Learning from our Past, Building our Future (Part 2):

How Jewish History teaches us to create a positive community for tomorrow

by Leslie Ginsparg Klein

Generations of Jews have grappled with the same issues that face our Jewish community today. Their experiences provide us with suggestions as to how we can create a positive Jewish community today and ensure the commitment of our children. Colonials Jews provided us with two suggestions: education and infrastructure. Two important innovators from the early twentieth century, Sarah Schenirer and Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, give us two more answers.

In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, the Orthodox community found itself losing its youth in shocking numbers. While both boys and girls assimilated, girls were leaving Orthodoxy in even greater proportions. Some members of the community, including an unknown seamstress who would go on to become one of the most famous personages in Jewish history, identified the cause as a lack of quality Jewish education.

In the decades before the founding of Bais Yaakov, the movement for Jewish education for girls, parents not only allowed their daughters to attend Polish elementary schools and high schools beyond the requisite years, but many encouraged the girls’ intellectual pursuits. Some wealthy Orthodox Jews, or those who lived in small towns without high schools, hired private tutors to teach their daughters Polish, French, mathematics and science. While it could be considered bittul Torah to teach a boy secular subjects, no such consideration existed in the education of women. On the contrary, Orthodox Jews considered it preferable that women should spend the time acquiring secular skills, so they could later use them to help support the continued learning of the men in their family. One rabbi, in looking for a shidduch for his sister boasted that she knew how to write Hebrew, Polish and German fluently and had knowledge of Russian as well. These were qualities that could get one a good shidduch in those days.

But as a result of their exposure to secular learning, girls experienced a great disparity between their intellectual engagement with secular studies and their informal training in the laws and traditions of Yiddishkeit. Studying secular subjects and attending secular schools introduced girls to a new and different set of values, which often led them to adopt changes in their lives incongruous with Orthodox Judaism and to leave their frum communities. Members of the Orthodox community, including Sarah Schenirer and various rabbis, blamed this development on the girls’ lack of any significant Jewish education. They believed that the home no longer provided an adequate Jewish foundation and that the messages girls received in secular schools undermined their informal Jewish education at home. They felt that girls possessed no tools with which to maintain their frumkeit once exposed to secular Polish culture and society.

While Sarah Schenirer saw boys and men involved in intense Jewish learning and gaining spiritual inspiration from their rebbe, she viewed women’s religious lives as empty. She perceived girls and young women growing disconnected from religion and tradition, and blamed this distance on their lack of Jewish education. She became determined to teach women and girls about Jewish tradition, and she did.

Bais Yaakov was phenomenally successful. Bais Yaakov introduced girls to a new world of studying Jewish subjects, to limudei kodesh, and trained them to be leaders and educators for the next generation. It provided not only an education, but a way to live a frum life in a challenging time and environment. It imparted a self-confidence and pride in being frum, as indicated by the story of the Bais Yaakov student who when teased about being observant, responded with pride (LINK TO PART ONE). It helped create a new generation of Torah personalities that went on to influence the following generations.

That is our third answer. Educating our children. Both as parents in the home and ensuring our children have the proper school and school environment to give them a strong foundation and pride in Judaism.

The experiences of the Jews of Colonial America and early twentieth century Europe illuminate the need for the fourth factor: infrastructure. A community need infrastructure. Schools. Institutions. Abigaill Levy Franks’ children suffered for the lack of it. Rebecca Samuels and Sarah Schenirer saw the need for it. But for hundreds of years, the American Jewish community did not have it. That changed, in large part, due to the efforts of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. He, like Sarah Schenirer, was a master educator.

When Rav Shraga Feivel arrived in America in 1913, he found an American Jewish community that had not built a strong infrastructure, especially in the realm of education. When large numbers of East European Jewish immigrants began arriving in the 1880s, most chose to send their children to public schools. Between 1880 and 1914, two million East European Jews immigrated to America and over two-thirds of this number settled in New York. By 1914, almost all of the 275,000 elementary-aged (6-14) Jewish children attended public elementary school.

Rav Shraga Feivel determined to change this reality. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was born in Hungary in 1886. Studying under leading rabbis in Hungary, he became inspired to try to teach those Jews who were not religious about Jewish life and traditions and attempt to bring them closer to frumkeit—a true forerunner of the kiruv movment. He married at age 22 and in 1913, moved to America. He taught at a number of Talmud Torah afternoon schools, but wanted to accomplish more than these programs allowed him to. In 1921, he accepted a position teaching at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, then an afternoon program that ended in 8th grade. He became principal, and under his leadership, the school improved and expanded. He successfully persuaded parents to keep their graduating children in the school, and gradually built a high school. This became America’s first Yeshiva-Mesivta high school, teaching Jewish as well as secular studies. But he wasn’t satisfied with building that one school alone. Before his death in 1948, Rav Shraga Feivel assisted in the founding of other yeshivos as well: Bais Medresh Gevoha in Lakewood; Chaim Berlin in New York, Telshe in Cleveland. He founded a kollel in a then unknown town called Monsey, and most significantly, he founded Torah Umesorah – the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, the organization most responsible for building an educational infrastructure in America. He built the backbone of Jewish education in America.

Like the Bais Yaakov student who was told she must be the only girl of her generation to be observant, Reb Shraga Feivel was criticized for being old-fashioned. When chided for not living in the 20th century, he responded, “You are right. I am a man of the 21st century.” Indeed he was a man of the future. He understood that to build a future, a community needs infrastructure. He created that.

Sarah Schenirer & Rav Shraga Feival saw the problem. They saw disengagement and assimilation. And they formulated a solution: education and infrastructure. They asked the question, how can we create a positive Jewish community for our children? And they answered: education and infrastructure.

They both saw that the community’s approach to education was no longer working, and while remaining staunchly traditional, pushed for innovation and creativity. They show us that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A commitment to tradition does not preclude an understanding that if we remain complacent and don’t continue to move forward with respect to giving our children the best educational opportunities—the best educational grounding to address the challenges of the modern world—we will be failing them.

Like with attitude and environment, education needs to be a positive experience. Parents and educators should not constantly harp on what children are doing wrong. And while scare tactics might work in the short term, they won’t engender a positive approach to mitzvah observance. Boys are told that a recent tragedy occurred because they talk in shul. Girls are told that Moshiach is not coming because they wear their hair too long. This is not a helpful form of chinuch today. Even if these statements are true, the impact can be far more destructive than the gain. How is the boy who struggles with davening going to feel about his self worth? Will the girl with long hair feel inspired or feel ashamed and angry? Will they view their teachers as loving role models or view them as out-of-touch? Will children feel happy and lucky to be frum after hearing a speech designed to guilt and shame them into observance? Or will they chas v’shalom feel that they don’t belong in the frum world, that they’ll never be good enough so why bother? Judaism is a beautiful, all-encompassing lifestyle, but I fear our children are not getting that message. Instead, they are learning to associate frumkeit with criticism and negativity.

Certainly there are times for discipline and for tochacha, but remember that the Gemara says, smoel doche v’yamin mikareves. For every small reprimand, there should be an even greater act of love. Psychologist and parenting expert Sarah Chana Radcliffe describes an 80/20 rule. To build a healthy relationship, where the child wants to emulate and accept the values of the parent/educator, 80 percent of communications should be positive, whereas only 20 percent should be negative. Oftentimes, instead of criticizing behavior, the same goal can be achieved by presenting a good alternative. Parents and teachers should focus on presenting a positive, compelling vision of a Jewish world that children will want to be a part of. And when they do deliver tochacha, do so with sechel and common sense.

Infrastructure is still a priority and a problem. Whereas in the past, there were barely any institutions, today, in some areas, there are more than the community can afford. To have a truly strong infrastructure, the Jewish community needs to think seriously about funding priorities and be smarter about defining what the community needs. Too many organizations have built grand structures only to not be able to afford them when the economy worsened. Other communities have suffered when groups splintered, competing for communal resources and drawing those resources away from organizations that need them.

Why are there so many breakaway organizations? At times, those in charge refuse to consider other voices and be inclusive. Other times, those who disagree are too quick to breakaway. Both sides are not trying hard enough to make it work. But even worse, at times groups splinter not because of legitimate ideological differences, but because of personal animosity.

Whatever the reason, there are cities that have multiple schools when they don’t have enough students to properly support one. The ones who most suffer from this are the children. I don’t think one school or shul fits all and there are communities that desperately need more institutions. But in order to have a truly strong infrastructure, the number of institutions should be proportional to the population and what it can afford.

Jewish history does not have all the answers to contemporary questions, but it certainly makes some powerful suggestions. If we want to have a successful community tomorrow, we need to work on our environment, attitude, education, and infrastructure today. Those are the factors that have made the difference between success and failure in our past and would likewise positively impact our future. I hope that by seeing ourselves in the Jews of the past, learning from their mistakes and triumphs, we can, with Hashem’s help, raise happy, successful frum children and create a healthy Jewish community for tomorrow. [n]

leslie bio pic copy

Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is the Dean of Secular Studies at Maalot Baltimore. She previously taught at Touro College, Hebrew Theological College, Gratz College and has lectured internationally. She holds a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies from New York University.

[n] For the history of Sarah Schenier and Bais Yaakov, see my doctoral dissertation, Defining Bais Yaakov: A Historical Study of Yeshivish Orthodox Girls High School Education in America, 1963—1984; for Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, see Rav Shraga Feivel by Yonason Rosenblum.

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22 Responses

  1. Mordechai says:

    Thanks for the important lessons.

    “In 1921, he accepted a position teaching at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, then an afternoon program that ended in 8th grade. He became principal, and under his leadership, the school improved and expanded. He successfully persuaded parents to keep their graduating children in the school, and gradually built a high school. This became America’s first Yeshiva-Mesivta high school, teaching Jewish as well as secular studies.”

    1) Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was a day school even before the arrival of R. Mendlowitz, not an afternoon Talmud Torah which then transformed to an day school, like some other institutions.

    2) Talmudical Academy, founded by Rabbi Dr. Revel in Manhattan, preceded Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn by a number of years as a dual curriculum Yeshiva-Mesivta high school.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    Mordechai is correct. I happened to have just recently researched Torah Vodaas and Rav Revel

  3. Reb Yid says:

    Yes, it’s all about blending tradition and innovation to create a healthier and more meaningful Jewish experience. Of course, this began much earlier than the time period discussed here.

    Rebecca Gratz (along with Isaac Leeser) pioneered Jewish education by establishing the first Jewish Sunday Schools, for boys and girls alike. Both Gratz and Leeser were observant Jews but did not shy away from integrating elements from the larger society (such as Sunday schools) into the American Jewish landscape.

    Later, of course, in the 20th century we see how Judith Kaplan Eisenstein had the first Bat Mitzvah. While at the time this innovation was denounced by many traditionalists, today the Bat Mitzvah is taken for granted even for most Orthodox Jews.

  4. DavidF says:

    “Boys are told that a recent tragedy occurred because they talk in shul. Girls are told that Moshiach is not coming because they wear their hair too long.”

    These well-worn cliches are not very helpful. I attended Charedi schools throughout my childhood and never heard this talk, nor have my children ever heard of this type of talk in their Charedi schools. B”H, contrary to what many may believe, most Charedi [non-hassidic] institutions offer a very normal and well-rounded positive experience and portrayal of Torah values.

    With each successive post of hers, where Dr. Ginsparg-Klein posts these types of arguments, I become more and more suspicious of an agenda that preaches tolerance, but actually focuses primarily on the negative vis a vis Charedi Judaism.

  5. dr. bill says:

    despite reliance on a rather partial (or perhaps enhanced) history, the article tells a compelling story. I think the history of the first half of the 20th century teaches us many important lessons but the ability of the some members community to maintain their traditions while integrating into society is one of many important ones. Ironically, as the benefits of those efforts came to fruition in the second half of the century (an orthodox jew hired at top-tier new york law firm ~ 1960 or an investment banker proudly wearing a kippa ~ 1990), the slide to the right often degraded and in many locales abandoned the rigorous secular education that many students of previous generations received. what were viewed by their builders as an ideal Jewish life in the new environment, became a be’dieved for others, an infrastructure that ought be dismantled.

  6. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    Mordechai and Jewish Observer — I’ll double check my sources after Purim. Reb Yid, I would argue that the melding of tradition and innovation is almost as old as tradition itself. It is only in more recent times that this practice has come under attack.

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    a good source on these kinds of facts is R Aaron Rakeffet

  8. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    DavidF, I’m confused as to how an article that showcases the contributions of Sarah Schenirer and Rabbi Shraga Feival could be construed as negative towards Charedi education.

    The line you quoted–with comments made to students–describes something that occurred. I did not identify the schools within which this took place and I’m curious as to why you assume they are Charedi.

    I am really glad you and your children have had positive experiences in school. That is wonderful. Those schools and your teachers should be commended.

  9. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    Mordechai & Jewish Observer, you are right that Talmudical Academy predates Torah Vadaath. I apologize for the mistake. I hope the source which said Torah Vadaath was the first Mesivta high school simply made a mistake and not that it said so because it did not consider Talmudical Academy to be a real Mesivta high school. Oftentimes, perceptions of history are influenced by the dynamics of the Orthodox community today. As I’m sure you are both aware, in the early years, there was a lot of competition between REITS/Talmudical Academy and Torah Vadaath (William Helmreich writes about this in “The World of the Yeshiva”). It is also interesting to note that Torah Vadaath actually started as a religious Zionist elementary school.

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    “Torah Vadaath actually started as a religious Zionist elementary school”

    – Torah vodaas was the name of its namesake, Rav Reines’s yeshiva in Lida (not far from Radin). Rav Zeev Gold (prominent Zionist, after whom Machon Gold was named) was a founder of TV in ny.

    Out of curiosity what was your source?

  11. micha says:

    Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet wrote Artscroll and Jonathan Rosenblum shortly after “Reb Shraga Feivel – The Life and Times of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the Architect of Torah in America” was published. Rav Rakeffet, aside from being a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (on YU’s Gruss Campus, Yerushalayim ih”q), also has a PhD in Jewish History. His thesis is available as a book as Bernard Revel: Builder of American Orthodoxy. Needless to say, they have very different opinions about how Jewish education emerged in the United States. HaRav Rakeffet never received a reply.

    Torah VaDaath was originally named so as to reassure parents that they would prepare their sons with a solid secular education (va’ad). In a sense, R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz “owns” YU’s motto — “Torah uMada” — more than YU itself does.

  12. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    Jewish Observer, that’s in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism, p. 228.

  13. dr. bill says:

    Ms. Klein, if there was only one or two errors, it would be quickly rectified. But those listening to Rabbi Rakeffet’s Jewish history lectures on torah in the early 20th century, can point out a host of misleading assertions, that in large measure understate what was accomplished. Marc Shapiro’s forthcoming book will conjecture on the rationale that not just allows but encourages such behavior. These examples unfortunately go well beyond historical accuracy and have allowed “tampering” with the words of both chareidi icons, rishonim and of course other gedolim of previous generations when they are suspected of leniency or heresy.

    I feel bad that these issues hijacked comments from a thought-provoking article. But as many will agree, I believe, applying history to teach a relevant lesson, can lead to these type of digressions.

  14. Nachum says:

    Torah Vodaas’s original building in Williamsburg had two flags flying out front, that of the United States and that of Israel (or, rather, the Zionist flag, as Israel didn’t yet exist). The building is still standing and you can still see the the two bases of the flagpoles.

    YU’s main building has the exact same arrangement, but everyone knows YU is Zionist. R’ Mendelowitz was an admirer of both R’ Hirsch and R’ Kook (and R’ Revel of YU) and built his yeshiva according to their views, which would make it pretty much what we call “Modern Orthodox.” As noted above, “Mada” is how the Targum renders “Da’at,” which gives you an idea of what the school’s founders felt about secular education, and “Torah Vodaat” was the name of R’ Reines’ yeshiva in Latvia- as shown in one of the last issues of the Jewish Observer, it was part of a very large network of modern Zionist yeshivot in Eastern Europe- which tells you how they felt about Zionism and, again, secular studies.

    In the 1940’s, Torah Vodaat and Chaim Berlin (led by another admirer of R’ Kook) tried unsuccessfully to jointly open a secular college, which is also well documented.

    I believe R’ Rakeffet actually initially reacted to a footnote in the biography of R’ Hirsch by responding in an article of Jewish Action. The indirect response came in the next issue, and it was rather negative toward R’ Revel and YU. (Essentially, it said that R’ Shraga Feivel was the first to make a *real* yeshiva in the US, not a “theological seminary,” nudge nudge.)

  15. DavidF says:

    Dr. Klein,

    Those comments need not be specifically attributed to a Charedi school to know whom they are ascribed to. Last I checked, MO schools aren’t all that concerned with the length of a student’s hair.

    Furthermore, if your goal is not to specifically criticize Charedi schooling, why not give us readers a better idea of whom exactly you are critiquing? As someone involved in Jewish education, you must be aware that although Chassidic, Charedi, Yeshivish, and MO education all fit under the umbrella of “Jewish education”, they couldn’t be more different from one another. For the sake of clarity, it would behoove you to better articulate whom and what you find lacking in the respective system so that we can attempt to apply your insights to improve the system. Why the need for ambiguity when discussing something as important and in need of reform as education?

  16. Jewish Observer says:

    “as many will agree, I believe, applying history to teach a relevant lesson, can lead to these type of digressions”

    – history in and of itself is not the problem, as long as the basic facts check out

  17. mycroft says:

    dr. bill
    March 8, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    “Ms. Klein, if there was only one or two errors, it would be quickly rectified. But
    those listening to Rabbi Rakeffet’s Jewish history lectures on torah in the early 20th
    century, can point out a host of misleading assertions, that in large measure understate
    what was accomplished.”
    There are errors in anyone’s work-humans are fallible- the problem is when the
    “errors” show a systematic bias towards a position that one is trying to
    uphold. BTW a worse challenge for us is when mesorah gets distorted because a previous
    leader has positions that are not necessarily identical with ones current beliefs. Since
    our conception of Yahadus depends on accurate mesorah such behavior actually is an attack on Yahadus- if one knows that mesorah can be distorted in the past 200 years it certainly raises a question on the integrity of what we believe. Emes attah hu rishon or bracha just after krias shema first emes then how just just etc. I believe we have a good product one should not have to lie/mislead to sell a good product.

  18. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    Dr. Bill, as I’m sure you are aware, in the study of history, there are very few incontrovertible facts (even those Jewish Observer calls “basic” facts are often disputed). History is always subject to the interpretation of the author. While I myself conducted primary source research on the life of Sarah Schenirer, I was upfront that my information on the life of Rav Shrage Feivel was based on secondary sources (see my note to the original article). Like all sources, these were written from a particular, in this case more Yeshivish, perspective. I respect Rabbi Rakeffet’s work as well, but that too is written from a particular perspective. History is rife with debates between historians writing from different perspectives. As Micha and Nochum both suggest, how history views Torah Vadaath vis-à-vis YU and their respective contributions to American Jewish education depends on the perspective of the author. To assume that one’s perspective is the only “accurate” one and dismiss the other perspectives as inaccurate is to oversimplify the very complicated process of historiography.

    Dr. Bill, I do agree with you that the focus on Torah Vadaath vs. YU detracts from the message of the article. In showcasing the work of Rav Shraga Feivel, I was not in any way trying to minimize or delegitimize the work of Rabbi Revel or Yeshiva University. (On a personal note, I completed my undergraduate degree at YU and had a great experience there.)

    David F, unfortunately, the problem of negativity in education occurs across the spectrum. While talking in shul would apply to boys in various types of schools, it is hard to find any universal example relating to girls. If you like, you could probably substitute wearing pants or slits in skirts for long hair. I chose the long hair example because it actually happened to the daughter of a friend while I was writing this article.

  19. Nachum says:

    “I respect Rabbi Rakeffet’s work as well, but that too is written from a particular perspective.”

    No, I have to protest. Unless you’re prone to some postmodern “there is no truth” perspective, things actually happened in history. Certain schools were founded on certain dates and other schools were founded on others. Certain people had certain perspectives and didn’t have others.

    Yes, R’ Rakeffet has a point of view. But when he’s writing or speaking about history, he is intellectually honest (both in favor of and opposed to his own points of view) and states facts and only facts.

  20. Shades of Gray says:

    “B”H, contrary to what many may believe, most Charedi [non-hassidic] institutions offer a very normal and well-rounded positive experience and portrayal of Torah values”


    I would go further, and wouldn’t distinguish between Chasidish and non-Chasidish schools; to the contrary, Chasidus emphasizes simcha at least as much as the Litvish do. However, people’s experiences differ, and much depends on the student’s perspectives and perceptions they bring to the school. Be that as it may, these are recent quotes from the Jewish Press and the New York Times discussing the teaching of tzniyus and negativity/positivity:

    “Gila Manolson, author of “The Magic Touch” and “Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniyut,” and an occasional contributor to The Jewish Press, said that while “It’s appropriate for children to learn that there is s’char v’onesh (reward and punishment), they are far more likely to love God and Torah if the beauty of Judaism is emphasized rather than the fear of Gehinnom.” Others say the letter is indicative of a specific type of teaching. “This form of chinuch (education) – maybe it worked in some other age – I don’t know, It doesn’t work now,” commented Allison Josephs, who runs the blog “A Jew in the City.” She said that the people who find her blog tend to be those who are no longer religious because “of the joyless, strict Judaism that was presented to them.”(Jewish Press, 6/14/12, “Lakewood Girls School under Attack for Controversial Letter on Modesty”). This form of chinuch was also mentioned in a NYT article this January about Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus:

    “[Dr. Marcus] recounted a tale taught to her as a girl, and taught to school girls still, about a Jewish woman who is about to be persecuted by Cossacks. She is to be roped to a horse and dragged through the streets until she dies. But before this happens, she manages to pin or sew her skirt to her lower legs, stitching fabric to flesh so that, during her torturous execution, the garment won’t reveal anything that would, in unspecified ways, infect the thoughts of Jewish men and bring disaster to the Jews in general. One young woman I spoke to from the Pupa sect of Hasidism — who asked that I not use her name to protect her privacy, as did most of the Orthodox women I spoke with — told me she remembered hearing versions of this story repeatedly from the age of 8 or 9, and recalled going with her eighth-grade classmates to a fair at another yeshiva for girls in her Brooklyn neighborhood. The fair took place in an auditorium that featured a life-size diorama of a mother bathing her daughter eternally in boiling water — a punishment for some undisclosed failure of physical modesty.”

  21. Jewish Observer says:

    Dear Dr Klein

    Apologies for my harshness. Not called for.



  22. dr. bill says:

    Does the picture conform to emerging standards? Perhaps a warning label?

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