Vassar Temple and the Community Hebrew School

Following discussions among Jewish community professional and lay leadership, and also within the congregation, Vassar Temple has decided to create a comprehensive two-day-a-week Religious School involving both Hebrew and Judaica. It will be withdrawing from the Community Hebrew School. The following is a letter that will be published in the Jewish Federation’s monthly, The Voice.

At the conclusion of World War I, the Jewish leadership of Poughkeepsie responded to the lack of well organized religious instruction with the creation of the Community Hebrew School. Jewish education was housed in its own building, and then subsequently in the Jewish Community Center. After World War II, the management and direction of the School (CHS), was placed in a separate Board with members drawn from the four Poughkeepsie congregations. Surely, other early twentieth century small American Jewish communities sought to cooperate in Jewish education in a similar fashion. Only Poughkeepsie, however, sustained such a program into the twenty-first century.

The CHS has always been a noble idea. It was predicated on collaboration among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations, and such cooperation can hardly be taken for granted. It has been dedicated to the notion that the Hebrew language binds together all Jews – secular, liberal and traditional – and that students from all backgrounds can indeed learn in the same classroom. While the goals of community-wide cooperation remain central, the noble idea represented by the CHS has run its course.

By the beginning of this century, an increasing number of families were choosing to turn to independent tutors for their Hebrew education rather than the classes housed at the Jewish Center. The overall program has experienced a rather dramatic decline in enrollment through the last decade. Something had changed.

It would be both unfair and wrong to suggest that the difficulty arises out of the CHS itself. There has been no discernible drop in the quality and dedication of the teaching staff, or in the soundness of the curriculum. The changes are rather to be found in factors beyond the CHS control: in the demographics of the Dutchess County Jewish community, and in the subtly evolving nature of Jewish identity and affiliation. For central and southern Dutchess County, the Community Hebrew School is the answer to a question the area Jews are no longer asking. The promotion and development of Jewish and Hebrew education must now move in a new direction.

[Before continuing, in the northern part of the County, it must be noted, the presence of a community-based Hebrew program is still valid. We maintain our support of the school that is running in Rhinebeck, and promote its value for its Jewish community.]

We, at Vassar Temple, wish to laud the diligence and commitment provided by the staff and leadership of the Community Hebrew School in promoting Hebrew education for over nine decades. While we are convinced that evolving times and circumstances require Hebrew to be imparted as part of comprehensive Jewish education in ways that go beyond the scope of the CHS, we also remain dedicated to its underlying values of cooperation among the varied segments and streams of the local Jewish community, and to its common hopes and aspirations. We are certain that just as the Community Hebrew School represented a collaborative effort to address a fundamental Jewish need back in 1919, we will continue to create and implement new programs and ideas that represent the full community. Just as the Jewish community of Dutchess County welcomed innovation and planned for the future in the early 20th century, we look forward to embracing the challenges of the 21st together as well.

Submitted by:
Bob Abrams, President
Bob Ritter, Vice-President
Alan Kaflowitz, Chair of Religious School
Dr. Joel Hoffman, Education Director
Rabbi Paul Golomb

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