100 Years of Secular Jewish Education, Camps, Culture

Three generations of Folkshulers in the Robinson/Singer family: My children Natalie and Julia Robinson, my husband Dave Robinson (z’l) and my mother Pearl Singer. Photo: Margie Singer.

— Sari Harrar

Philadelphia’s Kehilla for Secular Jews and the Jewish Children’s Folkshul has just celebrated a milestone — the 100th anniversary of secular Jewish schools and camps in North America. Today, our Folkshul is unique, one of just a handful of secular Jewish schools surviving in the U.S. But during the heyday of this important but long-overlooked movement, there were dozens in Philadelphia and New Jersey – and nearly 1,000 secular Jewish schools across the U.S. and Canada.

Behind the celebration is a long history – and some modern-day evolution. Beginning with one small school in New York City in 1910, nearly 1,000 secular schools flourished in 160 communities in the U.S. and Canada between 1910 and 1960, teaching Yiddish language and Jewish history, culture and values to the children of Jewish families. These included about 50 schools in Philadelphia neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, Overbrook Park and the Northeast. Nearby, there were secular schools in Chester, Reading, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. In New Jersey, there were secular schools in Camden, Vineland, Trenton, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Long Branch, New Brunswick and many other towns. In Delaware, there were three secular Jewish schools in Wilmington.

More after the jump.
Famous local secular-school graduates include Saul Perlmutter, PhD, a University of California, Berkeley physicist who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Perlmutter attended the Suburban Jewish School in Merion, PA, in the 1970s. (That school later merged with the Jewish Children’s Folkshul.)

While most of these schools have closed, secular Jewish education is still alive and well in one corner of Philadelphia: Over 100 children and teens attend the Jewish Children’s Folkshul of Philadelphia, which meets Sunday mornings at the Springside School in Chestnut Hill. Families come for many reasons. Some are interfaith families; others identify as secular Jews who do not want to join a synagogue yet want a strong Jewish education for their children. Some are even second- or even third-generation “Folkshulers” —  their parents and grandparents also attended secular Jewish schools in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

“For people who see themselves as cultural Jews, who love the community and the values, this is the place to be. It is a vibrant, living community,” notes Ruth Ross, who became aFolkshul teacher in the 1970s and whose children attended the school. Ross and her husband, Gabriel, of Philadelphia, are guest speakers at the 100th anniversary program.

I grew up attending a secular Yiddish school in Brooklyn. When I moved to Philadelphia in 1970, I realized there was something very special about the people at this Folkshul and in the community that grew up around it. I went to secular summer camps where we spoke and sang in Yiddish. Even though secular schools today do not emphasize Yiddish or politics as they did in the past, there is still a tremendous need for them.

Folkshul is a parent run cooperative dedicated to Jewish Family Education, says director Mindy Blatt of Huntingdon Valley, who received the Visionary Leadership Award at the event.

Our families and adult community members feel disconnected from traditional synagogues but they desire an inclusive, accepting, welcoming atmosphere that nurtures all who wish to identify Jewishly. Our emphasis is on Jewish history, culture and values of social justice and personal responsibility for ourselves and each other.

Members of the Folkshul community come from Philadelphia and the suburbs, including Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware counties as well as South Jersey. They range in age from kindergartners through ninth-graders; many teens in tenth through twelfth grades stay on as classroom assistants.

Hidden History

Thousands of secular Jews in the Philadelphia area attended the city’s secular schools in decades past. When the North American Jewish Data Bank surveyed the region in 1984, 12% of Jews who identified themselves as “secular” said they had attended a “Yiddish school” or Folkshul. So had nearly 6% of all Jews in their 50s. That is a lot of people. Yet here, and across North America, this history was nearly forgotten, says historian Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich, author of Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960. Friedenreich expected to find a handful of schools when she began her research, but was surprised to find hundreds. “It is certainly important, in my view, that everyone appreciates the phenomenal history of the Yiddish secular schools and camps,” Freidenreich noted in an email interview from her home in Israel. “It is an accomplishment that good Jewish schools exist in today’s challenging and busy world.”

The Jewish Children’s Folkshul of Philadelphia “is a direct descendent of the secular Jewish schools that existed in Jewish neighborhoods since the early part of the last century,” notes Paul Shane, of Philadelphia, a longtime Folkshul board member. “Most had their origins in the Eastern European Jewish experience. They were organized to transmit the historical and cultural values of our Jewish heritage — and to foster a sense of Jewish identity.”

Four different secular school systems operated in the city at the movement’s height. Each had a different political bent.

There were schools run by the Workmen’s Circle, (an anti-Soviet socialist and anarchist group at the time),” Shane says. “Others were run by the Labor Zionists (socialist Zionist) and the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO), (pro Soviet).

Philadelphia, along with Chicago, ranked second only to New York City in the number of secular schools it boasted.

What was it like to be a shula student in Philadelphia? Classes met three to five days a week, after the public school day ended. Older kids might attend a mitlshul (high school) for up to seven hours each week. There was instruction in Yiddish language, literature and culture, Jewish history, and classes in current events. Many major holidays were celebrated. Some shuln students acted in plays put on at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater in the 1920s and 1930s. Seventeen schools organized a 200-piece rhythm band that performed regularly on the radio.

“You went to learn to read and write Yiddish,” explains Evelyne Johnson, 88, a fluent Yiddish speaker who attended a shula on 30th Street in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in the early 1930s. Johnson passed the Folkshul tradition down in her own family: Her daughter and son, as well as her grandson and grand-daughter have all attended the Jewish Children’s Folkshul.

As a child, Johnson spoke Yiddish and English at home with her Polish-born mother and Russian-born father. Her mother’s long involvement with the Labor movement inspired her to send her daughter to the shula. Johnson’s cousins in New Jersey, meanwhile, attended one near Camden. “I still remember so much about it,” she says. “The shula was in a row-house. I still remember my teacher’s name – Hershl Sandler. I have a life-long love of Yiddish. I went for three months and learned enough that if I apply myself, I can read some Yiddish today. I wish my mother had pushed me to keep going!

In the 1920s and 1930s, such Yiddish schools dotted the streets of Jewish neighborhoods like Overbrook Park and Strawberry Mansion. But by the 1950s and 1960s, numbers dwindled as families moved out of old neighborhoods and as younger generations lost interest in Yiddish — but not in other aspects of Jewish life. “In the 1960s, the focus went from preserving Yiddish language and culture to new ways of fostering a Jewish identity and community. People were finding hope and connection with other Jews around the world through the new state of Israel,” Ross recalls.

When I found Philadelphia’s Sholom Aleichem Club, which included many parents of Folkshul students, I found a new way forward – we did not just have to mourn the dying of the old, Eastern European Yiddish world. There was a good future here.

Today’s Folkshul is the result of many mergers. “By 1955 there were “independent” secular Jewish schools thriving in Logan, West Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion,” Shane says. “They had been organized by the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order but became independent in response to the ‘red-baiting’ of the McCarthy era.” Those three consolidated, with classes meeting in Germantown in the 1960s. In the 1970s the school formed an alliance with two more — the Kalish Folkshul of Overbrook Park and the Suburban Jewish School in Merion. By the 1980s, the Kalish Folkshul had closed and the Main Line School, facing declining enrollment, melded with the current Folkshul at the recommendation of the Federation of Jewish Agencies.

Folkshul is going strong in 2011. “Our greatest success, which many Jewish communities struggle with, is our teen attendance,” notes Blatt. “We have a unique and wonderful B’nai Mitzvah program. The ceremony is created by the family and highlights the student’s study of a topic of their choosing, that connects them to their Judaism and that is presented to the family, guests and the community. But teens do not drift away after their B’nai Mitzvah. Upon completion of 9th grade, almost all of our teens become assistants, working in classrooms and on community projects. This year 25% of our students are post-B’nai Mitzvah. Who would not want their teen coming to Sunday School until they leave for college?”

Habonim Dror‘s Camp Galil in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.

Camp, Too!

The learning and fun did not stop when school ended. Thirty-nine summer camps also flourished in North America. Among them is Camp Galil (which is co-sponsoring the anniversary event), in Ottsville, Bucks County. Opened in 1946, Galil hosts more than 200 overnight campers (third- through ninth-graders, with a special short camp program for second graders) each summer. Older kids can participate in summer and year-long programs in Israel through Habonim Dror, the umbrella organization to which Galil and six other North American camps belong. “Being part of the anniversary celebration is a natural fit for us,” says camp director Sharon Waimberg. “Our campers come from a wide range of observance. It is a comfortable Jewish community for more observant Jews and secular Jews alike.”

The camp, she says, played a small role in the creation of the state of Israel. “Our history is wrapped up in the state of Israel,” she explains. “It was originally set up as a training ground for Labor Zionists in the Philadelphia area who were planning to move to Palestine and create a state for Jews. There is a story that has been documented that the underside of our camp’s barn, was used to store weapons that were shipped to pre-Israel Palestine.”

A group of Galil campers and counselors presented songs at the celebration and showed “their camp ruach (spirit).”

The Next 100 Years

Folkshul music teacher Fran Kleiner, of Elkins Park, is among the Folkshul leaders who were
honored at the anniversary program. She has taught Yiddish songs to Folkshul students since the 1960s.

Her own children attended the school, as do her twin grandson and grand-daughter. “We came because
we were not religious but we wanted our children to have a strong Jewish identity. It was a good fit,”  Kleiner says.

If it had not been, we would not have stayed so long! My husband, Bob, became very involved in Folkshul, too. I think families keep joining because they want that connection to a strong Jewish identity for their own children. When I arrive on Sunday morning, the place is just buzzing with activity. Over 100 children. Teachers. Parents. And lots of teacher’s assistants, who have graduated but get up early on a weekend morning to come back to Folkshul. We will have 15 or 16 B’nai Mitzvahs this year. This is a very active and growing community.

Kleiner also helped lead the Folkshul’s chorus in Yiddish and Hebrew songs at the celebration. “When we started rehearsing two weeks ago, it was as if they already knew the words,” she says. “Maybe it is because they have been exposed to this all along.”