Written by Folkshul parent Sari Harrar for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Secular Jewish Schools. Click this text or the arrow on right to expand and read.
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’s 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 & Adult Community of Philadelphia “is a direct descendent of the secular Jewish schools that existed in Jewish neighborhoods since the early part of this 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 rowhouse. 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 didn’t 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’s going strong in 2011 (And today!). “Our greatest success, which many Jewish communities struggle with, is our teen involvement,” notes Blatt. “We have a unique and meaningful 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 community. But teens don’t 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 wouldn’t want their teen coming to Sunday School until they leave for college?”