The Best Laid Plans: Samson Benderly and Supplementary Jewish Education
Today, congregational schools are dismissed by many as functionally and even irredeemably flawed educational institutions. It may then seem odd to think of the 20th-century growth of supplementary Jewish education as an example of scaling-up success. Yet this is exactly how the rise and rapid spread of the modern afternoon Hebrew school was viewed by many mainstream mid–20th century Jewish educators and communal leaders. The career of Samson Benderly, arguably the premier American Jewish educator of the early 20th century, is inextricably connected to the development and expansion of the modern supplementary school.
In 1910, Benderly was hired to become the founding director of the first North American bureau of Jewish education in New York City. It was a time when few modern Jewish afternoon schools existed and most children who received a Jewish education attended one-room, privately operated schools called cheders, or they worked with private tutors or attended Sunday school. A 1909 survey of New York’s Jewish educational institutions, conducted by Mordecai Kaplan and Bernard Cronson, found each of these alternatives sorely lacking. Those families that opted for a more intensive education enrolled their sons—there were few intensive options for girls—in a handful of traditional yeshivas, which, rightly or wrongly, acquired the reputation of being “ghetto schools.”
Benderly gained notoriety in Baltimore at the Hebrew Education Society, running a progressive Hebrew school where students were taught Hebrew using the natural method, a foreign language–acquisition technique designed to mimic primary language acquisition. The emphasis in the youngest grades was on conversation rather than reading or writing. Eschewing translation, Benderly created an immersive Hebrew classroom, relying on pictures, manipulatives, pantomime, and the natural surroundings. Benderly wasn’t the first pedagogue to apply the natural method to Hebrew instruction, but he popularized the technique, colloquially known as “Ivrit b’Ivrit” in North America.
Benderly’s commitment to Ivrit b’Ivrit helped to cement his conviction that the afternoon supplementary school offered the best alternative for American Jewish education. The natural method of language acquisition required more hours per week than the Sunday school could offer, while the intensive Jewish education of the yeshiva was unappealing to most immigrants and their children. They viewed the public schools as an indispensable vehicle for economic advancement and social integration. Thus, the afternoon supplementary school, meeting three to five days (i.e., six to ten hours) per week, offered an attractive compromise.
Benderly had his requirements. He insisted that these schools operate along modern pedagogical and administrative lines, with credentialed teachers in suitable, up-to-date facilities. A doctor by training, Benderly was also keenly concerned about students’ health and advocated for sanitary conditions, playgrounds for exercise and recreation, and a more abridged session than that which prevailed in more traditional afternoon schools and yeshivas, which often met into the evenings.
At the most basic level, Benderly’s efforts to promote the afternoon Hebrew school were a resounding success. Over the next half-century, these supplementary schools “scaled up.” His disciples, known as the Benderly boys, presided over many of the largest central Jewish education agencies in the country and thus were able to implement similar models. The percentage of Jewish children attending afternoon schools grew until in the 1950s, enrollment surpassed even that of the Sunday schools. Hebrew became a cornerstone of the afternoon school curriculum—so much so, that the schools became popularly known as “Hebrew schools.” This startling turn of events prompted the late JTS professor of Jewish Literature Alan Mintz to marvel at how “a small band of committed Hebraists kidnapped the Talmud Torah movement and retained control over it for several decades.”
Delve more deeply, however, and we notice where and why scaling up did not translate into large-scale success, with the limitations of this phenomenal growth becoming patently clear. It is not simply that few baby boomer graduates of the afternoon school recall their experiences fondly or that sociologists estimate that the impact of these schools on positive Jewish identity formation was modest at best. The reality is, first, that most of these schools did not remotely approximate Benderly’s progressive Hebrew Education Society school in their approach to teaching and learning. Second, the rapid growth of the afternoon school after World War II coincided with the reduction in the number of hours per week of instruction. The Talmud Torah, a four- or five-day-a-week school under communal auspices, gave way to the two- or three-day-a-week congregational school. Scaling up diluted or, in some cases, completely changed the original product.
It would be comforting but inaccurate to think that these shortcomings were a result of a lack of forethought or planning. In fact, when Benderly was hired in New York he laid out an elaborate plan for scaling up, which included the establishment of demonstration schools, the professionalization of the teaching force, the publication of curricula and resources, and the formation of a research department. As we know today, many of these plans did not come to fruition or resulted in only short-term reforms. Though it is impossible in the space provided to catalog the manifold reasons why these plans either failed to materialize or did not adequately provide the necessary guardrails to ensure quality control, we can point to a few overriding factors. First, the Jewish education system was (and continues to be) highly decentralized, which limits its susceptibility to top-down reform efforts. Second, a supplementary education system primarily relies on a mostly part-time teaching force, which significantly hinders efforts at professionalization. Third, there has been a lack of alignment between the desired outcomes of teachers and parents. This makes it impossible for educators like Benderly to cultivate a unified base of support for their reform efforts. Fourth, there was (and is) no consensus around a sustainable funding structure for Jewish education and a lack of appetite for the proposition that Jewish education was a communal responsibility, rather than simply a private matter. Finally, even the most meticulous planning could not anticipate historical contingencies and demographic changes. In the long run, events like the Great Depression and World War II, followed by trends like suburbanization and the growth of the Conservative Movement, played an outsized role in determining the shape, emphases, and intensity of supplementary Jewish education.
So what does this mean for us and those who want to scale up success in Jewish education today? As it happens, we are experiencing a new generation of reformers attempting to remake supplementary Jewish education. Some are succeeding in identifying compelling models of “schools that work,” creating a far more sophisticated systems-based change model than that of Benderly’s generation, organizing well-regarded and amply funded transformation projects, and working to scale up with partnering schools and congregations. The outcomes thus far though have been uneven and reforms often fleeting. It is perhaps ironic that the system of supplementary Jewish education that emerged in the first half of the 20th century, while seriously flawed, has been highly resistant to change.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Benderly and his disciples’ efforts to forge a dominant pattern of Jewish education, it is not that reform initiatives are in and of themselves futile. Rather, these efforts must be approached with equal measures of conviction, humility, political savvy, and vigilance.
Dr. Jonathan Krasner is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel associate professor of Jewish Education Research at Brandeis University. He is also the author of The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, a history of Samson Benderly and his disciples working to transform Jewish education in North America in the early 20th century.