Learning and teaching have been central to the Jewish tradition since its early beginnings. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 states the following: “These words, which I myself command you today, are to be upon your heart. You are to repeat them with your children and are to speak of them in your sitting in your house and in your walking in the way, in your lying down and in your rising up.” Building on this dictum, the tradition held that Jewish study was both a mitzvah (commandment) in its own right and a prerequisite for the observance of all other mitzvot. The Talmud abounds with legends and sayings emphasizing the power and importance of education; later rabbinic authorities, such as Maimonides, included communal expectations about learning in their codes of Jewish law.
With the Emancipation, as European Jews entered more fully into the larger society, the value of Jewish learning began to recede while the value of secular learning increased. Schools in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries strove to offer the right mix of traditional text study, Hebrew language instruction, and secular subjects; not surprisingly, each educator’s view of the correct proportions of these elements varied with his (they were all men) religious and political ideology.
As Jews immigrated to North America, the process of adapting to the values of secular society accelerated. The earliest immigrants took care to provide for the Jewish education of both their own children and the indigent children of the community; there was even a brief period, from about 1845 to about 1865, when Jewish day schools sprouted in eighteen cities. By 1870, when public schooling became the norm, Jewish parents enthusiastically enrolled their children in public schools, and Jewish education was relegated to supplementary settings. Jewish schools sponsored by congregations and communal agencies met anywhere between one and four times per week; in addition, private classes and tutors were widely available.