Education

One of the most important developments in Jewish education is the huge increase in participation in Jewish summer camps, youth groups, organized youth trips to Israel, and family and adult education. Summer camps are places were Jewish youth can interact with one another in uniquely Jewish environments. Camps allow participants to see the value of living as more than cultural Jews. Campers are able to gain respect and appreciation for engaging in daily Jewish ritual. They experience the power of group observance, and gain their own Jewish identity, independent of that of their parents.

Jewish youth groups are also instrumental in giving Jewish children the education they need to be committed Jews. Like camps, youth groups have many purposes beyond that of education. Social, athletic, and community service activities often attract Jewish youth who may not have attended Jewish day schools, supplemental religious schools, or camps. Thus, participation in Jewish youth groups is an important mechanism to reach out to all types of youth, particularly the unaffiliated. Youth groups are often housed in Jewish community centers and other cross-denominational frameworks.

Summer youth trips to Israel are a large part of the "curriculum" of Jewish education. It was estimated by the Commission of Jewish Education in North America in 1990 that approximately 25,000 American youth annually participate in educational trips to Israel. Some supplementary religious schools mandate participation in a class trip to Israel. Many Jewish federations, a community umbrella organization for all Jewish organizations in a city, provide scholarships to make it possible for youth to go to Israel on educational trips. The educational value of trips to Israel is well documented. Those youth who experience Israel firsthand are more committed ideologically to the state of Israel and to Judaism.

Informal adult education programs provide numerous opportunities for Jewish study. Small groups of adults meet together in informal text study groups, attend retreats, and participate in noncredit courses offered by Jewish community centers, local Hebrew colleges and synagogues. Family education is considered one of the newest models of Jewish education. Young and old alike come together as families to focus on Jewish learning, holiday workshops, and cultural events.


The end of the twentieth century saw a revival of interest in Jewish education. Day schools increased in popularity across all denominations. Synagogues refocused on providing quality, meaningful education to both children and adults either in a religious school setting or through adult and family education. Informal educational opportunities for youth expanded. Although it is true that, in part, this is due to the traditional Jewish emphasis on education, the increased financial support by Jewish federations and individual philanthropists was aimed at attacking trends of intermarriage, assimilation, and Jewish continuity. Formal and informal Jewish education is the rallying cry.


COHEN, BURTON, and SCHMIDA, MIRIAM. 1997. "Informal Education in Israel and North America." Journal of Jewish Education 63 (2):50–58.

FISHMAN, SYLVIA B., and GOLDSTEIN, ALICE. 1993. When They Are Grown They Will Not Depart: Jewish Education and the Jewish Behavior of American Adults. CMJS Research Report 8. Waltham, MA: Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

GAMORAN, ADAM, et al. 1998. The Teachers Report: A Portrait of Teachers in Jewish Schools. New York: Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education.

GOLDSTEIN, ALICE, and FISHMAN, SYLVIA B. 1993. Teach Your Children When They Are Young: Contemporary Jewish Education in the United States. CMJS Research Report 10. Waltham, MA: Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

HOLTZ, BARRY W.; DORPH, GAIL Z.; and GOLDRING, ELLEN B. 1997. "Educational Leaders as Teacher Educators: The Teacher Educator Institute: A Case from Jewish Education." Peabody Journalof Education 72 (2):147–166.

ISAACS, LEORA W., ed. 1994. Youth Trip to Israel: Rationale and Realization. New York: Jewish Education Service of North America.

PEKARSYKY, DANIEL. 1997. "The Place of Vision in Jewish Educational Reform." Journal of Jewish Education 63:31–40.

REIMER, JOSEPH. 1990. The Synagogue as a Context for Jewish Education. Cleveland, OH: The Commission on Jewish Education in North America.

SARNA, JONATHAN D. 1998. "American Jewish Education in Historical Perspective." Journal of Jewish Education 64:8–21.

SCHICK, MARVIN. 2000. A Census of Jewish Schools in the United States. New York: Avi Chai Foundation.


CENTRAL CONFERENCE OF AMERICAN RABBIS. 2001. "Resolutions Adopted by the CCAR." <www.ccarnet.org/reso>.



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