Religious Education

Religious Education in Kennebec County

by Nicole Mitchell ’10 (January 2010)

Jewish education in small towns during the interwar years was notoriously weak, and Kennebec County’s Jewish communities were no exception. In small towns it is difficult to come by the resources necessary to establish an effective system of formal religious education. Frequently the Jewish communities in small towns are not big enough to be able to provide the money, venues and teachers necessary to educate their children. In 1910 only 17% of small towns provided regular (four days a week or more) formal Jewish education (Weissbach 284).

The resulting low quality of religious education leads to some interesting trends in Jewish identity among members of different generations of small town Jews. During the interwar years we see a shift in the focus of religious values towards the ritual and ceremonial aspects of religion, such as the Bar Mitzvah. We also see a gradual loss of Jewish knowledge over generations until communities grow large enough to improve their systems of education. This essay explores how the Jewish communities in Waterville and Augusta exemplify these trends and shed light on the issues facing Jewish education in small towns across the country.

Over all, the experiences of Jews in Kennebec County nicely reflect the trends in small town Jewish communities around the United States. The stories of these people and how they lived their lives give concrete examples to the broader state of events, allowing us to better understand what exactly was happening during the interwar years and how individuals in small towns interpret their own educational experiences. Through their words we can see the low quality of religious education and its effect on the diminishing body of Jewish knowledge over generations. We can see the shift in Jewish values toward the ritual and ceremonial practices of Judaism. Finally, we can see how Jewish knowledge is able to rebound with the improved situation of Jewish education today.

Some terms that are important to understand are “Sunday school” and “Hebrew school.” Sunday school generally takes place in the synagogue in conjunction with religious services. Its purpose is to teach children the stories and meaning behind their religion and to convey Jewish culture and values. Hebrew school focuses on learning how to read and write Hebrew and is frequently focused most on learning the Hebrew necessary to complete the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. It generally takes place after school for young Jewish children. A formal Hebrew school would offer a more consistent and established framework for this education, however what we see in small towns during the interwar years mostly involves informal training in the form of one-on-one tutoring with a rabbi.

Finding a good teacher

One major issue for Jewish education is how difficult it is for small towns Jewish communities to find teachers to educate their children in Jewish matters who are both knowledgeable and effective as teachers (Weissbach 286). Even in communities fortunate enough to have a rabbi, while the knowledge and education is there, it does not necessarily mean that the rabbi is a good teacher.

We see this in the case of Reverend Abraham Hains who (though not ordained) served as a rabbi for Waterville during many of the interwar years. In addition to his duties as a rabbi, he also conducted Hebrew tutoring for young boys in order to prepare them for their Bar Mitzvahs. In interviews with various students of his, there was a strong consensus that the lessons were dull and that they covered only the bare minimum of what was necessary for a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Ken Jacobson remembered that boys used to set the clock ahead when the rabbi left the room so that they would not have to stay for the full duration of the lesson. This matches national trends for small towns in this time period. Rabbis may be well educated, but when confronted with the task of teaching Hebrew to a group of restless boys, their patience can be tried and their skills as teachers are frequently not good enough to hold the boys’ attention (Weissbach 286).

Just as problematic as the issue of the well-educated rabbi who is a bad teacher is the issue of the enthusiastic, engaging teacher who is interested in teaching yet is not well educated in Judaism. This is most frequently seen in the instance of Sunday school education. Sunday school tends to be taught by local volunteers who frequently are women. The fact that women are the teachers is interesting because traditionally Jewish education was for boys while girls were educated in the home (Klapper 144). Until the end of World War II, which was accompanied by the rise in popularity of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls, young Jewish women rarely received formal Jewish education. That women traditionally were not educated outside of the home in terms of their religion yet were expected to provide formal religious education outside the home for boys is worth analyzing.

Though one could argue that the education a girl receives within the home is just as valuable as the formal education a boy receives outside of it, it would seem most likely that the boys are receiving a higher quality of more regular education. This system places the more poorly educated in charge of the education of the others, which over time can contribute to the decline in religious knowledge held by the community. This is relevant to another common theme in Jewish education in the United States through the mid-20th century, which is that each generation tends to have less knowledge of Judaism that the previous generation (Weissbach 289).

The first generation to immigrate to America bring with them Jewish knowledge and values from their home countries. They teach the next generation as well as they can given the resources available to them, but that second generation does not have the same opportunities for Jewish education that the first generation had. Their knowledge of the religion tends to be less complete. They then become responsible for teaching the third generation, which in turn ends up with even less knowledge and education. The progression is clear and leads to a gradual waning of Jewish knowledge, especially in small towns where that lack of resources and qualified teachers cause communities to depend on local volunteers to educate their youth.

Though their intentions are good, frequently the Sunday school volunteers did not receive a very good education themselves and thus the knowledge that they pass on is inadequate. Irene Friedman’s story provides a good example of this. She laments her own lack of Jewish education, but nevertheless she taught Sunday school as a high school student.

Another problem for Jewish education is finding qualified teachers who stay in one place for long enough to set up a consistent educational experience. People frequently move in and out of small towns in search of opportunities, and Kennebec County was no exception to this. The flows of people in and out of the communities not only brought good teachers into the towns, but also took them away.

Irene Friedman and Ken Slosberg both remembered Sunday school in Augusta as an exciting yet sporadic event. It was thrown together when there was a teacher around who was willing to teach it, but it was never consistent. This is a hugely difficult obstacle to establishing an organized educational experience with a clear purpose and a trajectory.

In Waterville, Judy Brody remembers Sunday school being taught by Jewish Colby students. College students are intrinsically temporary since most come into the area only to be educated and leave as soon as they graduate. This is yet another instance of teachers coming and going, preventing a cohesive religious education. The result was a patchwork collection of Jewish knowledge for the children who rarely had the same teacher for long enough to work extensively in a particular direction. This is a common problem among small town Jews and intermittent teachers contributed to the national trend of Jewish education lacking a clear vision or purpose (Diner 151).

The teachers were not the only ones moving in and out of town. One way that small town Jewish communities overcame the lack of good religious teachers in their communities was by bringing a rabbi in from another town to tutor their children or by sending their children to larger towns for their Jewish education (Weissbach 284-85). This common trend in how small town Jewish communities handled the issue of education is clearly evident in the experience of Kennebec County Jews.

Ken Slosberg, who lived in Gardiner and studied with a rabbi from Lewiston, demonstrates this point nicely. The rabbi would sometimes come up from Lewiston and give Hebrew lessons in Augusta, while at other times Ken would go to Lewiston to have his lessons there. His cousin Bernard actually moved from the Augusta area to live in Portland in order to get a better Jewish education. This demonstrates the resourcefulness of small town Jews as they worked with other communities in order to meet their educational needs. Different communities frequently collaborated like this, especially for the purpose of preparing for Bar Mitzvahs.

Bar Mitzvah training

Bar Mitzvah training became the main focus of Jewish education during the interwar years (Joselit 92). This emphasis on the ritual and ceremonial aspects of religion over religious meaning is an interesting reflection of the loss of Jewish knowledge and values over generations after immigration to the United States. Since opportunities for meaningful religious education are limited in small towns, people were looking for different ways to assert their Jewishness and that of their children so they turned to the Bar Mitzvah. Kennebec County was no exception to this trend.

Until the 1950s, when Sunday schools were established in Waterville and Augusta, the only option for Jewish education outside the home was Hebrew tutoring with the rabbi, which was almost entirely geared toward preparing for the Bar Mitzvah. This change in the focus of religious education is clearly indicated by the stories of the Jews who grew up in Kennebec County during the interwar years.

The students who took these classes overwhelmingly expressed the sentiment that they were only learning to read and write Hebrew but that they never knew what it meant or why it was important religiously. The boys saw their Hebrew education, as Ken Slosberg put it, as “something to endure.” Most only took lessons the year leading up to their Bar Mitzvah and ended soon after they had completed the ceremony.

Bob Rosenthal’s experience demonstrates the importance placed on the Bar Mitzvah over the importance of religious education. His grandfather, Hyman Rosenthal, taught him the entire Bar Mitzvah ceremony by rote in order to prepare him for the coming of age ritual. Bob described it as a “spectacular failure” and said that he learned nothing about Hebrew. This clearly demonstrates the value that Jews in this era placed on the Bar Mitzvah and how its importance eclipsed the value placed on religiously focused education.

Finding a home for a school

By and large, resources limited Jewish education in Kennebec County. Communities lacked teachers, lacked organization, and lacked appropriate venues for classrooms. When Phyllis Shiro opened Waterville’s first Sunday school it took place on the second floor of the YMCA.  The synagogue where Irene Friedman’s Jewish education sporadically took place was the second floor of her grandfather’s shoe store.

These less-than-ideal venues demonstrate the lack of resources available to the Jewish communities in Kennebec County and how difficult it was to establish a place for Jewish education. Many towns with small Jewish communities did not have the resources or the people necessary to establish effective formal Jewish education (Weissbach 285-86). This contributed to the nationwide trend of a gradual waning in Jewish knowledge over generations as fewer individuals receive adequate education and in turn have less to pass on to their children.

However, in the period following World War II many communities grew in numbers and were able to realize better systems of Jewish education. Communities grew larger and more synagogues had affiliated formal Hebrew schools open to both boys and girls (Hoberman 196). In Kennebec County, many Jews who grew up during a time with limited opportunities for Jewish education are now able to send their children to better Jewish educational facilities than the ones from which they learned.

Judy Brody, who grew up in Waterville when there was no formal Hebrew school and did not like the tutor her parents hired to teach her Hebrew, stayed in Waterville and was able to send her children to Hebrew school because there are now formal classes available. Burt Shiro, who prepared for his Bar Mitzvah with Reverend Hains and complained that he only learned to read and learned nothing about what he was reading, raised his children in Waterville and was able to send them to Hebrew school and Sunday school, which were much better than what was available to him as a child. This shows that even though Jewish knowledge and education were declining with each generation in the first half of the 20th century, opportunities for education really did improve in the second half of the century, allowing for a revival of Jewish knowledge and values in small town communities for those who still had not lost interest in Jewish education.

The impact of minimal formal education

In the case of Ken Slosberg of Gardiner, we see what can happen as Jewish knowledge decreases to the point that there is no longer an interest in it despite the fact that new opportunities for Jewish education are now available. Ken’s grandparents were Orthodox, but Ken’s parents were not. And while they did their best to instill a sense of Jewishness in their children, Ken does not consider himself very religious. He does not attend synagogue and married a non-Jew. He and his wife in turn raised their children without any form of Jewish education despite its availability. Thus, the waning of Jewish knowledge over generations perpetuated by a lack of education can cause such a lack of interest that even with the presence of better outlets for Judaism and Jewish education the family ceases to be religious. This is the case for many small town Jews, but not for all of them.

There are also many cases where the interest in Judaism is passed down to the next generation despite the lack of education and knowledge. Take the examples of Judy Brody and Burt Shiro, who made sure that their children got better Jewish educations than they did. For individuals who still value Jewish education despite their negative, or at times nonexistent, experiences with it, there are now opportunities for their children to be educated. At times, this can also help the later life education of the adults.

Gordon Wolman is a typical case of a Waterville Jew who really only learned enough Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah and nothing else about his religion. He said he just learned from copying the previous generation but did not understand the meaning behind many of the rituals. This did not, however, cause Gordon to lose interest in the religion and he sent his children to Hebrew school and Sunday school to give them what he could not obtain for himself. Now, in a reversal of the traditional direction of religious knowledge, he is learning from his children and grandchildren who, through their own Sunday school experiences, acquired knowledge of Judaism greater than his. This demonstrates that the dearth in Jewish knowledge witnessed in small towns by the interwar years is reversible, with the hope of new opportunities for later generations.

Print Sources

Diner, Hasia R. Jews in the United States, 1654-2000. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2004.

Hoberman, Michael, How Strange it Seems: The cultural life of Jews in small town New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008).

Klapper, Melissa R, Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America 1960-1920. New York: New York University Press. 2005.

Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950. New York: Henry and Holt Company LLC. 1994.

Weissbach, Lee Shai. Jewish Life in Small Town America: a history. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005.


Brody, Judy.  Interviewed by Jena Hershkowitz, 01/19/10.

Friedman, Irene.  Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, 01/16/10.

Jacobson, Kenneth.  Interviewed by Katie Peterson, 01/09/10.

Rosenthal, Bob.  Interviewed by Becky Muller, 01/19/10.

Shiro, Burt and Phyllis.  Interviewed by Sam Levine, 01/17/10.

Slosberg, Ken.  Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, 01/19/10.

Wolman, Gordon and Myrtle.  Interviewed by Hasan Bhatti, 01/21/2010.