03.04.2022 | Redaktor

04. Jewish teachers

“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children….” (Deut. 6: 6-7)

Following this instruction in the Torah, Jews have always taken the education of their children very seriously. Due to this, teachers have played an important role in every Jewish community.

Jewish boys from religious families usually started their education at the age of three. At that time, their parents enrolled them in cheders, i.e. elementary religious schools, where the boys mastered the art of reading and writing for the first two years. At the age of five, the students began learning Chumash (the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses). The day on which a boy started learning the Torah was solemnly celebrated in the family. The boy was given new clothes and sweet almonds and raisins (so that he would remember that learning Torah is sweet) and he took a little exam in Hebrew before his new teacher.

The melodic recitation of the sacred texts could be heard through the windows of the school from morning until evening prayer. There was no fixed date for starting education in cheders, no exams, no limited number of places for students. In the first stages of learning, the classes were usually larger and embraced about 40 students, and the mełameds (Jewish teachers) were assisted by helpers called belfers. At the higher level, there were smaller classes, for a few people at most, because further education was not compulsory.

Shymon Leib Schindler (1851-1942), Jewish teacher in Brzesko, Murdered in the Brzesko ghetto. Photo from Yad Vashem archives.
Part of the birth record of one of the children of Szymon Leib Schindler testifying to his profession: “Szymon Leib Schindler, married, born in 1851, Jewish teacher in Brzesko”. Photo from szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl website

Cheders were usually located in the private apartments of teachers. Hence the name of this type of school, which in Hebrew simply means a room. The fee for cheder education was low and it was often possible to pay in food, other products or services provided by the parents. An additional advantage of cheders was the fact that they often served as a kindergarten, where children could stay until dark, which made life easier for parents. Every Jewish community  usually also had a commune cheder, where education for boys up to the age of 13 was free. Boys often changed cheders in the course of studies as not every melamed had the appropriate education in order to lead the student to a higher level of knowledge, enabling the most talented ones to start their studies in a Yeshiva.

The teacher was paid by the community and parents. If the commune was poor and could not support several teachers, boys of different ages sometimes studied in the same room with the same teacher. Parents who could afford it, paid a private teacher who examined the boy in the presence of his parents on Fridays before the Sabbath.

That’s how former Brzesko resident, Holocaust survivor Joseph Polaniecki, recalled his teacher in the cheder:

–  I remember the name of my Rabbi in cheder, Szmuel Jakob Lustbader. I had several Rabbis because when I started attending cheder, i was 3 years old. But I don’t remember the name of that first rabbi. Then as I was progressing, I had other Rabbis, more knowledgeable.  I remember him like he would be here now, right in front of me.  Little, walking like a duck. But he  was a very nice fellow, very artistic. In cheder there were perhaps about  half a dozen students, may be more. In the mornings we went to public schools. In the afternoon we went home to eat lunch, and after lunch we went to cheder.    We stayed in cheder till about 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. We studied all that time.  We liked especially winter time. We used to have a little lantern with a little flame in it so that in the evening we could see where we were going. Everybody had a little lantern. 

In cheder we had long tables and long benches. And there were book shelves with all kinds of books that the Rabbi was using. When we were really young, we just learned alphabet; later on we started to read Hebrew, learn Humash which is 10 commandments, and then we learned the commentaries, and then Gemarrah, Tanach… I enjoyed studying, For one things, it was a different language, something new to learn. We were more or less the same age in the group. Kids of different ages had different Rabbis, just like grades at school. (From the talk with Anna Brzyska, January 2021)

Cousins Gutek Schnur, Jakob Polaniecki, Gutek Epstein and Jozef (Joseph) Polaniecki in Brzesko, 1934, Photo from the family archive of Joseph Połaniecki. Gutman (Gutek) Schnur was murdered in the Holocaust together with younger brother Sydonia and mother Dwojre. Gutman (Gutek) Epstein was also murdered together with mother Gittel and elder brother Josef. Brothers Jakob and Jozef (Joseph) Polaniecki survived the war together with parents and two siblings in the Soviet Union.

The curriculum in cheders was not controlled by anyone. Most of the melameds successfully resisted the pressure of the supporters of the Haskalah, i.e. Jewish revival, who, from the beginning of the 19th century, sought to include secular subjects in the curriculum in elementary religious schools and to popularize cheders for girls.

The situation began to change significantly when compulsory schooling was introduced in Poland after 1918. Science subjects were introduced in many cheders, and in 1922 some cheders received the status of public schools. The changes in the functioning of religious schools were also influenced by the progressive secularization of Jews in Poland. More and more Jews – especially in large cities – chose for their children secular schools, often related to specific political circles.

Only boys could study in traditional cheders. Typically, girls received their education at home with their parents, where they were taught to recite blessings and basic prayers and to write. Older girls were sometimes sent to study with a teacher, where they mostly learned Yiddish (learning Hebrew was rare). This education did not extend beyond learning to read and write.

The need for religious education of girls developed after the First World War. The first cheder for girls established by Sarah Sznirer in Krakow’s Kazimierz, became the nucleus of the Beis Yaakov (Jacob House) organization. In 1924, there were already 19 schools that educated approximately 2,000 girls. Along with the development of this type of cheders, there were established special schools for girls to educate future teachers, and their popularity among the Jewish community was growing every year.

In Brzesko, Jewish children attended both cheders and secular schools before World War II. At the end of the 19th century, a school for Jewish children was established in the town, with the money from the foundation of Maurycy Hirsch from Paris, who financed elementary and vocational schools in Galicia and Bukowina in order to spread education among the Jewish population. 103 students studied in this three-year school under the supervision of 3 teachers: the headmaster Majer Morecki, Ernestyna Muller and Lipe Waltuch. In addition to that, there were 4 cheders in Brzesko; Jewish children also studied together with their Catholic peers in public schools, including the seven-class girls’ school and in the gymnasium established in 1910. There was also a Talmud Torah school in Brzesko, supported by the kehilla board, and intended for poor children. It was located at Długa street, next to the house of the chief rabbi of Brzesko in the interwar period, Moshe Lipschitz. The Talmud Torah school was a communal school, free of charge, providing students with school supplies, clothes and food. Apart from it, Jewish children attended several other religious schools, the most famous of which was the Israel Manes schul (school). Jewish boys attending the public primary school in the morning, studied in the cheder in the afternoon.

Długa street in Brzesko: the Talmud Torah building (a gray house without a roof) and the tenement house where Rabbi Moshe Lipschitz used to live before the war (a two-story red brick house). There was a cheder on the first floor of this building. Photo from googlemaps.

In 1926, the local branch of the orthodox Jewish organization Agudot Israel opened the Beis Yaakov girls’ school in Brzesko. The teacher Jakub received a permanent subsidy for this school from the community fund two years later.

In this cemetery the matzevas of three Jewish teachers have survived: Samuel David Ring (1853-1923), Arie Leib Verderber (1847-1921), and Arie Leibish Schachter (1863-1932). Here is the translation of the epitafium on the matzeva of Arie Schachter:

Here lies

A Rabbi who trembled. at the word of the Lord

Arie Leibish

From the holy commune of Ropczyce, son of the rabbi

Shraga Feivish, the grandson of Mr

Ben Tzion Shevach, ritual slaughterer

From Rawa Ruska. His soul departed

The day after Pesach (5) 692

May his soul be bound in the bundle of life.

Lived to an old age, advanced in years,

He worked all the days of his life.

Death record of the Jewish teacher Leib Schachter. Photo from szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl website
Matzeva of Arie Leibish Schachter at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery

When writing this article, I used the materials from the website https://teatrnn.pl and from the book by Iwona Zawidzka “Jewish Cemetery in Brzesko”, Brzesko, 2001. Translation of the inscription on the matzeva of Arie Schachter by Jolanta Kruszniewska.

©Anna Brzyska, 2022