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Jewish Cultural Autonomy & Jewish School Systems

by Z. Michaeli (Michelson)

The resurrection of the Hebrew language and culture between the two world wars took place not only in the land of Israel but also in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Nowhere were its achievements more impressive and far–reaching than in the latter where the national minorities and the Jews in particular were, for the first time, given an opportunity to develop their creative genius within the limits of cultural autonomy.

In Lithuania, the cultural prerequisites for a network of Modern Hebrew schools had long been in existence. In the relatively recent Latvian Jewish community, however, no such conditions were to be found. Nevertheless, this community contributed a great deal to the development of Hebrew education. At the start of the 19th century, only a few dozen Jewish families were to be found in those northern districts of Tsarist Russia which ultimately became the independent Latvian state. By 1940, this community numbered 100,000 and if it contributed so much to the Hebrew culture renaissance in spite of its limited size, this was largely due to the cultural autonomy accorded it by independent Latvia.

 

The Autonomy of the National Minorities

On 8th December, 1919, the Latvian National Council approved the General Schools Law and passed special legislation for the schools of minorities. This was based on a plan for cultural autonomy for the minorities put forward by the government in cooperation with the representative of the Jewish community, Professor Paul Mintz, who was then Chief State Comptroller. The general law governing the Latvian school system regulated the rights and duties of teachers and school principals, school committees and pedagogical committees, relationships between municipalities and minority schools, financial and economic administration of schools, language of instruction, methods of teaching the Latvian language, geography and history; and it instituted free compulsory education in the schools of the minorities.

The Law of Autonomy for the Minorities, also passed by the National Council on 8th December, 1919, set the limits of the autonomy to be enjoyed by the minorities in managing their cultural institutions and specified relationships

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between the minority school system and the government and the authority of the central management of the minority school systems.

The law, which entrusted the management of schools and other cultural institutions for the minorities, contained not only the constitutions of central governing bodies but also regulations governing the financing of secondary schools. It required the central government and municipal budgets to provide funds for minority secondary schools at the same level as for the Latvian secondary schools in proportion to their numbers in each city.

This law, unique and unprecedented at the time, was an outstanding achievement by Latvian statesmen who, at the historical moment of setting up their state, succeeded in rising above the ancient quarrels between nationalities and ingrained hatreds of Russians and Germans, and surmounted the fears expressed in many quarters about the danger of cultural autonomy to Latvian sovereignty.

No doubt the law had shortcomings which were subsequently amended in a truly democratic spirit. Later, when representatives of the minorities submitted to the Latvian Seim a law of complete autonomy for the minorities, encompassing social as well as cultural autonomy and parliamentary representation, the paragraphs regarding cultural autonomy scarcely differed from those passed originally by the Latvian National Council.

The law passed on 8th December, 1919 awarded educational autonomy to three minorities only: Russian, Jewish and German. Later, it was extended to the Poles and White Russians and ultimately, it included the even smaller minorities such as Estonians and Lithuanians.

 

Department of Jewish Culture (Board of Jewish Education)

Immediately after the ratification of the Education Law, the representatives of the Jews in the National Council and the Municipal Council of Riga, met and elected Eng. J. Landau (who, before the War, had been the principal of the Jewish Secondary School using the Russian language) to the post of Director of the Board of Jewish Education. Dr. M.S. Salkind was appointed secretary and Mr. Z. Poloczkoi and Mr. M.L. Hochman assistant secretaries. Soon after Mr. Hochman passed away and was replaced by Mr. Greenman, a teacher. When Mrs. Salkind quitted her post, Mr. A. L. Gurewitz was appointed secretary. He was later replaced by Mr. L. Hochman who served in this post until the end of Jewish autonomy.

Together with the Board of Directors, a public committee was set up.

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It consisted, according to the law, of three Jewish members of the National Council who were, at the time, Mr. M. Dubin (Agudat Israel), Dr. Lipmanovicz (National Democrat), Dr. J. Jaffe (General Zionist, replaced later by Dr. Salkind) and three representatives of the Jewish Teachers' Associations: “Hamoreh”, the Hebrew Teachers' Union, the Union of the “Zentrale Iddishe Schul–Organisatie” and the Union of Orthodox Teachers “Moriah”. The representatives of the teachers were changed from time to time by the respective unions. Two inspectors were appointed at first: Eng. Dov Kulman and Eng. B. Zivian. Later, the total number of government employees was reduced and Zvi Gorfinkel became the only inspector.

 

The Hebrew Schools and the Language of Tuition

Almost all the nationalities in Latvia had possessed schools of their own before World War I, with their established curricula and text–books. When they were granted cultural autonomy, they needed only to introduce certain changes and adjustments to satisfy official requirements. However, the Jewish minority, although enjoying a high cultural level, had no schools of its own before the advent of Latvian independence. Jews were not allowed to serve as teachers in Tsarist Russia, the only exception being a Jewish Boys' school and Girls' school in Riga which had been maintained by the Tsarist government for many years (the boys' school ever since 1840). The Jews, therefore, had no teachers, no text–books and no curriculum. Bitter quarrels began among them with regard the general direction of their schools and the language of tuition. Three brands of opinion existed:

  1. The Yiddishists, who were centred on the very popular “Bund” party. These regarded Yiddish as the language of a new mass culture, spoken by the majority of Jewry and destined to become the only language of the entire Jewish people.
  2. The supporters of Hebrew, backed by the Zionist Organization who regarded Hebrew as the historic language of the nation, as well as the language of Jewish prayer and of the restored Land of Israel.
  3. The Assimilationists, consisting of those who were primarily interested in the material well–being of the Jews, and who thought it was in the best interest of the younger generation to be taught in Russian or German (and not necessarily in Latvian, now the official language of the country).
The pedagogical principle underlying the Law of education was that

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the language spoken in the family should determine the language of tuition. This principle, however, was not congruent with the needs of the Jewish National Renaissance Movement whose advocates found considerable difficulty at first because the languages of the Jewish masses in Latvia were Yiddish, Russian or German to begin with.

 

The German Occupation (1.8.1917–17.9.1918)

Riga, situated outside the Pale in which the Jewish masses were permitted to reside, was known for the assimilationist trend of its Jews. Although the “Instructions of General Hindenburg” issued on 22nd December, 1915 required the language of tuition in schools within German occupied territory to be the mother tongue, the Jewish community was not anxious to exploit this provision. The language of tuition for all three Jewish schools (in Cossack Street, at 141 Romanow Street and at 4 Popow Street) was then German.

In May 1918, a group was formed aiming at the establishment of Yiddish schools. It consisted of A. Vorobeiczik, a student; B. Wolfson, a teacher; L. Levitas; Shlomo Schatz; Jacobson; Jodovin; S. Zacharowitz and M. Donskoy, all active figures in the Jewish community. They were not permitted to pursue their aim and the group was soon disbanded. Between 15th June and end of August, further attempts were made by Yiddishists to obtain a licence for a Yiddish school but the German authorities refused to grant it. The first reports of German military defeats and revolutionary movements at the Front and in Germany itself reached Riga at this time.

Democratic Self–Government in Riga (18.11.1918–2.1.1919)

On 18th November, 1918 Latvia was proclaimed an independent republic. The city of Riga was still dazed by the destruction left behind after the German occupation. Eastern Latvia and the city of Dvinsk were still in Bolshevik hands. In the Town Council of Riga, the Latvian Social Democrats were the dominant group. Upon the invitation of the veteran Latvian teacher, D. Dekens (for many years Mayor of Riga), the Jewish school committee sent its representative, A. Vorobeiczik to the Municipal Elementary School Committee.

An event occurred at this time which had a decisive effect on the balance of power between Yiddishists and the supporters of Hebrew for many years to come. On 29th December, 1918, the general registration of

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children of school age were called for. The registration of Jewish children was entrusted to the Yiddishist Committee of Jewish Education. Faithful Yiddishists were installed at the registration stations and under their influence, parents declared Yiddish as their mother–tongue. The results were definitely in favour of the Yiddishists.

 

The Democratic Jewish Teacher's Association

The first Teachers' Assembly took place on 1st January, 1919. The participants (teachers in existing schools) were: A. Vorobeiczik, N. Vildikan, N. Vorobeiczik, G. Nis, Silbermann, R. Bovshover, T. Meirson, M. Braun, R. Jakobson, L. Wolfson, R. Levinson, G. Rom, S. Sudarsky, Z. Gabbai, M. Gabbai, P. Rapoport, R. Zach, R. Levinson, B. Rosenfeld, A. Shirman, S. Shirman and B. Wolfson.

This Assembly set out the foundations for new schools and passed the following resolutions:

  1. Elementary education should be compulsory, free of charge, uniform, autonomous and lasting 6 years at least (passed unanimously).
  2. Education should be secular, national in spirit and its language Yiddish (passed unanimously with two abstentions). For Jewish children who did not speak Yiddish, schools would be maintained in their mother–tongue.
  3. Schools should be coeducational (passed by majority vote against three objectors).
The Assembly elected the Yiddishist teacher, G. Rom as representative to the Convention of Latvian Teachers.

The second meeting of teachers, presided over by Vorobeiczik, took place on 2nd January, 1919. Only 17 teachers were present. It was then decided to establish the Democratic Union of Jewish Teachers based on the decisions of the Assembly. All teachers recognizing these decisions were eligible as members, as well as laymen active in education, in an advisory capacity. Twelve of the 17 participants enrolled as members and a presidium of A. Vorobeiczik, G. Rom, M. Braun, B. Wolfson and L. Wolfson was elected.

This led to the first split among the Jewish teachers. The little group of Nationalist Zionists could not come to terms with the others. They did not join the Union and planned for a union of its own. On 3rd January, 1919, however, power was seized by the Bolsheviks. All preparations for the setting up of Yiddish schools were suspended. Hebrew schools could not even be dreamt of.

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The Soviet Period (3.1.1919–22.5.1919)

On 9th January, 1919 the Soviet authorities proposed to set up 4 Yiddish schools with 34 classrooms for 1380 children, at 141 Romanov St, 55 Romanow St, 4 Strogan St and 4 Popow St. They were opened by the end of the month. Yiddish was the language of tuition in the first two classes only and Russian was taught in the other classes because of the shortage of teachers who could teach in Yiddish. The Soviet authorities did not interfere with internal affairs of the school, save that the teaching of Hebrew was banned entirely. It should be noted that the newly–founded permanent Board of Teachers of all Jewish schools appealed to the authorities to recognize Hebrew as a voluntary subject. The teachers expressed their readiness to teach Hebrew on their own account. The authorities changed their mind later and recognized Hebrew as a compulsory subject.

On 22nd May, 1919, the Soviet regime fell and the Government was taken over by the Baltic Barons under the presidency of Andrei Niedra. At the time (19.5.1919) the Board of Teachers of the four Jewish schools had split over the question of the language of tuition. Of almost 50 teachers, 25 declared their unwillingness to teach in any school except those in which Yiddish was the language of tuition.

 

Autumn 1919

In August 1919, a Democratic Municipal Council was set up. 2 Jews were elected to the Municipal Committee of Education: Dr. Jaffe, representative of the General Zionists and A. Vorobeiczik, a representative of the Yiddishist Democratic Teacher's Union. They constituted a subcommittee within the Municipal Committee of Education and were empowered to organize the Jewish schools. The Yiddishist Union promptly submitted a list of its 25 members for official recognition as teachers. Their request was granted.

The sub–committee prepared a curriculum and organized the registration of children of school age, but soon, very acute differences of opinion arose on the question of language. The Yiddishist Union demanded that children in classes 1–4 should be taught in their mother–tongue, i.e. Yiddish and that the language of the higher classes should, provisionally, be left as it was. Dr. Jaffe on the other hand, demanded the introduction of Hebrew as the language of tuition. Finally, a compromise was agreed upon and the Riga Jewish newspaper, the “Yiddische Volksstimme” announced, on behalf of the sub–committee of Jewish Education of the Municipal Committee that 24 classes would open in Yiddish two classes in

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Hebrew and additional classes in Russian and German for children who knew only those languages.

The demands of the Yiddishists were based upon the registration of parents on 29th December, 1918, the results of which, as already mentioned, had been in their favour. As a result, three schools were opened with Yiddish as their language. The number of their pupils in autumn 1919 was 2060 or 50–60% of all Jewish children of school age.

The Zionists withdrew their demand for two Hebrew classes to be maintained by the Municipality and opened two Hebrew elementary schools which were sponsored by the Jewish community in Riga at 141, Romanow St. and 4, Popow St. A number of children remained in the, by then, old–fashioned “Heder Metukan” (reformed Heder) schools and a considerable percentage in Russian and German–speaking private institutions.

 

The Jewish Secondary School in Riga

Among the surprises in store for the Jews of Riga in the autumn of 1919, was the Municipal decision to open a Jewish secondary school even though the prerequisite conditions were non–existent: no teachers, no text–books, and no teaching equipment. The Jewish representatives on the Municipal Council were led by national pride to demand the establishment of a secondary school for the Jewish minority as well at a time when such schools were opened for the other national minorities.

A committee consisting of Dr. Jaffe (General Zionists), Engineer Pessis and I. Fishman (National Democrats), representing the Jewish fraction in the Municipal Council and Messrs. Vorobeiczik, J. Berz, B. Wolfsohn and M. Braun of the Yiddishist sub–committee of Education, was formed to deal with all matters concerning the establishment of the Secondary School – the body of teachers, the curriculum, etc. Due to acute differences of opinion, the non–Yiddishist members of the Committee resigned and matters were left entirely in the hands of the Yiddishists.

The secondary school opened in the autumn of 1919 with 8 classes – 3 of which were elementary. The language of instruction that year was Russian with Yiddish and Hebrew taught as separate subjects. The teachers were mostly non–Jews.

 

The Hebrew Schools

At the declaration of Latvian Independence on 18th November, 1918, two schools in the Jewish community had been in existence for several decades in Riga. The first was a boys' school on Romanow St., founded

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by Dr. Lilienthal in 1840. The author taught in this school from 1920 to 1934 and served as its principal. It was generally known as the “Kaplan Schule” because of the writer Aharon Kaplan who had once been the Principal. The second was a girls' school in Popow St. (known as the “Stopel Schule”) and headed by Mrs. M. Gabbai.

These schools underwent several changes under the influence of the Russians and Germans and their language changed accordingly. It was only when Latvia became independent that the decision was made to have Hebrew as their language of instruction.

I wish to dwell on the history of these schools in some detail and to mention those colleagues who worked there from the time they were established as Hebrew schools. The boys' school at 141 Romanow St. was reopened in September 1919 after a short period under Soviet rule when the language of instruction was Yiddish. It contained 4 classes – the first two in Hebrew only. The two higher classes in Russian remained the language of teaching for another year or two. The Jewish community appointed Mr. J.D. Horwitz as principal of the school. Horwitz was a Cantor (Hazan), pupil and spiritual heir of the famous Hazan and composer Rosowsky. The teachers were: Abraham Kaplan who immigrated the following year to Eretz Israel as an early Halutz of the Third Aliya and is now superintendent of schools for working youths in Haifa; Mrs. Rosa Cohen, who now lives in Tel–Aviv; S. Litwin, a teacher of gymnastics and Ruth Hirschberg. In the second year, the teachers were joined by the writer Reuben Rotstein who taught for a year only, left for Eretz Israel and is now a member of Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov; L. Itigin and Shalom Reichsrudel who had already taught Jewish Studies in Hebrew to a whole generation and was of outstanding character with manifold talents in general subjects. (His sons are in Israel – Moshe Ben Elul, one–time editor of “Devar Hashavua” and the veteran teacher and school principal, Joseph Reichsrudel).

In 1923 I became Principal of the school and retained that post until 1934 when, on the demand of the fascist regime of K. Ulmanis, I had to resign since I was regarded as “unfaithful to the spirit of the new regime”.

I wish to mention some other teachers who taught here under my direction. Ida Bovshover, teacher of Latvian and Russian languages – a most devoted member of the staff who taught from 1920 until the school was closed. Lea Mayofes–Epstein, from the Teachers' Seminary of Alterman in Warsaw and who excelled in the lower grades; Pintsov – teacher of the Natural Sciences; J. Taitz – teacher of music; J. Mittel – teacher of gymnastics; J. Weispap – an

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active member of the Zionist Socialists who went to Eretz Israel and then returned to Latvia; Zvi Gorfinkel, a leader of the Zionist Socialist Movement and Principal of the Elementary school affiliated to the Hebrew Secondary School in Riga; Samuel Gram who later taught at the Hebrew Secondary School, was a found of Municipal Hebrew School n°9 in Riga, its principal for many years and one of the active members of the Central Committee of the Hamoreh Hebrew Teachers' Union. All these people perished during the Holocaust. Survivors were: J. Pisetzki and Fishel Weissman and those who succeeded in time to reach Eretz Israel were: Rivka Shereshevsky, who taught from 1924 until she arrived in Eretz Israel in 1935 and is now Principal of the Mizrahi Girls' School in Tel–Aviv; Miriam Bag, an active member of the “Noar Hazioni” movement and the Zionist Socialist Students” Union –“Hashahar”; Shoshana Schattenstein–Lev, who taught at the School from 1924 until she went to Eretz Israel in 1934 and now teaches at the Mizrahi Girls' School in Tel–Aviv; Judith Gram who came to Eretz Israel and joined Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov with her husband Yitshak Maor (Meirson–, a leader of the Zionist Socialist Movement in Latvia; Baruch Bag, teacher of Gymnastics, a founder of “Maccabi” and the Jewish Boy Scout Movement in Latvia and now principal of the Wingate Institute.

This school laid a foundation for organized Hebrew education in Riga. Many of the pupils came to Eretz Israel as pioneers and now live in kibbutzim and moshavim in cities and villages.. The school building served as a meeting place for all pioneer Zionist youth movements, their meetings, councils and assemblies and especially for the Labour Zionist Movement. The same building held the secondary evening school of the Hebrew Teachers' Union which was established on the initiative of the author. Its principal was M. Michelson, one of the handfuls who survived World War II after twice escaping from extermination camps. The secondary school provided a Hebrew education and general culture for hundreds of working class boys and girls who had to go to work upon leaving elementary school and could not afford to attend day secondary schools. The same building also gave accommodation to the “Forebel Institute”, the only Hebrew Teachers' Seminary which, during its first year, trained 100 kindergarten and school teachers. Half of them are now in Israel and most of them continue to teach.

The second school sponsored by the Jewish Community from the advent of cultural autonomy was at first intended as a Girls' School but later admitted boys as well. The principal was Mrs. Mina Gabbai, an

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excellent organizer who, with the aid of her husband, Selig Gabbai, raised the school to a high educational level.

I wish to record the excellent teachers who dedicated themselves most nobly to this school: Rivka Vinnik–Razby, an outstanding figure in the Jewish Renaissance movement of Latvia and one of the first Hebrew teachers, a pioneer and founder of the Zeirei Zion Movement (her husband Yerahmiel Winnik, leader of Latvian Jewry and of the Zionist Socialist Movement, was a gifted journalist who died in a Siberian concentration camp during World War II); Esther and Miriam Rapoport; Sonia Rapoport–Michelson; Noama Vildikan; Relia Zak; Rosa Cohen; Yoeheved Seligman; Sarah Polotzkoi; Sarah Gideon; Eliyahu Kauffman (who came to Eretz Israel in 1920 and died there); and E. Dissenczik (Dr. Sinai, eye–specialist in Tel–Aviv). At a somewhat later period, I recall the teachers Zvi Wasserman–Maimon, active member of the Hamoreh Hebrew Teachers' Union and its honorary Secretary and his wife, Dina who continued her work in Eretz Israel, later Israel, with maladjusted children; T. Majofes, an outstanding pedagogue and A. Kofian.

 

Conditions in the Two Hebrew Schools of the Riga Jewish Community

During 1919–1921, the Jewish community received funds from the American “Joint” for educational and social needs. When this ended in 1922, the financial position of the Jewish community entered a critical phase. The teachers in the two schools were not paid for months. Under those circumstances, when there was no pay, no firewood and no essential teaching appliances, the Hebrew schools remained in existence solely because of unprecedented devotion of the teaching staff.

At the same time, the Yiddishist schools received plentiful municipal budgets, regular salaries, teaching appliances, furniture, etc. It was under these conditions that the struggle for Hebrew had to be carried on against aggressive Yiddishism, against religious fanaticism of the Agudat Israel, against assimilationists and against the indifference of Zionists. It was hard to demand of parents who sent their children to the Hebrew schools to accept hardships for their children when there was such plentiful elsewhere.

The teachers in the two community schools resolved to take their destiny and that of Hebrew education in Riga in their own hands and demanded that the community transfer its schools to municipal network.

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The Community Council opposed this on principle, being afraid of losing its influence in the schools while Zionist members feared that the Municipality might compel the schools to teach in Yiddish. A bitter struggle developed between it and the teachers who were backed only by the “Zeirei Zion” party. The outcome was that in January 1923, the schools were transferred to the Municipal network. From then onwards, they began to develop properly.

 

The Society for the Advancement of Science & Art

In 1921, an additional Hebrew school containing both elementary and secondary classes was founded by the “Society for the Advancement of Science and Art in Latvia”. This society was initiated by Dr. Hermann Wasserman, and in the same year it, it founded a popular music school headed by the composer Shlomo Rosovsky. This music school contributed a great deal to musical education in Latvia. Many music teachers who were excluded from the state–controlled Conservatory, in spite of the democratic constitution, found in the Jewish institution a framework for their teaching activities. Several of them came to Israel in due course including its then Director, Shlomo Rosovsky, Dr. S. Hellman and Mrs. Esther Michelson–Rapoport. The Society also founded a Hebrew kindergarten under the direction of Mrs. Klass who had grown up in Eretz Israel and brought the spirit of the Land to Latvia.

Worthy of mention is the Treasurer of the Society, Mr. Baslavski who was dedicated to the resurrection of Hebrew and the Hebrew School. His son, L. Baslavski, a leading member of Kvutzat Kinneret, is a graduate of the Hebrew Secondary School.

 

The Hebrew Secondary School in Riga

In its first school year, the Hebrew Secondary School which, as already mentioned was founded in 1921 contained only 3 or 4 lower grades where the language of instruction was Hebrew. In the other classes, general subjects were taught in Russian, but Hebrew and Judaist subjects were also taught. During the first year of its existence many Jewish youths left their former Russian or German schools and joined the Hebrew Secondary School. Within a few years, all classes had adopted Hebrew as the language of tuition and the school soon assumed a central position for Hebrew education in Latvia, transmitting culture and education to thousands of youngsters, many of whom became leaders in Zionist Youth organizations.

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The principals of the school were (in order of succession) senior lecturer Weintraub, later Director of the Pedagogical Institute of the Directorate of Jewish Education, a man of high culture but with insufficient knowledge of Judaism and Hebrew. Later, Dr. Rosenberg was brought from Germany but only served for a short time. The next principal, Dr. Eliyahu Segal, was invited from Kovno (Kaunas). He was a man of wide general and Jewish culture who directed the school for many years and maintained it at a high educational level. After a long period of fruitful work not only as a school principal but also as an active functionary in the Hamoreh Hebrew Teachers' Union, he left Riga and returned to Kovno where he worked as a medical practitioner until the outbreak of War. During the war, he lived in the Ghetto of Kovno, was deported to Dachau, and after much tribulation, reached Israel. His wife, Sonia Segal was a teacher of rare pedagogical gifts with a thorough knowledge of Hebrew and also taught subjects in the Secondary School and the Teachers' Seminary. She too passed through the Ghetto and the concentration camps but finally reached Israel and was reunited with her husband.

Dr. Segal was replaced by Dr. M. Nadel, lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Dorpat. He was a man of pedagogical distinction, a great expert on Judaism and author of books on general history, who contributed a great deal to the high educational level of the school. He wished to continue his work in Eretz Israel. During the school year 1936–37, he went to Moscow in order to take leave of his brother but fell ill on the journey and never returned. His successor was Eng. J. Perniack, a veteran teacher at the school in whom a thorough knowledge of Judaism was blended with great erudition in National Sciences. He was active in the Teachers' Union which he represented for many years on the Directorate of Jewish Culture in Latvia. He served as principal of the Secondary School until its abolition.

I wish to mention other members of the teaching staff with whom I had the privilege of being in daily contact through our activities in the Teachers' Union.

Moshe Breitbord, teacher of Jewish studies, honorary secretary of the school for many years. (His book on Hebrew grammar is also widely used in Israeli schools). He was one of the few who succeeded in fleeing from Riga during the war but afterwards, returned and died there.

H. Gordon came to Latvia in 1926 when “Habimah” left Russia. In Moscow, he had taught the members of “Habimah” Hebrew and was active in the Teachers' Union from his arrival in Latvia. He was of a

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peaceful, optimistic disposition. He taught Jewish studies at the Municipal Hebrew School in Popow Street as well as at the Secondary School.

Meir Weinberg taught science at the Secondary School. He was an enthusiastic fighter for the Hebrew cause; he was a member of the Central Committee of the Teachers' Union for many years and Treasurer of the educational institutions it established. He and his wife Bertha, one of the first Hebrew kindergarten teachers in Latvia, were among those few who left for Eretz Israel before the war.

Rabbi M. Levin taught an elegant Hebrew. He was a permanent member of the Executive of the “Hamoreh” during 1924 and served as principal of the Seminary for Teachers and Kindergarten teachers. He was a great fighter for the Hebrew cause. Before the outbreak of the war, he and his wife went to visit their daughter in France and from there, they ultimately succeeded in reaching Israel.

Moshe Latt was a leading member of the Central Committee of the “Hamoreh”, a lecturer on pedagogy and psychology at the “Froebel Institute”, a man of great erudition with a thorough knowledge of the Latvian language. He died in the Riga Ghetto.

Dr. L. Kantor was also one of the members of the Central Committee of the “Hamoreh” in the critical year of 1926. He lectured on history in the “Froebel Institute” in addition to his work at the Secondary school. Later, he left the teaching profession and was a lawyer in Mitau.

Also worth mentioning is Mr. Lemel, an active member of the “Hamoreh” Union who died of a heart attack in early 1931 while still relatively young; Mr. Piter, a history teacher and Mr. J. Shraga, a teacher of classical languages.

 

The Union of Hebrew Teachers in Latvia

The Union was started by a few devoted people whose only asset was their firm belief in the cause they wished to serve. They were a handful against many who did everything to thwart their efforts. The situation among Latvian Jews was itself against us: The mother–tongue of the children was Yiddish, Russian or German. Most of the children went to Russian or German schools which belonged to Christians or assimilated Jews. A minority studied at traditional “Heder” schools. A second discouraging factor was the shortage of teachers and teaching facilities. Within the Jewish community there was a bitter opposition to Hebrew on the part of the Yiddishists, disparagement and unbelief on the part of the assimilationists and passivity and indifference among the Zionists.

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It was, therefore, the teachers' task to carry out a mission which the organised communities in other countries would have considered it their duty to carry out.

The teachers not only had to perform their educational duties but also fight for the legal rights of the Hebrew schools, to engage in propaganda for them and to ensure their natural needs in order to secure their mere existence.

Let us now review the early history of the Hebrew Teachers' Organization.

 

“Ivrit” Teachers' Association (January 1920–1923)

As already mentioned, some of the teachers participating in the first teachers' meeting in Riga on 1st January, 1919 were against the Yiddishist majority but only at the start of 1920 did they form an association which was recognized by the authorities as the “Hebrew Teachers' Association, Riga”.

The first letter of this Association, dated 12th April, 1920, was addressed to the Director of the Office of Education and Culture at the Zionist Executive in London. It said:

“Dear Sirs,

After numerous difficulties, we have succeeded in forming a new type of Hebrew Teachers' Association. Its main objective is to establish new schools in the spirit of a Hebrew–Zionist education. Most of our members are young. They number 25 male and female teachers. Not all of them know Hebrew and we particularly lack teachers of general subjects capable of teaching in Hebrew. Next year, new classes will be added in these schools and the burden on the teaching staff will be even heavier. It would help us greatly if a Hebrew Teachers' Seminary could be founded here. We also lack text–books and have to teach by lecturing only. Please send us a list of all Hebrew text–books on all possible subjects that have been published and, if possible, some of the books themselves. Also, please send us the latest pedagogical literature in Hebrew. Awaiting your urgent reply, with the greetings of Zion. E. Rapoport, Vice Chairman, A. Kaplan, Secretary.”

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In the month of Sivan 1920, Esther Rapoport was the first representative of the Association on the Board of Public Education of the Municipal Directorate of Jewish Culture. She was succeeded by L. Gabbai. Later, this office was filled by J.A. Horwitz, Z. Michelson and J. Perniack.

The Associations' main weakness was that its best pioneering members left the country for Eretz Israel one after the other.

In July 1920, the Vice–President of the Association went to Israel as one of the first Latvian pioneers of the Third “Aliya”. In June 1921, Moshe Polotzkoi moved on to Eretz Israel (M. Palmon, a director of the Keren Kayemet in Haifa). He was one of the founders of the Association and an excellent advocate of the Hebrew language which was the language used in his home. His father was a veteran Hebrew teacher in the “Reform” Hadarim. His brother Zeev Polotzkoi was an outstanding teacher and member of the Directorate of Jewish Culture throughout its existence; a third brother, Shachna Polotzkoi, was also a well–known teacher and public figure, active in the Teachers' Union and its Central Emergency Committee during the crisis in 1926. Their sister, Sarah Polotkoi, was also a veteran teacher and later taught in Tel–Aviv.

However, the greatest handicap of the Hebrew teachers was their lack of an ideological basis. In a leaflet sent to teachers in the provinces, the basic principle of the Association was formulated as follows: “The main purpose of our Association is to resuscitate the Hebrew language among our youth. We want our youngsters to finish primary school knowing the Hebrew language sufficiently well to use it easily and fluently in speech and writing and get acquainted with its literature”. No mention is made in clear terms of the need to make Hebrew the only language of instruction in schools for Jewish children. The main intention was to win over teachers who did not full–heartedly adhere to the Yiddishist camp.

The first consultation of Jewish teachers from all over Latvia took place on 29th July, 1921, its purpose being to establish a Hebrew Teachers' Union and formulate its ideological basis.

 

The Foundation of the Hebrew Teachers' Union “Hamoreh”

A meeting of Hebrew teachers with 16 participants took place on 28th June, 1922 under the chairmanship of J. Wiener and decided to set up a country–wide Federation. Its decisions were: a) The Federation aims to organize all teachers who advocate a modern, nationally–spirited Hebrew school in which the language of instruction will be Hebrew (9 for 1 against).

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b) the Federation will disseminate pedagogical and general scientific information among its members (adopted unanimously); c) The Federation will spread Jewish national culture among the people (adopted unanimously); d) It will defend the professional interests of its members (unanimous); e) The Federation will be called “Hamoreh” (18 for, 3 against); f) Members of the Federation may be either people with long teaching experience in the past or people who actually teach (unanimous). The first General Assembly of the Federation met on 15th August, 1922 and approved the regulations drawn up at the previous meeting.

From 22nd June, 1922 until the summer of 1924, Shmuel Herr served as Chairman of the Teachers' Federation. From 1924 until May, 1926 the post was filled by Dr. Levinson. Until 1926, the main activities of the Federation were confined to the professional and cultural fields (e.g. lectures on pedagogy, etc).

 

The Turning Point

During the final days of December 1925, while attending the Assembly of the Hebrew Teachers' Federation, we received news of the resolution passed by the Progressive Latvian Teachers on the language of instruction in Jewish schools. This resolution led to a sharp change in the activities of the Hebrew Teachers' Federation and the course of the Hebrew Movement as a whole.

At the same time, the General Assembly of the All–Latvian Teachers' Federation took place with the participation of teachers from the Yiddishist camp.

In the name of the Yiddishists, J. Neuschloss submitted a memorandum requesting assistance in their “struggle against assimilationists and against Hebraists whose influence in Jewish circles threatens to become dominant”. The Jewish teachers, according to this memorandum, demanded that the Yiddish language be recognized as the official language of the Jewish people. In an address to the Assembly, Israel Braun declared that the problem of Yiddish was not merely an internal Jewish concern but a general one. He called on all progressive, democratic elements in Latvia to support the Yiddishist Educational organization, and concluded with the following words: “Jewish democracy opposes the Russification and Germanization of Jewish youth and fights the tendencies to attempt to inculcate the dead Hebrew language among the younger generation”.

The following resolutions were adopted by majority vote:

  1. The Tenth Convention of the Federation of Latvian Teachers

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    expresses its deepest sympathy and support for the democratic Jewish public in its struggle for the rights of the popular Yiddish language.
  1. The Convention supports the demand that paragraph 3 of the Law of Education should include the following clause: “In all Jewish schools which are supported by Government or municipality, the language of teaching must be Yiddish”.
The resolutions were an obvious warning of the dangers the young Hebrew Movement was facing. In spite of this, nationalist circles continued to be paralyzed by internal strife for months. As a member of the Central Committee of the “Hamoreh” Union, I demanded a complete change of approach towards the objectives of the Union which, until then, had regarded itself solely as a Trade Union. The Chairman, Dr. Levinson, a man of wide European culture, devoted his attention mainly to the professional needs of the members and arranged a few lectures on pedagogy during the year. I proclaimed that we ourselves and no one else had to take upon our own shoulders the furtherance of the Hebrew Movement.

In May 1926, the Chairman admitted the need for a change of policy but was unwilling to carry it out personally and resigned from the Central Committee. Four members remained: Dr. Kantor, Moshe Latt, Shachna Polotzkoi and I. I was elected Chairman and accepted on condition that the Central Committee regard itself as a “Fighting Committee”. The programme I proposed contained the following points.

  1. Energetic political activity against Yiddishist aggression.
  2. Constructive action for the establishment of Hebrew schools.
  3. Organizational activity.
This programme was accepted.

At the beginning of June 1926, we submitted a memorandum to the Latvian General Federation of Teachers, asking for the admission of the “Hamoreh” Union and expressing explicit dissent regarding the resolution on the language of instruction in Jewish schools. The Yiddishists, who had been members of the Federation for a long time, fought bitterly against the admission of “Hamoreh”. They slandered the supporters of Hebrew as “a camp of reactionaries”, “anti–pedagogues”, etc. The non–Jews could not understand why they should exclude a new Teachers' Union which had declared it progressive intentions and undertook to obey the regulations of the General Federation. Moshe Latt and I were entrusted with the task of submitting our memorandum and addressing the Assembly of the General Federation on June 6th, 1926. I shall never forget the tense hours as we waited for the Assembly's decision. We knew the Yiddishists

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were doing everything they could to thwart our design. The Latvian teachers, on the other hand, rose to the occasion and understood our arguments. By a great majority, the Assembly decided to admit our Union into the Federation.

This was our first political victory. From then on, we were able to fight for Hebrew from within. A fortnight later (17–6–1926) another Assembly of the Latvian General Federation of Teachers was due to take place. Although only pedagogical matters were on the agenda, we decided to call for a revision of the previous resolution on the language of tuition in Jewish schools.

Within a few days, we enlarged our membership from 50 to 120. This enabled us to send 12 representatives to the assembly. We organized two large public meetings in Riga: One on 14th June for the parents and one the following day for the Jewish Youth. On the eve of the assembly we published a newspaper in Latvian for the representatives in the Assembly. The paper contained articles written by our best members and supporters, including: Prof. M. Laserson, member of the Latvian Seim; J. Vinnik and Latzky–Bertholdi who had just arrived in Latvia and, although not a Zionist at the time, came out in our support realising the danger to the Hebrew Movement from the extreme Yiddishists. We turned to the Minister of Culture, the Latvian poet, J. Reinis and asked him to support us publicly in the Assembly. The Minister expressed his sympathy for our cause but explained that in his official capacity, he could not take sides in a dispute between Jewish factions. However, he promised to send his wife, Aspasia on his behalf.

Our great moment at the Assembly came when Professor Laserson stated the principles of the Hebrew language as the basis of the Jewish renaissance. He was followed by N. Maisel, a “Bundist” member of the Seim who described the Hebrew language as a language of clericals and reactionaries and the followers of Zionism and the Hebrew Movement as reactionaries.

The situation of the Yiddishists became really miserable when the poetess Aspasia spoke in moving terms of Hebrew as the language of the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the pioneers who were building a new fatherland in Palestine. How could such a language, she asked, be called reactionary? As it was not within the jurisdiction of the Assembly to rule on this matter, it was decided to defer the execution of the previous decision regarding the language of instruction until the next regular Assembly.

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Our representatives at this Assembly were: Prof. M. Laserson, M. Latt, Dr. A. Segal, Z. Michelson, Z. Gabbai, Dr. L. Kantor, J. Vinnik, A. Bovshover, Tscherow, R. Vinnik, Dr. Levinson and Mr. Weinberg.

The results of this assembly could be considered as almost a victory. We now had time to prepare, to enrol new supporters, to conduct propaganda and engage in constructive work for the enlargement of the Hebrew schools. In the summer of 1926, I proposed to the Central Committee the setting up of a Seminary for kindergarten teachers and teachers of the lower grades of elementary schools. The institution was envisaged as the foundation for the whole superstructure of Hebrew schooling. A network of Hebrew kindergarten was to be spread over all the towns of Latvia and was to become the basis for new Hebrew schools or the conversion of other–language schools into Hebrew schools.

 

The “Froebel Institute” in Riga.

The meeting of the Central Committee of the “Hamoreh” on 17th August, 1926 decided upon the foundation of the “Froebel Institute” as a seminary for the training of kindergarten and school teachers for the lower grades of elementary schools. On 26th October of the same year, the opening ceremony of the Institute took place. It was solemnly inaugurated by the Director Z. Michelson and an opening address was delivered by Prof. Laserson on “Social Pedagogy”.

In its first year, the institute had 11 students, 4 of them from Lithuania. The lecturers in its first year were: M. Schattenstein, Hebrew language and Bible; Dr. J. Michaelis, Pedagogy and Psychology; Dr. Segal, Hygiene; M. Rapoport, Natural Sciences; L. Kantor, History; J. Taitz, singing; Prof. M. Laserson, Social Pedagogy; Z. Michelson, Education of Infants and Methodics of arithmetic; Theresa Gottlieb, Rhythmic and handwork; R. Shereshewski, drawing and painting.

All graduates of this year obtained employment in Latvia and Lithuania. As a result, 41 students enrolled in the second year – 32 of them from Lithuania, 1 from Estonia and 8 from Latvia. This second year saw new lecturers joining the institute: M. Latt, Pedagogy and Psychology (replacing Dr. Michaelis who had left Latvia); M. Kramarow, painting and hand work; A. Antik, Rhythmic (replacing Teresa Gottlieb–Goitein who had left for Eretz Israel).

For the first year, most of the lecturers volunteered to teach without pay. By the end of the first year, however, we had succeeded, thanks to the intervention of the Seim members – Prof. M. Laserson and Rabbi M.

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Nurock, in obtaining a handsome budgetary allocation from the Government, approved directly by the Budgetary Committee of the Seim. This enabled us to cover the expenses of the first year and put the remained aside for the second year. Our service to the Hebrew kindergartens of Lithuania was appreciated there and we were granted a contribution of 200 lats per month.

During five years, the Seminary produced 100 graduates who found employment, mostly in the kindergartens of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and some in the lower grades of elementary schools. Great assistance was provided by the first Municipal Hebrew Kindergarten, directed by Esther (Sonia) Michelson, which served as a centre for demonstration and practical work by the students of the Seminary during all its years of existence.

The “Froebel Institute” exercised a considerable influence on the whole network of Jewish education in the country. The Central Committee of “Hamoreh” began to receive requests for new elementary grades in Hebrew from different parts of the country, as a direct continuation of the kindergartens. Parents in the Yiddish schools began to demand the introduction of Hebrew as the language of instruction instead of Yiddish. This largely depended on the will of the parents and the availability of teaching staff in Hebrew. Each vacant post was hotly contested. Regulations covering the appointment of teachers in Latvian elementary schools are worth reviewing here.

There was a Board in many of the schools consisting of representatives of the parents elected yearly at a general assembly – one representative for each class and one teacher for each class. All vacant teaching posts were announced in the press. The school principal presented the names of the candidates to the assembly, expressing his own choice and the assembly would then choose two of the candidates for consideration by the Municipal Committee of Education which made the final decision. The candidates thus chosen still had to obtain approval by the Directorate of Schools at the Municipality. The Committee of Education was composed of municipal functionaries only but the Directorates of Schools at the Municipality were autonomous and consisted of a representative of the Municipality, representatives of the teachers (one Latvian and one from each minority) and a superintendent from the Government. If the decision of the Education Committee and the Directorate conflicted, the matter was resolved by the Minister of Education.

The struggle of the “Hamoreh” Union for new teaching posts had to be carried on along the whole front: at the School Boards, meaning election

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campaigns at the yearly assemblies of parents and election campaigns among the teachers in schools when their single representatives to the Municipal Directorates were elected each year. In a number of cases, the Municipal Directorates appointed teachers against the wishes of the parents and this made intervention with the Minister of Education necessary. Much to our regret, this intervention required by–passing the Directorate of Jewish Education which never had the courage to resolve disputes between the partisans of Yiddish and Hebrew.

Besides this political activity, which consumed ample energy and time, the “Hamoreh” Union continued its constructive work. During the period 1926–1931 we set up most of the Hebrew educational institutions of which 4 kindergartens in Riga and 14 in country towns. All of them on the initiative and with financial support of the “Hamoreh” Union. A number of Yiddish elementary schools passed over to the Hebrew language; parallel classes in Hebrew were set up in Municipal schools and new schools and classes were founded under the auspices of the “Hamoreh” and with its financial support until they were taken over by the Municipality. A Hebrew secondary evening school for working boys and girls in Riga and elsewhere was opened. It started as a continuation of elementary classes and later became a complete secondary school whose graduates were admitted to the University.

I wish to mention here the assistance afforded to the Hebrew cause by such devoted public figures as: Slavjaciski in Tukum; B. Zenziper in Kraslavka; the teachers B. Neufeld and Sachs in Libau; Ginsburg and Kajatzki, principals of the first Hebrew school in Dvinsk, Chanutin, Weisman, Grinberg, Rabinovitz in Rezhitze, and many others.

During the summer vacation “in–service training” courses for teachers were organized by “Hamoreh” in Judaist and pedagogic subjects. The participants were awarded certificates issued on behalf of the Directorate of Jewish Education.

 

Baltic Convention of Hebrew Cultural Organisations

The burden of maintaining these courses weighed heavily on the “Hamoreh” Union. At the meeting of the Central Committee on 1st September, 1927, I proposed to hold a Convention of all Hebrew cultural organizations in the Baltic States. Its purpose was to arouse the activity of the dormant forces in the Latvian Zionist Organization, Youth and Student movements by bringing them in contact with external – especially Lithuanian, Hebraist

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influences. The Convention took place during the Sukkot Holiday in 1927 and a delegation of 16 of the most active members of the Hebrew cultural movement in Lithuania took part. Among them were: M. Cohen, N. Grinblat (Goren), D. Lejser, Porochovnik and others. There was an Estonian delegation headed by Dr. Asher Bavli (Bernstein) and representatives of several organizations in Latvia.

The representative of the “Tarbut” organization of Poland, Moshe Gordon, also took part as a guest observer.

The Convention lasted for three days. Its presidents were Moshe Cohen (Lithuanian), Z. Michelson–Michaeli (Latvia) and A. Bavli (Estonia). It was an effective demonstration of the strength of the Hebrew Cultural Movement at a time when we were engaged in a bitter struggle for the rights of Hebrew as the language of instruction and inspired the setting up of the “Tarbut” Federation in Latvia. Nevertheless, daily practical work remained in the hands of “Hamoreh”. With an expanding network of Hebrew schools under its tutelage, it also took care of organizational improvements, of thorough–going pedagogical work and of the expansion and deepening of the Eretz Israel element in the Hebrew educational pattern.

In–service pedagogical training was carried out in cooperation with the All–Latvian Teachers' Federation which set up a special “Bureau of Pedagogy” for this purpose.

Our educational institutions established contact with corresponding institutions in Eretz Israel which were a constant source of inspiration for us. In the summer of 1929, I visited schools in Vienna and reported to our Union on the educational innovations I found there. As a direct consequence, I attempted, with the approval of the Municipality, to introduce the Dalton system in the school under my direction.

 

The Latvian Teachers' Tour in Eretz Israel

The Union's activities reached their peak in the organization of a Teachers' Tour to Eretz Israel (Palestine of those days), with the participation of 35 teachers under my leadership.

The Latvian authorities' attitude to this venture was favourable and sympathetic. The Ministry of Education and the Municipality of Riga agreed to exempt those teachers who participated in the tour from attending school for three weeks.

The school under my direction, many of whose teachers were participants in this tour, was closed down altogether for this period. It was arranged that the participating teachers would refund the teaching time

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they had missed after they returned. They were accorded a long–term loan by the Bank of the All–Latvian Teachers' Federation to cover travelling expenses. Funds were also allocated by the Municipality of Riga, which recognized the educational nature of the tour and its potentially beneficial influence on the development of the Hebrew schools under their auspices. The tour was the first of its kind and became an event to which much attention was devoted, even in Eretz Israel. Its programme was prepared by the Teachers' Federation of Eretz Israel which also provided guides from among its members. We spent our first evening in Palestine at a meeting in the home of J. Azaryahu who had planned our visit to Tel–Aviv. The next day, we attended an official reception at the Tel–Aviv Municipality by Mayor M. Dizengoff and Mrs. S. Persitz, head of the Education Department. On the same day, we met C.N. Bialik in Ravnitski's house. He gave us his promise to visit Latvia and did so some months later. That became the greatest event in the life of the Latvian Jewish community. A series of lectures was given by him and he was received everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm.

Receptions in honour of the Latvian teachers were held at the head office of the Keren Kayennet by Mr. Ussishkin and Nathan Bistrizky and at the head office of the Keren Haysod by Leib Jaffe with the Latvian consul, Mr. Caspi. Participating parties in our honour were held by local groups of teachers wherever our group happened to visit (Tel–Aviv, Jerusalem and Nahalal).

Several projects were worked out during our stay in Eretz Israel. One of them provided for an exchange of visits of teachers and pupils between Eretz Israel and Latvia. While visiting the Central Committee of the Federation of Teachers in Jerusalem, it was decided to convene a World Congress of Hebrew educators. I was entrusted with the organization of the teachers of Central Europe and the Baltic States in preparation of this.

After our return, the teachers who had participated gave many lectures in Riga and all over the country, describing their impression. They did their best to infuse the spirit of the builders of Eretz Israel into the Hebrew schools of Latvia.

 

Meeting of Hebrew Kindergarten Teachers in the Baltic States

In accordance with the decision to hold a World Congress of Hebrew educators reached with the Teachers' Federation in Eretz Israel, I convened a preparatory meeting of Hebrew kindergarten teachers from the three

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Baltic States in the summer of 1931. The meeting took place in Kovno and lasted three days. Sixty kindergarten teachers attended. A report was presented on the activities of the “Froebel Institute” during the 5 years of its existence and lectures were delivered on the role of the Hebrew Kindergarten and its merits as well as the juridical and professional status of kindergarten teachers. The latter themselves reported on their work, and it was decided to maintain lively contact with Eretz Israel and set up an organization of Hebrew kindergarten teachers in the Baltic States.

Very soon, however, there were radical changes on the political scene. The influence of German Nazism could be felt in other European countries including Latvia. From time to time, new laws were passed reducing national minority rights and abolishing their cultural autonomy after the fascist regime of K. Ulmanis came to power in May 1934. Before speaking of these events, however, let us pause a moment to review the achievements of Jewish cultural autonomy in Latvia during the 15 years of its existence.

 

Elementary Schools of the Directorate of Jewish Culture

Under the law, it was the duty of the Municipality to set up elementary schools for Jewish children and finance them. At first, not every Municipality complied with this duty because of their financial straits after the war. With the help of the Ministry of Education, however, the situation soon improved and in due course, the state of Jewish education in Latvia reached a level which had no parallel in other lands of the Diaspora.

Number of Pupils Attending Schools of the Directorate of Jewish Culture

School
Year
Hebrew
N° %
Yiddish
N° %
Russian
N° %
German
N° %
Total
N° %
Number
pupils in
Non–Jewish
Schools
Total
Jewish
pupils
1922–23 1,863 – 21 5,209 – 58 988 – 11 896 – 10 8,956 2,263 11,219
1928–29 3,204 – 31 4,978 – 48 705 – 7 1438 – 14 10,325 1,697 12,022

 

Jewish Elementary Schools During the First Decade

School
Year
N° of
schools
N° of
teachers
N° of
pupils
School
year
N° of
schools
N° of
teachers
N° of
pupils
1919–20 21 180 4,157 1924–25 67 481 9,594
1920–21 44 354 7,267 1925–26 78 568 9,934
1921–22 51 393 8,738 1926–27 74 576 10,171
1922–23 66 378 8,956 1927–28 83 593 10,192
1923–24 61 472 8,699 1928–29 85 599 10,325

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The “Heder Metukan” Schools

Until the establishment of the Latvian State, these were the main source of Jewish traditional education. They had to adapt themselves to the provisions of the Law of Compulsory Education, and the circles supporting them had to agree to adopt the elementary school curriculum and include their schools within the general elementary school network. Otherwise, those parents who wished to give their children a general as well as religious education would have been compelled to send their children to the general schools and maintain a “Heder” for Jewish religious and Hebrew subjects.

 

Secondary Schools

Although attendance in secondary schools was not obligatory or free of charge, according to the law, the Government allocated considerable sums for secondary education and the national minorities received their share in proportion to their numerical strength. At first, two government secondary schools were set up, one in Libau and one in Rezicza and were maintained with financial support from the local Jewish communities. In Riga, the Municipality opened the secondary schools and maintained them at its cost. When the sums allocated for secondary schools in the governmental budget were enlarged, the Jewish secondary schools also received a larger share. The Directorate of Jewish Culture spent these allocations largely on the maintenance of the two state schools in Rezicza and Libau and the rest on commercial and private secondary schools – the number of which increased yearly. This, of course, involved a reduction in the amount allocated to each separate school.

In the two state schools of Rezicza and Libau, Russian and German were the languages of instruction. For the Municipal secondary school in Riga, it was Yiddish. In addition, there were six publicly maintained secondary schools in Riga: the Hebrew Secondary School which was founded by the “Society for the Advancement of Science and Art”; The Evening Secondary School set up by the Teachers' Union “Hamoreh”; Tushiah”, the secondary stage of the “Heder Metukan” type of school supported financially as well as morally by the Mizrahi Movement and the well–known philanthropist, A. Sobolevitz; the secondary stage of the “Torah vederech–eretz” type of schools which were set up by the Agudat Israel movement. All these schools had Hebrew as the language of tuition. There were also the “Ezra” secondary school of the assimilationist circles which taught in German and an evening secondary school in Yiddish, set up by the “Zentrale Iddishe Schulorganisatzie”. In addition, there were the following four privately owned secondary

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Schools: Rauchwarger, Liebermann, Bergman and Landau (later S. Gorfinkel). All of these employed Russian or German as the medium of instruction. In Dvinsk, Lutzin, Karsava, Libau and Mitau, there were municipal secondary schools and in Windau – a school owned by the community. In all these schools with the exception of Dvinsk, the language of instruction was Russian or German but Jewish subjects were taught.

In Dvinsk, there was a municipal secondary school and the majority of its pupils were Jewish. The Directorate of Jewish Culture proposed on several occasions to the parents' meetings of this school that it should be transferred from the Russian to the Jewish Directorate but the parents refused. It was only when a regulation of the Ministry of Education ordered the transfer of schools in which at least 60% of pupils belonged to a certain minority to the Directorate of this minority, did the parents agree that the municipal secondary school in Dvinsk be transferred to the Directorate of Jewish Culture.

The language of instruction at the Secondary School in Dvinsk was therefore Russian to begin with but in due course, classes in Hebrew were opened and it gradually became a Zionist institution. Special mention should be made of the success of Joseph Seh–Lavan, a graduate of the Teachers' Seminary in Jerusalem, who was summoned by the Hamoreh Union to transform the Russian Secondary school in Dvinsk into a Hebrew school. He devoted a great deal of his energy to the organization of a Zionist Youth Movement which succeeded in attracting a great number of youths who had previously been drawn to communism. In time, the number of Jewish Secondary Schools increased through the transfer of schools with a majority of Jewish pupils to the Jewish Directorate.

Number of pupils in Secondary Schools under the Directorate of Jewish Culture

School
Year
Hebrew
N° / %
Yiddish
N° / %
Russian
N° / %
German
N° / %
Total N°
of Jewish
N° pupils in
Non–Jewish
Schools
1922–23 95/8 261/22 818/64 65/6 1239 2617
1928–29 427/18 538/24 937/41 396/17 2298 1391

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Development of Secondary Schools During the First 10 Years

School
Year
N° of
schools
under Dir.
Jewish cult.
N° of
pupils
in Latvia
Total N° of
sec. schools
Total N° of
pupils
1919–20 3 599 65 7,330
1920–21 8 909 80 11,828
1921–22 8 1,025 97 13,814
1922–23 9 1,239 106 14,601
1923–24 8 1,226 103 15,406
1924–25 13 1,630 104 15,589
1925–26 20 2,334 102 15,784
1926–27 19 2,360 100 15,999
1927–28 19 2,476 98 15,721
1928–29 19 2,298 100 16,026

In the school year 1928–29 the Latvians possessed one secondary school per 15,388 persons; the Russians had one school per 13,832 persons; the Germans had one school per 5,914 persons and the Jews had one school per 4,349 persons. Of the 16,026 pupils who attended secondary school in 1928–29, 14.4% were Jews whereas their percentage in the population amounted to only 5%.

 

Various Educational Institutions

  1. Government courses in pedagogy.

    These were set up in 1920 to expedite the training of teachers for Jewish elementary schools. The courses continued later for one year. When the acute scarcity of teachers had been overcome, they were transformed into a biennial pedagogical institute. Eligible to these courses were graduates of secondary schools. They were given a general course in pedagogy and in Hebrew, Yiddish and Judaic subjects. The language of instruction was Russian. As a result, the state–owned Pedagogic Institute could satisfy the demands of neither Hebrew nor Yiddishist circles which were compelled to set up their own institutions for training of teachers and kindergarten teachers in Hebrew and Yiddish.

    Each summer the Jewish Directorate organized Hebrew courses for teachers in pedagogic subjects. At first, attendance at these summer courses gave participants the same rights as were enjoyed by the graduates of the

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    biennial courses. Later on, the teachers were required to complete the biennial course and summer courses served only for “in–service” training. In later years, an additional training course was set up for kindergarten teachers.

    Attendance at Government Courses in Pedagogy

    School
    year
    Attended Graduated
    1923–24 20 12
    1924–25 72 11
    1925–26 74 58
    1926–27 79 17
    1927–28 56 32
    1928–29 56 8

  1. Artisan Schools.

    There existed two artisan schools in Riga: One maintained by the “Mefitzei Haskala” Society with classes for carpentry, locksmith work, electricians, and one maintained by “ORT” training tailors, seamstresses and hat–makers.

    In Dvinsk there was a school of crafts which trained carpenters and locksmiths.

    In Libau there was an Artisans' School for locksmiths, mechanics and carpenters.

    All these schools were well equipped and trained 300 students.

  2. Agricultural School.

    During the early years of Cultural Autonomy, a plot of land was offered by the Ministry of Education to the Directorate of Jewish Culture for use in agricultural education. The schools did not take advantage of this offer at first. Only in 1928 when a special government grant was given for this purpose, did the “Mefitzei Haskala” Society set up an agricultural school for 50–60 students. It was well–equipped and gave theoretical as well as practical agricultural training. “Hehalutz” and the Zionist Youth Movement benefitted greatly from this institution.

 

Chair of Hebrew Studies at the University of Latvia

When Mr. Paltis served as Minister of Education, it was suggested to him that a chair of Hebrew Studies be established at the University of

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Latvia. The Minister gave his assent but the realisation of this project was postponed on the recommendation of the Directorate of Jewish Culture, which proclaimed that Hebrew studies in the elementary and secondary schools had not yet reached a level to justify a Chair.

 

The Yiddishist Schools

My review would not be complete without mentioning the Yiddishist schools, not only for the sake of objectivity but also because of the important part they played in the national struggle for the recognition of the right of the Jewish minority to schools teaching the language of the masses. The fighters for the Hebrew language, notwithstanding their bitter struggle against Yiddish extremists, always honoured and appreciated the adversary's devotion to their cause, their idealism and their considerable achievements, especially in the realm of pedagogy. Yet, in spite of the great efforts made by the “Tzentrale Iddishe Shulorganisatzie” in raising the level of education, perfecting the methods of teaching and improving relations between teachers and pupils, there was no great increase in the number of their schools and pupils over the years.

On 28–31 March, 1921, the first assembly of Yiddishist teachers in Latvia took place on the initiative of the Democratic Union of Jewish teachers in Riga. At this assembly, Radek, one of the ideologues of the Yiddishist, gave a comprehensive lecture on the principles of the new school and the following resolutions were adopted:

  1. The only system leading to the full development of children and the full expansion of their creative powers is the “learning by doing” system. All teachers are called on to use this system in every subject. (Unanimously adopted).
  2. The “active learning” school must not be dogmatic and must be secular (unanimously adopted.
  3. The pupil's performance should not be evaluated by marks but by a more comprehensive system of evaluation (unanimous).
  4. Examinations are injurious to the normal process of learning at school and should therefore be abolished (unanimous).
  5. Punishments are undesirable because they do not achieve their purpose (14 for, 6 against, 2 abstentions).
  6. The development of autonomous activities on the part of the pupils is a foremost necessity and the pedagogic conferences are required to introduce self–government of pupils (unanimous).
  7. Representatives of the upper grades should be admitted to pedagogic
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    conferences. (A proposal to admit the lower grade representatives was rejected).
  1. Class teachers cannot be expected to fulfil their duties properly if they have to teach more than 12 hours a week.
This assembly decided to set up a central Jewish school organization (Tzentrale Iddishe Shulorganisatzie in Lettland) which in due course became responsible for the Yiddish school system in Latvia. It established a network of kindergartens, elementary schools, evening schools, courses in pedagogy and “in–service” training for teachers, etc. It maintained them with the help of funds received from the Directorate of Jewish Culture, the Municipalities and the material and moral support of its members.

Number of Pupils in Yiddishist School
in Riga During Earlier Years

School
Year
Number
of classes
Number
of pupils
1919–20 28 1,068
1920–21 29 1,095
1921–22 28 1,076
1922–23 32 1,186
1923–24 35 1,187
1924–25 38 1,266
1925–26 39 1,206

It can be seen that although the Yiddishist schools in Riga were well attended in 1919–20, their growth in the following 7 years did not amount to more than 138 pupils and 11 classes in 4 schools. To this should be added another 110 children in 3 classes at two kindergartens (one affiliated to School N°2 in Jesus Church Street and another to School N°3 at 100, Brivilas Avenue).

Permanently connected with the “Tzentrale Iddishe Shulorganisatzie” in 1925–26 were the following institutions: The schools in Vorklian and Kraslava; 2 schools in Dvinsk; the Tukum and Smilten schools; the evening courses in Dvinsk; the kindergarten in Tukum; the “ORT” vocational school of sewing; the school for backward children in Riga. A total of 16 institutions with 3100 pupils and maintained by the municipalities. To these should be added the institutions maintained by the “Tzentrale Iddishe Shulorganisatzie” itself: an evening school in Riga with 62 pupils and three kindergartens in Riga and Kraslava with 150 pupils.

Worthy of mention are the Yiddish schools which did not join the

[Page 216]

CISHO and educated their pupils in a Zionist spirit. The teachers in these schools belonged either to the CISHO or to Hamoreh, but some of them refrained from joining either camp and in 1931 attempted to set up a separate Teachers' Organization for a “synthetic” school. Among the initiators were Dr. Simon Gorfinkel; Dr. J. Moler and Z. Meirovitz but their efforts were unsuccessful. Of the staff in these schools, mention should be made of Moshe Bljach (Amir), principal of the School in Dvinsk.

 

After the Coup D'état

Jewish cultural autonomy came to an end with the coup d'état of Ulmanis in 1934. Although the Hebrew schools continued to exist until the advent of the Soviet Regime, they were void of any Zionist or Jewish National content. Supervision was entrusted to the “Agudat Israel” whose representatives, being faithful adherents of the new regime, set out to abolish the secular Hebrew schools or to amalgamate them with their own. The Soviet Regime put an end to the activities of the Agudat Israel. After the Nazi invasion in 1941, the school structure of Jewish education in Latvia perished with the Jewish population it served.

 

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