Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman
for a conference at University College, London,
convened on 6 July 1975 by the
Jewish Historical Society of England
Page created: 24 May 2017
The Evolution of the Birmingham Hebrew National
(An abstract of a dissertation submitted by
This thesis was based on the minute books of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, in which were recorded a wide range of the actions taken in the school. Some of the school's records are still also extant, - a Visitors' Book, the Log Book, and the Enrolment Register.
Jewish education in the middle of the nineteenth century was caught up in the disputes between the Church of England and the Dissenters over the nature and implications of state interference in education. It was in part as a result of this that, in 1841, the Birmingham Hebrew National School had no contact with the state and was created as a purely private enterprise. The School was set up as the result of a resolution passed oh 1 November 1840 at a meeting of the Hebrew Congregation that the 'establishment of a National School ... is essential to the well being and Religion of this Congregation'. The impulse was in part the result of various members of the Congregation seeing Jewish boys playing in the streets and realising that their education was being very seriously neglected. A committee was set up to establish the school and to raise money to support it. By November 1841 there were over 70 pupils, the boys being taught from nine until twelve, and two until five o'clock daily, except Sunday and Wednesday afternoons when the girls were taught Hebrew. The school was held at first in the Synagogue Vestry, but land was soon purchased for a permanent building, and in August 1843 the foundation-stone was laid by Sir Moses Montefiore. The Headmaster, Dr M.J. Raphall, stated that the school 'was intended for the training of the Children of Hebrews in the fear of the God of their fathers, to make them useful citizens, worthy men, loyal subjects and honourable members of society'.
The early years of the school are best understood by examining the Laws of the school, published in 1844. The school was established 'for the study of the Hebrew Language and literature, of the classics, mathematics, French, writing, arithmetic, and all the usual subjects embraced under the head of a commercial education'. Boys had to be over five years of age and girls over six. The boys were taught a wide range of subjects and the girls only Hebrew. There were to be three masters: the headmaster had to be Jewish with a knowledge of both Hebrew and secular subjects and had a salary of £180 a year; the second master had to be able to 'impart a sound classical and English commercial education' for £80 a year; while the third master had to teach the 'first rudiments of Hebrew and English'. By 1845 fifty-six boys and thirty-six girls were being taught at the school. In 1848, when the last of the original debts had been paid off, the management of the school was transferred to the Congregation who also assumed the financial responsibility for its upkeep.
Part of the object in establishing the school had been to strengthen among the children knowledge of their Jewish heritage; as the Voice of Jacob put it, 'a minority which neglects to make up by intellectual force for its deficiency in numerical strength loses its separate existence and is swallowed up by the majority which surrounds it'. There was a close link also between greater social mobility and the movement for improved education, and also with the pressure for Jewish emancipation. But as time went on there was a further set of pressures. The beginnings cf immigration from Central and Eastern Europe brought large numbers of children who had somehow to be integrated. The Chief Rabbi informed the Newcastle Commission of 1861 that 'the Hebrew Congregations of large towns in England ... are subject to a large and annually increasing influx of foreigners. They come ... in a state of great destitution, and their children attend the public schools without possessing any knowledge of English'. The Jewish schools, where they existed, were therefore acting in part as agents of integration.
The school combined secular with religious teaching; certainly the time-table had to include both sets of subjects, and as the Chief Rabbi said to the Newcastle Commission: 'In all Jewish schools a large proportion of the school time is devoted to Hebrew, which must naturally, more or less, affect the amount of their secular education'. It proved to be difficult to maintain an adequately high standard in both secular and religious subjects, and there were additional problems in Birmingham resulting from the vacancy for a Head Master in 1859-60. Parents expressed a considerable concern about apparently declining standards. At all events, there is a growing shift towards secularisation. The very fact that the school existed was, in itself, a definite departure. It was a new development to have a school teaching both religious and secular subjects, and moreover, to have that teaching in the hands not of the Rabbi but under the management of the laymen who formed the Synagogue Council. Although it was a recent development, it was also unusual to find the girls being given education, being taught reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, grammar, history, and needlework. As time went on, more and more attention was paid to the secular subjects. By 1869 the school was under government inspection and so the topics which did not pass under an inspector's scrutiny were being neglected. During these years, however, there was a further development; the school was increasingly resorted to by the lower classes of society, the richer parents sending their children to the non-Jewish schools. Despite the flourishing numbers - in 1864 there were 113 boys and 80 girls - the standards of the school were slipping, presenting as it did a very restricted curriculum. As the Jewish Chronicle commented on ecucation in 1869, 'of course, we do not speak of the middle and higher classes, as all of them get their children educated either at home, in boarding schools, or in day schools, all supported by the payment of the pupils'.
The question of state aid to Jewish denominational
schools was raised with the Committee of Council on
Education by the Board of Deputies in 1847, but nothing
then happened. It was raised again in 1852 when the
Committee agreed in principle to giving such grants.
It was not fair to exclude them since all other religious
bodies could obtain state aid. In return Jewish schools
agreed to allow non-Jewish children to attend with a
'conscience clause'. The initial objection from the
schools came from the desire by the Council to have a
standard set of management clauses for Jewish schools;
the schools were reluctant to come under the one
ecclesiastical authority certified by the Board of
Deputies. Although the Manchester Jews' Free School
had obtained a grant by 1853, the Birmingham school did
not apply for one until 1867; by 1868 the school was
under regular state inspection.
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