Hebrew School

By Allan Arkush
Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Samson Benderly, one might say, had crusading in his blood.  A direct descendant of Jacob Emden, the zealous 18th-century European battler against Sabbateanism, he spent his youth in Palestine before coming to the United States in 1898 with the aim of becoming a physician. 

He taught Hebrew school in order to help pay for his medical education, but he couldn't break the habit even after he became a doctor.  Caught using his examination room at the Hebrew Hospital in Baltimore to tutor some of his Hebrew students, he was forced to choose, as he put it, between healing the body and healing the soul.  He opted for the latter, and spent the rest of his life fighting for Jewish education in the United States.

Benderly grew up in a deeply pious home in Safed, but in the New World he became a cultural Zionist.  Much less of a thinker than a doer, he took his bearings not only from Ahad Ha'am (one of the fathers of cultural Zionism) but from John Dewey, whose progressive educational theories he sought to apply within the framework of the Jewish school.  He concentrated on having students "learning to do by doing," playing outdoors in Hebrew and baking challah, rather than being entirely submerged in a sea of traditional texts. Among other things, he pioneered the Ivrit b'Ivrit style of modern Hebrew immersion that became known as the "Benderly Method."  His overriding concern, as Jonathan B. Krasner puts it in his new book The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education, was "to simulate as closely as possible" in an era of dislocation and rapid change "the educational process that in an earlier generation took place within the Jewish home and Jewish neighborhood."  Central to the whole operation would be the stimulation of an emotional attachment to (but by no means a resolve to desert America for) the Jewish community in Palestine that was spearheading the worldwide Jewish renaissance.    

Benderly understood very well the constraints within which he would have to operate.  Since most American Jews (and indeed he himself) were enthusiastically committed to the public school system, Jewish education would have to be supplemental.  The number of hours available to Jewish educators would rarely be sufficient to implement a thorough Hebrew program.  It would be hard to find or train the staff for the schools he wished to establish, and the people to whom he would have to turn for financial and institutional support would not always share all of his goals.  His opponents would include Orthodox defenders of the old ways, Reform Jews unfriendly to anything that smacked of Zionism, and parents who cared only about having their boys meet the minimum requirements for a synagogue bar mitzvah.

Benderly's successes in overcoming these obstacles in Baltimore earned praise far and wide (including a laudatory article in Ahad Ha'am's Hashiloah) and, in 1910, an invitation from Judah Magnes to come to New York City to head the newly established Bureau of Jewish Education.  There he assembled the talented young crew of "Benderly boys" who helped to put his constantly evolving ideas into effect. Benderly's program found its fullest expression in Manhattan's Central Jewish Institute, which Krasner characterizes as "the first modern Jewish educational center in the United States," an institution that served as a nationwide model from 1916 to 1944.  Albert Schoolman, one of the "Benderly boys" affiliated with the Institute, founded the Cejwin summer camps, which endure to this day.  Other disciples fanned out to Chicago, Cleveland and other major cities and sought more or less to replicate what was being done in New York. 

But Benderly was better at conceiving than he was at organizing things, and the Depression marked a severe setback to his efforts.  He and his boys were eventually forced to give up their hopes of operating on a community-wide basis and to work instead for the most part within denominational frameworks.   And the numbers of students never quite added up to enough—enough, at least, for these Americanizers of Jewish education who aspired to revitalize their entire community.  Benderly himself died relatively young, and with something other than a full sense of accomplishment, in 1944.  One of his disciples, Alexander Dushkin, who among many other things launched the youth magazine World Over, recalled his ailing mentor confessing to him, "Dushkin, I do not know whether I did you boys any good personally by drawing you into the profession of Jewish education!"  Whether he did or didn't, they did a lot of good together. 

Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.  


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