Jewish Education in Seattle (1894-Present)

  • By Michele Rosen
  • Posted 11/11/2004
  • Essay 7132
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The history of Jewish education in Seattle dates back to 1894 when Congregation Bikur Cholim sponsored the establishment of the first Jewish educational program in the city, the Hebrew Free School. In 1920, Seattle Talmud Torah (after-school supplemental school) formed as an institution for all Seattle Jews. In the early twenty-first century, Jewish educational programs in Seattle include a yeshiva (for Jewish high school students), day schools, synagogue supplemental religious education programs, and enrichment and adult education offered by Jewish community centers and other institutions.

The first wave (1880-1910) of Jewish immigrants to Seattle did not become instant Americans. Most Jews who ventured out West to Seattle during this period were among the first generation in this country. They came from Turkey, the Isle of Rhodes, or the "Pale of Settlement" (the large area in Russia and Poland where Jews were allowed to settle).

They came with their suitcases, but also with the religious and cultural trappings of the "Old Country." In particular, they placed a high value on a comprehensive Jewish education, which dictated what Jews should know and do, wherever they lived. Their notion of Jewish education included the study of Tanakh (Bible) and the Talmud (rabbinic commentaries on the Tanakh), as well as the study of biblical Hebrew.

Congregation Bikur Cholim, the oldest continuous synagogue in Seattle (established 1889), inaugurated the first Cheder (Jewish elementary school) in Seattle. In 1894, the Hebrew Free School was established as an after-school center for Jewish learning. From 1895-1898, Hebrew and Bible classes were held at the Seattle Central Building on 5th Avenue and Washington Street. By 1898 education advocates at the Bikur Cholim decided to form a separate corporation. The Hebrew Free School became the Seattle Talmud Torah.

The concept of the Talmud Torah stemmed from a national movement. The idea was that students would meet after school to attend classes two or three times a week. From 1914 until 1948, the Talmud Torah convened in many different locales, but always with the mission of fostering a supplemental Jewish education program. By 1920 the school, founded under the auspices of an orthodox religious institution, was renamed the Seattle Talmud Torah and became an "an institution for all Seattle Jews" ("The Jewish Experience in Washington State," p. 6).

The end of the 1940s ushered in a new era of Jewish education. Post-World War II optimism, the lessons of the Holocaust, the stirrings of the new state of Israel, and the emergence of Boeing as the major economic force in Seattle forced the Jewish community to re-examine existing institutions.

The promise of the baby-boomer era became the catalyst to try new things. The Seattle Hebrew Day School formed in 1947 to provide an integrated program of Jewish and secular studies during regular school hours. By 1948, the Seattle Talmud Torah and Seattle Hebrew Day school had consolidated. In 1969, with the initiation of an early childhood center, the name of the school changed to the Seattle Hebrew Academy.

Today the Seattle Hebrew Academy serves more than 300 children from pre-school through eighth grade. It is a member of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools and Torah Umesroah, a national association of Orthodox schools. It is a beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Samis Foundation, an endowment established by the late Sam Israel, a prominent Seattle landowner, for Jewish education in Washington state.

From the creation of the Seattle Hebrew Academy until 1974, one day school served the Jewish children of the Seattle area. But supplemental programs, complete with the study of Jewish life cycle, Bible, Hebrew, prayer, and ritual, flourished as services offered by the city's numerous synagogues.

In 1974, the Northwest Yeshiva High School provided the Northwest with its only full-time, freestanding Jewish high school. Through a tuition reduction pilot program, made possible by Sam Israel's Samis Foundation, the Yeshiva has dramatically reduced the cost of annual tuition.

In the late 1970s, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle began to listen to the comments and requests of many of educators, community leaders, and parents in the area. It undertook a community planning process to investigate the feasibility of inaugurating another community day school. Al Maimon and Harvey Poll spearheaded this effort. The results of this study revealed that there was plenty of room in Seattle for two Jewish Day Schools.

In 1979, five families began the long process of launching an "egalitarian liberal community school" (Michele Rosen Interview with Carol Starin). The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle opened its doors in 1980 at the Eastside facility of Temple de Hirsch-Sinai. Today (in the late 1990s) this community school educates 350 children, grades Kindergarten through eight, in an integrated Judaic and secular curriculum.

As the Seattle population increased there was a demand for an egalitarian liberal community school in Seattle's North End. The Seattle Jewish Primary School (SJPS) opened its doors in 1990 in the basement of Congregation Beth Shalom, with one Kindergarten class of eight students. Today the SJPS educates children from kindergarten through grade five.

In addition to the proliferation of formal Jewish schools in Seattle during the twentieth century, another kind of Jewish education has evolved -- informal Jewish education in the form of summer camps and the Israel Experience. The popularity of these two forms of classrooms-without-walls came on the heels of the Jewish Population Study of 1990, conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle under the auspices of the national Council of Jewish Federations.

The study sounded the alarm for parents, educators, and Jewish communal leaders, warning that the Jewish population in the United States risked complete assimilation due to intermarriage, secular education, and lack of affiliation.

No magic bullet solution presented itself, but many believed that re-igniting a love of Judaism through memorable camping experiences and through transformational trips to Israel would go a long way toward reversing this trend.

Currently, the Seattle Jewish community is investing time and money into these efforts, particularly through the Milk and Honey Program, which provides economic incentives to encourage teenagers to travel to Israel.

In addition to educating youth, new emphasis has been placed on adult education programs. The Jewish Education Center publishes the Adult Education Catalogue, detailing citywide adult Jewish educational opportunities. The Melton School is a unique opportunity for adults to study basic elements of Jewish tradition in a two-year course of study.

Jewish Education in Seattle has been re-imagined many times since the first students sat at their desks at the Bikur Cholim in 1889. However, the thirst for knowledge -- to claim or reclaim identity -- remains the same.


The History of the Seattle Hebrew Academy, ed. by the Seattle Hebrew Academy (Seattle: 1991); Michele Rosen interview with Carol Starin (Director of the Jewish Education Council), October 29,1998; Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991}; The Jewish Experience in Washington State: A Chronology, p. 6.

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