Jewish Education

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Jewish Leadership = Jewish Education


  The word education is derived from the Latin word ducere which means “to lead” because in all cultures and among all peoples the educated lead the community. Among our European ancestors, whether in Russia or Poland, Germany or Hungary and particularly in Lithuania, the most learned Jews were viewed as our leaders and “culture heroes”. That tradition, although long ignored in America, has not been entirely abandoned because it became evident around the middle of this century that our Sunday schools and afternoon schools were unable to teach our children what they needed to know to maintain our tradition and insure Jewish survival. Even as our numbers declined by reason of intermarriage and a low birth rate, Jewish genius invented two methods of insuring our survival yet again.

   In 1962, the peak enrollment year in Jewish schooling in North America including Canada, saw the enrollment of 540,000 children in our supplemental schools. In 1986 a 55% decline in that number had occurred. By then, however, our day schools had grown from an enrollment of 60, 000 in 1962 to an enrollment of 130,000 in 1986. Since then, the high birth rate among orthodox Jews, the growth of the conservative “Solomon Schechter” day schools and the introduction of Reform day schools have boosted day school enrollment even more. Today, 75% of all day schools are under orthodox supervision, two percent are Reform and 33% of such schools are associated with the Historical School of Judaism also known as the Conservative movement.  There are now about 900 Jewish day schools in North America.

   Several conditions have contributed to this development.  The first is the dispersal of the Jewish community from centers of high Jewish concentration to smaller communities all over the continent. The second is the establishment of Israel and the growing interest in the Hebrew language all augmented by dissatisfaction with the public schools.

   In addition to the day school development we have developed one more important strategy to transmit our culture and civilization to the next generation. That was the introduction of a Jewish curriculum into the universities and colleges of this land. Before 1965, only Jewish sponsored schools of higher education had such a curriculum. The exceptions were Columbia and Harvard universities which did have professors of Jewish history before 1965.

   Then, in the mid-sixties we organized committees in every state and city to influence the local universities to appoint professors of Judaic studies. Under the leadership of the late Rabbi Isaac Klein we succeeded in doing so here in Buffalo so that both the State University College and the University of Buffalo offer such courses. There are now more than 300 institutions of higher education which include Judaica studies of which 27 offer graduate degrees. Included in these universities and colleges are numerous Christian schools which employ professors of Judaism and teach, in the main, Jewish history. Many university presses now include the publication of Jewish books as do unaffiliated academic presses such as the University Press of America.

   Because 80% of Jews of college age attend college while only 40% of Americans generally do so, we have succeeded in giving Jewish students who shunned Sunday schools and despised afternoon schools an opportunity to enroll in Jewish courses for college credit. Taught by professors of Judaism these courses are well attended by both Jewish and non-Jewish students and have succeeded in supporting our survival mechanisms by giving us Jews who know their tradition and are proud of it.

   We have done yet more to insure our survival. We have also developed numerous Jewish community agencies which we will review in the coming weeks in this column.


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