An article on the sit-in in the Spring 1972 issue of The Jewish Radical, a now-defunct publication.
An article on the sit-in in the Spring 1972 issue of The Jewish Radical, a now-defunct publication.

Bemoaning the state of Jewish education today, a brief history

In some corners of the Jewish community, one hears no end of jeremiads on the state of Jewish education in the country today. “Grumble grumble, they all leave after their b’nai mitzvah, and it’s all the parents’ fault!” “Grumble grumble, we have to spend more money on day schools or risk losing the next generation to assimilation!” “Grumble grumble, if they don’t learn to keep Shabbos they’ll intermarry — or worse, become anti-Israel!”

There is nothing new under the sun.

Since the earliest days of this newspaper, there’s been no shortage of reporters, teachers, parents and community leaders (and others, no doubt) lamenting the imperfections and shortcomings of Jewish education throughout our country and region.

“The Jewish Educational Problem in America” read a simple and direct headline in our July 1, 1927 issue, and it sat atop a 168-word article by the education director of Temple Emanu-El, then the publisher of this publication. The succinct article provided some numerical analysis: “At present only about 200,000 of the Jewish children of elementary school age are receiving some form of Jewish education. Five hundred thousand or half a million are receiving no Jewish education whatsoever.” And it concluded abruptly: “The situation is even worse with regard to our young people. In very many communities their Jewish education is sadly neglected.”

A year later, Michael M. Zarchin of the Jewish Educational Society wrote in our Aug. 17, 1928 issue that “Jewish educational effort can not be permitted to remain in the chaotic, helter-skelter conditions in which we find it today.” He thought it was a big problem that Jewish education in that period had already begun to solidify around the synagogue. Rather than having each congregation see to the religious education of its members’ children, he believed there should be large, communal religious schools open to all. Tough luck for Mr. Zarchin; the congregational model continues to dominate almost a century later.

Talk of Jewish education slows down in our archive during the Depression and World War II. But in the ’50s, with suburban synagogue life booming, various Jewish education groups were constantly proclaiming it “the week of Jewish education” or “the month of Jewish education,” and putting out “calls to parents” to send their kids to religious school.

In an editorial in our Sept. 17, 1954 issue, we wrote in support of one such call: “Thousands of Jewish children in our community are not receiving the religious education that is due them. Let us hope that the ‘Call to Jewish Parents’ will fall on responsive ears and that it will accomplish the constructive results for which it is intended.”

Clearly, it did not. These calls seemingly went unheeded for years as similar pleas were issued annually.

By the 1970s, full-blown panic and despair were setting in with regard to Jewish education. To wit, on April 30, 1971, about 40 college students stormed into the offices of the San Francisco Jewish Welfare Federation (which several years later changed its name to the Jewish Community Federation) to demand better support and funding for local Jewish education. The members called themselves the Jewish Education Coalition. David Biale, a UC Davis professor of Jewish history who was then a 22-year-old senior at UC Berkeley, told J. last year on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in that the Jewish Education Coalition “was a front organization” for the Radical Jewish Union.

A group of young Bay Area Jews, many of whom were involved with a sit-in for Jewish education in 1972, pose as "chalutzim" at UC Berkeley in the '70s. Standing (from left): Elaine Schlackman, David De Nola, Marcie Lincoff, David Lichtenstein, Arnie Druck, Jack Morgenstein,Buddy Timberg, Judy Timberg and Shaul Osadchy. Seated/kneeling (from left): David Biale, Jane Rubin, Miri Gold, Bradley Burston, Ken Bob and the Timbergs' dog.
A group of young Bay Area Jews, many of whom were involved with a sit-in for Jewish education in 1972, pose as “chalutzim” at UC Berkeley in the ’70s. Standing (from left): Elaine Schlackman, David De Nola, Marcie Lincoff, David Lichtenstein, Arnie Druck, Jack Morgenstein,
Buddy Timberg, Judy Timberg and Shaul Osadchy. Seated/kneeling (from left): David Biale, Jane Rubin, Miri Gold, Bradley Burston, Ken Bob and the Timbergs’ dog.

Biale was among the activists who plotted and carried out the subversive yet peaceful event, which lasted from 11:30 a.m. Friday until 9 p.m. Saturday. “Jews Liberate Federation” beamed a headline in RJU’s newspaper, the Jewish Radical. Though this paper did not report on the sit-in at that time, the action drew local TV and media coverage, and “during the event the word got out and several rabbis came and visited us and expressed their solidarity,” Biale recalled. Among them was Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a leader in the Conservative movement. “He happened to be in town, had heard of our initiative … and felt he wanted to celebrate Shabbat with us,” one of the activists recalled. “He was clearly signaling to us that there was a part of that so-called ‘Jewish Establishment’ which not only did not oppose our actions, but wholeheartedly validated and supported them.”

A few months later, a letter to the editor in our Nov. 12, 1971 issue blasted the Federations for inadequate support of education. “There is no question that Jewish education in San Francisco and its suburbs is in a sorry state,” the letter writer declared.

A year later, in our Dec. 22, 1972 issue we wrote in an editorial of an American Jewish Committee official’s prognostications on what would happen to Jewish youth if the sorry state were allowed to continue: “Jewish youth are made vulnerable to the Jesus movement because they are permitted to grow up without the benefit of a solid Jewish education.” In spite of endless talk of Jewish education over the decades, the editorial sadly but assuredly declares: “Jewish education and intellectuality are still not high priorities in the Jewish communal life of America.”

“Jewish Education Failing: No Clear Image For U.S. Jews” reads an April 7, 1978 headline on a JTA article that we ran. In it, a scholar declares that “the current disarray in Jewish education is unique in Jewish history,” confident, like so many Jews before him, that things are now much worse than they used to be.

The issue continued apace in the 1980s. On Nov. 8, 1985, a headline read “Expert warns of weaknesses in U.S. Jewish education.” His formula for solving the problem included such concrete, innovative bullet points as “Make homes more Jewish” and “Provide regular and sustained Jewish education.”

On the front page of our Nov. 16, 1990 issue, a JTA headline read “2-year Jewish education study urges overhaul.” The reporter writes matter-of-factly of a study that “has concluded what everyone already knows — that the Jewish education system is troubled and needs more money.” (The study, of course, had already cost a cool $1 million.)

We could go on. In recent years, similar complaints can still be heard throughout the Jewish world. Next time you hear one, just remember: There’s nothing new under the sun.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].