100 years later, BJE is an antidote to assimilation

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A 1924 Jewish Educational Society annual report sounds a wake-up call:

"A poisoned arrow is speeding toward the very heart of Judaism! It is a menace that wipes out all factions, all lines of difference, of personal prejudices or options — and makes all Jews one…That one thing is a consideration of the future of Jewry in America. The poisoned arrow is Indifference!"

It continues: "None of the Jewish gangsters recently electrocuted at Sing Sing for murder had ever received any Jewish education. No pupil, male or female, ever under the care of the Talmud Torahs in San Francisco has ever been referred to a corrective institution of any kind."

In the 77 years since the writing of the brochure for the forerunner of the Bureau of Jewish Education, American Jewry has witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and the joy of creating a homeland. Meanwhile, crime, unemployment and drugs plague the Jewish community along with the secular world.

Today, the status of Jewish education is not raising the alarmist hue and cry resounded in 1924. But community institutions concerned about the future of American Jewry acknowlege that education is the best antidote to assimilation and indifference.

As the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education celebrates its 100-year anniversary, its leaders contend that their two-part goal is laudable: to elevate Jewish education's profile in the community, and to offer every Jewish child a quality Jewish learning experience.

"Education is a vital and self-renewing community. You can't say we've addressed these issues and now we're done," said Robert Sherman, BJE executive director.

Founded in 1897 by Rabbis Jacob Voorsanger of Congregation Emanu-El and Jacob Nieto of Congregation Sherith Israel, the BJE's forerunner — the Jewish Education Society — provided a religious education to San Francisco's Jewish youth through its seven Talmud Torah schools until 1948.

George Karonsky and Arthur Zimmerman, former BJE presidents, were among its students.

"If the rabbi knew I was president, he'd roll over in his grave," said Zimmerman, 77, during a phone interview from his home in San Rafael. "I was a lousy student."

Nonetheless, Zimmerman, Karonsky and others — including Rabbi David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis — attended classes from 3:30 to 5:45 p.m. every Monday through Thursday at 745 Buchanan St., the Jewish Education Society's central location.

Friday nights and Saturday mornings the students led prayer services at the Talmud Torah's Congregation Knesseth Israel. Sunday mornings, they attended classes.

Rabbi David Stolper, director and principal, is credited with creating the junior congregation.

"It was probably the most creative and different approach ever tried," said San Francisco's Karonsky, 74, a retired public school educator and administrator and former principal of the religious school at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

Stolper "lived up to what he planned," Karonsky added. "The students were taught to daven and read Torah. But we played basketball and were on the debate team at our high schools, too. It was so darn basic."

Zimmerman concurred.

"We got a wonderful education by osmosis. It was intensive," he said, adding, "Our parents were involved, too. Our mothers made breakfast at the school on Sunday mornings. Our fathers made barbecues in Menlo Park. It was a way of life."

In 1949 the communal system was disbanded and Jewish education in San Francisco turned its focus toward congregation-based schools. Although congregation schools already existed in small numbers, the dismantling of the centralized Talmud Torah required every synagogue to educate its own.

Students generally met twice weekly after school and Sundays. The Jewish Educational Society helped hire, train and pay teachers, as well as develop curriculum.

In 1956 Rabbi Bernard Ducoff took over as executive director of the society, where he remained 22 years.

In 1958 the Jewish Education Society changed its name to the Bureau of Jewish Education of San Francisco, Marin County and the Peninsula to "reflect our expanded purpose," Ducoff said during a phone interview from his home in New Jersey.

Under him, the BJE set teacher and curriculum standards for all 14 congregational schools in the region.

The BJE ran the College of Jewish Studies from 1958 until 1978. Working with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the BJE developed Rediscovery, a high-school civics program for public schools. It focused on educating area youth about Jewish religion and culture.

During Ducoff's tenure the BJE also created a centralized high-school Hebrew program. As the region it served grew larger, the BJE dropped its high-school program and instituted the Summer in Israel confirmation program in 1973.

Developed by San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El a year earlier, that program expanded under the guidance of the BJE to send more than 100 confirmation-age students to Israel each year for six weeks. A model for the rest of the country, the program operates to this day.

(What's more, the BJE last year reinstituted a centralized high-school program in San Francisco and on the Peninsula respectively called High School Havurah and Midrashot.)

In 1980, the BJE again shifted direction under the leadership of Larry Moses, its executive director. During his four years of service, the current vice president of the Wexner Foundation and director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program hired an almost entirely new staff.

The BJE also ran the multicongregational Ben Yehudah School, focusing on conversational Hebrew skills for students in grades four through nine.

Moses reinforced the Jewish Com-munity Library and Battat Resource Center. He also fostered new relationships with then-fledgling day schools like Brandeis Hillel and the Hebrew Academy.

"During those years, especially in San Francisco, there was a high degree of ambivalence about day-school education," Moses said. "It was important for us to be advocates and to promote day schools as one of the most powerful forms of Jewish education to be developed in the community."

He added, "The central issue in the '80s was Jewish public culture. It was not yet acknowledged that Jewish education was of central importance. The significant challenge was to elevate Jewish education on the community agenda.

"In many communities, that battle has been won. It is reflected in its funding."

Sherman, who joined the BJE as its executive director in 1993, agrees. However, he is quick to add, "in education, you never solve everything. You don't really solve problems. You address needs and face new challenges."

Although the BJE boasts growing technological resources, formalized teacher training and expanded teen programming, its biggest challenge remains: How can the organization involve parents in Jewish education as fully as it did earlier this century?

"You need more than good schools," Sherman said. "They are crucial. But still the most powerful education experiences happen in other settings.

"If a young person has a Jewish home with Jewish experiences and then goes into school and learns Jewish history and text, the two become linked and strengthen each other."

One way the BJE is addressing that call is through family education programs. Children and parents learn together, formally and informally — in the synagogue, in the school, in the home and at retreats. But Sherman insists that a paradigm shift needs to occur as well.

"American culture saw education as a means to an end. So in Jewish education, too, there is a constant feeling of `When do I graduate?'"

The answer, he said, is "you don't. You can't pretend this is a school like we know. The purposes aren't the same.

"What would it mean to fail Hebrew school you're thrown out of the Conservative movement? You can't teach history and language the way you do in regular school. But what you can do is give children opportunities to encounter authentic Jewish experiences — through the arts. Or rather than a test of knowledge, have students lead a Shabbat service.

"Have them give tangible meaning to what they have learned."

With his insistence upon entirely student-run services, the Jewish Educational Society's David Stolper knew that 70 years ago.