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The Secular Yiddish School and Summer Camp: A Hundred-Year History

Barnett Zumoff
August 9, 2013

by Barnett Zumoff

Discussed in this essay: Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America,1910-1960, by Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich. Holmes and Meier, 2010, 535 pages.

eyns tsvey drayLearning that one’s own corner of history is but a small piece of an enormous and complex tapestry gives personal memories even greater depth and meaning. Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich’s finding that there existed a total of about a thousand Yiddish-secular shuln (schools) and thirty-nine Yiddish-secular summer camps in America at various times during the 20th century came as a marvelous surprise to me after a lifetime of involvement with the Workmen’s Circle. On the other hand, reckoning with how this wonderfully complex Jewish secular institutional structure is now considerably diminished brought me a sort of cosmic melancholy and nostalgia.

Freidenreich begins her book with a detailed description of the landscape of American Jewish education before 1910, the year when the Yiddish-secular school movement began. In those pre-shule years, the major form of Jewish education was religious, comprising yeshivas, kheyders, Talmud Torahs, congregational schools, day schools, Sunday schools, and private tutoring. In 1909, she reports, about 25 percent of the 200,000 New York City school-age Jewish children were receiving some type of religious education, with similar percentages in other communities.

There were also some schools that were not religiously oriented, offering Hebrew language and/or literature as a major feature of the curriculum. In 1909, the New York kehile (the formal community structure) established the Bureau of Jewish Education to serve as a central focus of these educational efforts. By 1915, about 100,000 out of a total of 360,000 Jewish elementary-school children in the U.S. were receiving some kind of Jewish education.

Though some authorities state that a decline in the number of children enrolled in Jewish educational courses began as early as the end of World War I, others report the contrary: Israel Chipkin, in 1935, reported that about 25 percent of the 800,000 American Jewish children of elementary-school age were enrolled in some type of Jewish school; Leibush Lehrer, in the same year, reported an even larger enrollment number, about 550,000, and stated that more than 80 percent of Jewish children received some type of Jewish education at some time during their lives. It should be noted, though Freidenreich doesn’t make the direct comparison, that these figures are many times larger than the Yiddish-secular school movement at its peak.

Still, it is the secular Jewish shule and camping movement to which Freidenreich’s investigations are primarily directed. “The founders of the Yiddish-secular schools,” she writes, “wished to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people as a distinct ethnic and cultural group . . . The leaders of the various shule movements fought against the assimilationists, who promoted the idea that in order to fully participate in world culture one must abandon one’s own culture . . . They established schools and summer camps to transmit a new Jewish secularism by creating their own secular culture, with Yiddish at its center.” Interestingly, a hundred years after the founding of the Yiddish-secular school movement, secular Jews of today are still facing that same problem, and many feel that the Yiddish-secular school movement, while greatly diminished, remains a tool that can help maintain secular Jewish identity and community. It therefore seems worthwhile to examine the past and present of the movement, and to look realistically, but optimistically, at its future.

In all likelihood, the principal impetus for establishing the Yiddish-secular shule movement was the famous Czernowitz Conference of 1908, at which it was announced that “Yiddish is a national language of the Jewish people” (for a full discussion of the Czernowitz Conference, visit our magazine’s archive). A tiny, independent shule was established in Brooklyn that year, but it was short-lived. The date that is now universally accepted as the beginning of the Yiddish-secular school movement is 1910, when shuln were established under the combined aegis of the Farband-Labor Zionists and the Socialist-Territorialists; the latter group soon faded out of the picture, leaving the Farband as the sponsor.

The next group to enter the picture was the Sholem Aleichem Institute in 1916. The Workmen’s Circle followed in 1918 and the International Workers Order (IWO) followed in 1930. The shuln in these networks were semi-independent, under the control of locally elected lay boards (farvaltungs), but they were under the general supervision of the educational departments of the respective sponsoring organizations, which provided financial support, curriculum development, textbooks, and teachers. There were also shuln associated with a number of smaller Jewish groups that kept slipping in and out of relationships with the major groups, including the National-Radical schools, the Socialist-Territorialist schools, the Ber Borochov schools, and the Nonpartisan Jewish Workers’ Children’s schools, among others.

A small number of shuln that belonged to no network were scattered in communities throughout the United States. Shuln were mostly located in major Jewish population centers, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington DC, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; there were also some located in smaller communities or even within agricultural communes.

There were a few Yiddish-secular day schools in Canada, but day schools never took hold in the U.S. A notable exception was the Kinneret day school in New York City, but the time devoted there to Yiddish language soon declined to virtually nothing, to be replaced by Hebrew. All the other U.S. shuln were afternoon, evening, or weekend schools with varying lengths of instruction: in the early years, they mostly offered six to ten hours a week, in later years, as little as two to three hours.

Many shule teachers were distinguished Yiddish literary figures in their own right, including, among others: Benjamin Jacob Bialostotski, Menachem Boreisho, Joel Entin, Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, Naftoli Gross, Peretz and Esther Shumiatsher Hirshbein, H. Leivick, Mani Leyb, Abraham Liessin, Nokhem Borekh Minkoff, Kadya Molodovsky, Shmuel Niger, Abraham Reisen, and Yehoyesh. Many of the teachers shifted back and forth from one school system to another, despite the often sharp ideological differences among the networks.

With the exception of the Sholem Aleichem shuln, which espoused an apolitical Yiddish cultural program, all the others developed curricula that were in accord with the political leanings of their respective sponsoring networks. Leibush Lehrer, the longtime leader of the Sholem Aleichem shuln, is cited by Freidenreich as saying that “isms would take time away from Jewish educational matters, preventing the attainment of our goals . . . we should be on guard not to involve our schools in missionary work for one or another idea.” At the other end of the spectrum, as Freidenreich reports, “the IWO schools were committed to counteracting capitalist ideology among the students . . . The other network shuln, though largely socialist-oriented, were united in rejecting the Soviet Union and its brand of socialism, but the IWO shuln held on to the defense of the USSR for many years, despite what was happening to Jewish life there.”

Freidenreich’s detailed analysis of the curricula of the various shule networks is in some ways the most interesting part of her book. Yiddish language and Jewish history were initially major features of the curriculum of all the shuln (the IWO shuln came to the importance of those topics later than the other three did because of their heavier emphasis on political indoctrination), but after the 1940s, as Yiddish was spoken less and less by the families of shule students and by the Jewish community in general, Yiddish language per se gradually faded as a major factor in the curricula. Conversely, celebrations of Jewish holidays and rituals, which had initially been considered treyf in these secular schools, started to be more and more prominently featured in their curricula, though the celebrations usually had a nonreligious, cultural cast.

When this reviewer was a student in the Workmen’s Circle mitlshul in New York, from 1939 to 1943, the Yiddish shule movement was near its all-time peak, with several hundred shuln and more than 20,000 students throughout the U.S. After the war, the number of shuln decreased, gradually at first and then more rapidly. The current status of the movement is not really addressed by Freidenreich, but other sources indicate that the decline has stopped and the number of shuln has plateaued. At this writing, there are about a half-dozen Workmen’s Circle shuln, about an equal number sponsored by the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) (a group that Freidenreich doesn’t mention at all in her book), and a very few independent shuln, such as the Kinderland shule in Brooklyn, which has roots in the IWO network of old.

In addition to the elementary Yiddish-secular shuln, which catered to pre-teen children, all the networks established four-year mitlshuln (middle schools) for teenagers in major Jewish population centers, with the goal of fostering in them a deeper knowledge of Yiddish language and literature and Jewish history. These schools, too, gradually faded away. Sometimes mergers between schools of different networks (e.g., between the Workmen’s Circle and the Sholem Aleichem Institute) were undertaken in the hope of preserving a mitlshul presence for a few more years, but at present no mitlshuln exist anywhere (though there currently is talk of reestablishing a Workmen’s Circle mitlshul in East Meadow, Long Island).

All the networks also established post-mitlshul hekhere kursn (higher courses), with three- to four-year intensive curricula intended to produce teachers for the shule movement. These schools, too, began to decline in the post-war years and are now all gone.

The third part of Passionate Pioneers describes the large number of Yiddish-secular and other Jewish summer camps that were established, thrived, and mostly faded away during the 20th century. In the early years, though some Jewish camps featured Hebrew language programming, most did not offer any significant Jewish cultural component at all, certainly not a Yiddish cultural component. Rather, the original impetus for establishing Jewish summer camps was socio-economic: to provide a healthful, fresh-air vacation for urban Jewish children, especially poor children. As late as 1946, Albert Schoolman, a pioneer of Jewish camping, stated that “most camping programs were unrelated to any aspect of Jewish cultural experience . . .”

Yiddish-secular camps developed quite early amid the general cultural desert of other Jewish camps. The first was Camp Boiberik, founded in 1913 by the Sholem Aleichem Institute. In its first ten years, the camp moved around to various locations in New York and New Jersey, but in 1923 it assumed its permanent home, for the next fifty-six years, in Rhinebeck, New York (on what is now the campus of the Omega Institute, a retreat center). Freidenreich uses Boiberik as her model for analysis, partly because its history is so well-documented. She spends a great deal of time describing its spirit, ideology, and programs, which endeared it in an almost mythical way to generations of its alumni. Among other things, Boiberik held on more tenaciously to the specifically Yiddish aspect of its programming than most other such camps did; some feel (Freidenreich does not mention this idea) that this “purism,” paradoxically, was partly responsible for Boiberik’s inability to survive past 1979, while several other Yiddish-secular camps that were willing to surrender the primacy of Yiddish-language programming are still surviving, and even thriving — notably Camp Kinderland (originally sponsored by the IWO and later independent) and the Workmen’s Circle’s Camp Kinder Ring.

campThe other main Yiddish-secular groups soon followed the Sholem Aleichem Institute’s lead. In describing these camps, a serious problem of names arises: many totally unrelated places shared a common name. “Kinderland,” for example, was used by a Workmen’s Circle camp in Michigan, IWO camps in New York and Quebec, a Farband camp in Ontario, and a Labor League camp in Ontario. “Nit Gedayget” (“Don’t Worry”) was used by four different camps, “Kindervelt” by three, “Naivelt” by two. In total, at various times, the Workmen’s Circle sponsored ten different camps, the IWO seven, the Farband six, and the Sholem Aleichem Institute four, including Boiberik. Other groups sponsored individual camps.

In New York State, the non-Communist Yiddish-secular camps had their own informal network, with fairly close cultural connections and inter-camp sporting activities. These included the Sholem Aleichem Institute’s Boiberik, the Jewish Socialist Verband’s Gan-Eydn (Eden), the Jewish Labor Bund’s Hemshekh, the Farband’s Kindervelt, the Workmen’s Circle’s Kinder Ring, and the Jewish Workers’ Schools’ Naivelt (under the aegis of the well-known Yiddish teacher Yankev Levin). Camp Kinderland, also in New York on the opposite shore of Sylvan Lake from Camp Kinder Ring, was excluded from the “club” because of its Communist background.

Freidenreich leads the reader skillfully through this maze, and presents as clear a picture of the histories and programs of all these camps as is possible, given the sometimes sketchy nature of the available documentation. All of the camps initially placed heavy emphasis on Yiddish language and culture, but, as in the case of the shuln, this faded as the American Jewish environment changed. Aside from this shared interest, however, the programs of the various camps differed according to the ideologies of the sponsoring organizations. For example, the Farband camps tended to promote Zionist ideology and Hebrew language, the IWO camps were heavy on leftist politics and support for the Soviet Union, and Workmen’s Circle camps promoted labor unions and socialist ideology.

Finally, in an Afterword, Freidenreich addresses the question: “What became of the Yiddish-secular shuln and camps, and why?” At the very outset of her discussion, she says that “there is no single answer to the question,” and then spends some fifteen pages elaborating, falling back on the “usual suspects,” those demographic, historical, and cultural changes that have slowly but inexorably affected American Jews during the 20th century. These include the upward social and economic mobility of American Jews and their increased integration with general American society; the move of many Jews from uniform urban Jewish neighborhoods to decentralized suburban communities where synagogue membership became a practical necessity for the maintenance of Jewish continuity; the increasing importance placed by the community on Hebrew rather than Yiddish, largely because of the establishment of the State of Israel; the centrifugal forces that tended to disperse the Jewish community toward religiosity on the one hand and assimilation on the other; the Holocaust, which shocked and reoriented the minds of American Jews, and also was responsible for cutting off the source of new native Yiddish speakers and Yiddish writers; the near-impossibility of educating and supporting teachers of Yiddish language, literature, and culture; the loss of any need for Yiddish as a lingua franca among American Jews.

Freidenreich consoles herself, and would like to console her readers, by enumerating three lasting legacies that the Yiddish-secular shuln and camps have left the American Jewish community even as they have faded away: 1. the tens of thousands of Jewish children who were influenced positively in terms of Jewish content, values, self-image, and attitudes toward Jewish life; 2. loving attitudes toward Yiddish language and literature; and 3. belief in a Jewish future. She adds, almost apologetically, that there are still a number of organizations and institutions that continue to support and promote the Yiddish-secular heritage to this day: YIVO, the Congress for Yiddish Culture, the Workmen’s Circle and its handful of shuln, the Farband-Labor Zionists (now Ameinu), the National Yiddish Book Center, Yugntruf, the Folksbiene and other Yiddish theatrical groups, KlezCamp, the Mendele website, Yiddish newspapers and magazines including the Forverts, the Zukunft, the Pakn-Treger, Yugntruf, and others, and Yiddish studies departments in many colleges and universities. She omits a few from this list: the CSJO, which continues to sponsor a number of Yiddish-secular shuln to this day; the Yiddish League and its magazine, Afn Shvel, and the International Association of Yiddish Clubs.

All together, however, the whole landscape she describes comprises just a few thousand American Jews, probably well under 1 percent of the total American Jewish population of 5.5 million. Nevertheless, the secular Jewish community remains committed to perpetuating itself and is not going to disappear any time soon. The number of Yiddish-secular shuln is not declining, but has remained essentially the same in recent years, and a few shuln are actually growing healthily. True believers look at this phenomenon and ask themselves: If it can happen there, why not elsewhere?

Passionate Pioneers is a valuable history and analysis of a world of secular yidishkayt that has greatly diminished but hasn’t disappeared. It is a book that members of the secular Jewish community should read to understand their past, their present, and their possible future. All honor to Fradle Freidenreich for exerting the heroic efforts that have enabled her to create it.

Barnett Zumoff, former president of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and long-time physician at Camp Kinder Ring, conducts our “Mameloshn” column and is the translator of numerous Yiddish anthologies, including, most recently, The Waterfall: Rhymed Yiddish Couplets, published under our magazine’s imprint, Blue Thread, and available at our Pushcart.