School Days: A Reader’s Answer

In response to my last School Days post about the cheder at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, former Director of Education Annie Polland sent in some enlightening details. Taken from a paper she presented at a conference about the institution of the Bar Mitzvah at the turn of the last century, the following gives us a better understanding of why the congregation’s school lasted only one year:

Why didn’t these congregations start Hebrew schools from the start? We know that the congregation encompassed far more activities in its domain other than merely worship. Politics, building maintenance, charitable activities, and study for adults all took on formal arrangements in the synagogue. Why then, wasn’t there room for formal children’s education? One reason for the hesitancy in building up their own school was that both individuals members and the congregation as a whole was an early and avid supporter of the Machzike Talmud Torah. Given that strong support, they probably reasoned that duplicating their efforts by exerting energy for a school on their premises would only frustrate those already underway. But by 1901, ideas had shifted: The Board of Trustees met on September 30, 1901 and discussed opening a Talmud Torah for its members: “It will be a good thing for Judaism and also a benefit for our congregation.” Several days later, when the trustees brought the proposal “of establish[ing] a school on Shul premises, to provide instruction for the children of members” and that the school should be under the directorship of the conregation” to the general meeting, it was enthusiastically received, as the members not only unanimously accepted it and appointed a committee [David Cohen at head], but opened up their wallets to pledge individual contributions.

A total of $569.25 was raised over two fundraising efforts in the fall of 1901 and summer of 1902. “Cash” contains a section devoted to the “Beit Sefer” and shows the fundraising efforts engaged upon by the members. In several fundraising efforts, starting in October of 1901, August of 1902, individuals pledged money, amounting to the sum of $569.25 , from which teachers were hired, ledgers purchased, and advertisements placed.

At the end of the term in December, the board studied the books and decided to continue the school, which would hold its next session starting July of 1902. Over the next year and half, the board and congregation seemed pleased with the school, continuing to support it and even overseeing construction at the Bes Medrash level for the creation of classrooms. The Cash book shows expenses for teachers, one of them Leib Matlawsky, the secretary. In 1903, there appears to be hesitation, with the congregation pledging their renewed support, but appointing a new school committee (perhaps the former one had become dormant?). The problem seemed to be a loss of funds: “To this end, the following committee is appointed to take care of this matter properly, to be knowledgeable about the finances, so that the congregation will know how much to appropriate when necessary.” In addition to their interest in the financial management of the school, they seemed to think that scholarly nature of the school needed some professionalism, and thus one of the first acts of the committee was to appoint Rav Yosef Fried, who directed much of their adult study sessions and had just published Ohel Yosef, as an advisor.

As the term continued, the financial difficulties were not resolved, and in April 1903 the general meeting debated the topic, and in May of 1903 decided to end the congregation’s formal administration of the school, instead allowing the two teachers to continue their classes in the shul for the next six months “at their own expense.” Because the Minutes do not go into any details, and the Cash book shows an imbalance between income and expense, it is hard to say what happened beyond financial failure. Around the same time, the Minutes show that the congregation had just started to debate the option of opening an uptown branch. Many of the members of the school committee were among those who were interested in the uptown branch, so it is possible that their energies and interests were simply diverted. If they had moved uptown already, then presumably their children were in school uptown, and they were less motivated to lend the energies needed to establish a new school downtown. Indeed, David Cohen—the leader of the committee and who would emerge as the leader of the uptown contingent, was himself a prime player in the movement to build the Uptown Talmud Torah. So, it is possible that just at this juncture, many of the wealthier members had or were starting to move uptown, thus shifting their educational ambitions northward as opposed to the synagogue.

Thanks, Annie! Stay tuned for more about the local public schools, the foundation of Jewish day schools and education for girls coming up over the next few weeks.

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