Yiddish schools, camps preceded Hebrew-speaking successors

Yiddish schools, camps preceded Hebrew-speaking successors

When Fradle Freidenreich began researching the history of Yiddish secular schools and camps in North America, she thought she might find that 20 or 25 communities ran these programs.

What she found, in fact, surprised her.

“There were approximately 1,000 schools and 39 summer camps sponsored by eight sponsoring organizations in 160 communities,” Freidenreich said. “They were the first serious educational summer camps, 20 and 30 years before the Hebrew language camps were established.”

Freidenreich, a Jewish educator who, prior to moving to Israel in 1989, was the associate director of the Jewish Education Service of North America, will share the fruits of over 10 years of meticulous research on Yiddish secular education at a lecture Wednesday, April 11, 7 p.m., at Rodef Shalom Congregation. The illustrated presentation, entitled “It’s not a Bobe Mayseh: Yiddish Schools and Camps in North America,” is based on Freidenreich’s book, “Passionate Pioneers, the Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America: 1910-1960.”

“I was a product of the schools and camps I wrote about in the book,” said Freidenreich. “I have both a professional and personal interest in the subject.”

Freidenreich’s research included interviews, correspondence, minutes of meetings, newspaper and journal articles, and more than 800 personal reports by individuals who attended these schools and camps over their 50-year run.

“People are really forthcoming,” Freidenreich said. “The book is peppered with anecdotes from people who were students and campers. I tried really hard to keep the book from just being an academic tome, but making it a book that would be of interest to anyone interested in the time period 1910 to 1960 and its aftermath.”

The book includes the back story of what gave rise to the need for these camps and schools, their successes and failures, and the reasons for their decline, according to Freidenreich.

“I think I covered the map pretty well,” she said. “I tried to get all the names of the teachers, which are included, as are all the addresses of the schools I found. This was a major, major undertaking.”

While the schools all had Yiddish in common, they varied in their approaches when it came to religious education, Freidenreich said.

“The schools ran the gamut from anti-religious schools, to schools where people were teaching Hebrew and the Bible,” she said. “They were ideologically oriented, but everyone had their own systems. All the groups at the end of the period began to teach some Hebrew once the state of Israel was established. But in the earlier years the left-leaning groups were not using Hebrew, and they were adamantly against religion.”

Besides providing Yiddish education to immigrants and their progeny, many schools actually were innovators in other areas of pedagogy as well, Freidenreich said. Ahead of their times, these schools often offered year-round and lifelong learning, and co-and extra-curricular activities integrated with classroom curricula — all taking place in Yiddish.

“Very early on, these schools were the first to do preschool and kindergarten education,” she noted. “The Yiddish schools had the first kindergarten of any kind in Canada.”

Freidenreich will also discuss the many factors that lead to the eventual demise of these camps and schools, including, the move of Jewish populations to the suburbs after World War II, the Holocaust, the rise of the state of Israel and the increasing importance of Hebrew.

“This is a profoundly important story, not told very often,” Freidenreich said.

The April 11 lecture, which will include a discussion of the Pittsburgh schools, known as “shuln,” is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a reception. “Passionate Pioneers” will be available for purchasing and signing that evening.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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