The earliest Jewish Sunday schools were female-led, growing from one school in Philadelphia established by Rebecca Gratz in 1838 to an entire system that educated vast numbers of Jewish youth across the country. These schools were modeled on Christian approaches to religious education and aimed to protect Jewish children from Protestant missionaries. But debates soon swirled around the so-called sorry state of “feminized” American Jewish supplemental learning, and the schools were taken over by men within one generation of their creation. It is commonly assumed that the critiques were accurate and that the early Jewish Sunday school was too feminized, saccharine, and dependent on Christian paradigms.

In Jewish Sunday Schools, Laura Yares traces the development of these schools from their inception through the first decade of the twentieth century and shows that this was not the reality. In addition, Yares argues that the work of the women who shepherded Jewish education in the early Jewish Sunday school had ramifications far outside the classroom. Indeed, we cannot understand the nineteenth-century American Jewish experience, and how American Judaism sought to sustain itself in an overwhelmingly Protestant context, without looking closely at the development of these precursors to Hebrew School.

Laura Yares is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University.

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