Education and Reform. The Israelite Free School in the Context of Civic Emancipation

Carsten Schapkow

Source Description

This article Die Israelitische Freischule in Hamburg” [“The Israelite Free School in Hamburg”] was authored by writer Dr. Bernhard Heßlein, who lived in Hamburg and later in Berlin. He made his mark as a writer of works about the history of the Jews in Hamburg and Berlin. This article consists of three parts that appeared consecutively on January 3, January 10, and January 31, 1843 in the journal Der Orient. Berichte, Studien und Kritiken für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur [The Orient. Reports, Studies, and Reviews of Jewish History and Literature] published in Leipzig by the orientalist Julius Fürst. The journal Der Orient addressed an educated Jewish audience and also sought to reach out to Christian readers and contributors. It was part of a number of publications whose thematic focus was on the emancipation of European Jews. This debate also explicitly included questions of religious and pedagogical reform. With regard to the situation in Hamburg, Heßlein's contribution added some significant observations to this debate.
  • Carsten Schapkow

The demand for an “improvement” of the Jews

As a precondition for the emancipation of the Jews, both non-Jews and Jews had demanded since the end of the 18th century that Jews first had to “achieve civic improvement.” Only once this had been accomplished would it be possible to consider their legal equality with the majority society. In addition to a reform of the synagogue, the introduction of modern schooling that was to replace the traditional instruction in Jewish elementary schools, the Cheder, was at the center of this demand for improvement.

The emergence of Jewish Free Schools

Classes were held in German and the curriculum was geared towards bringing Jewish students closer to the non-Jewish majority society. The first Jewish Free School  Jüdische Freischule had been founded in Berlin in 1778. The Hamburg Free School  Israelitische Freischule was established in 1798, exactly twenty years later. Its goal was to teach its students the central elements of a general education. Additionally, it also explicitly sought to teach a solid knowledge of Judaism, Jewish history, culture, and literature. Jewish reformers were convinced that only this kind of curriculum would ensure that the students maintain their connection to Judaism. At the same time, these schools were meant to help resist assimilation, which often led to indifference towards Judaism or even conversion.

Reforming the Jewish school system

The description of the Israelite Free School  Israelitische Freischule in Hamburg presented in Heßlein's article addresses the central goals of Jewish educational reform as well as the necessity to continue to pursue them in the future. At the same time, the author uses the Israelite Free School  Israelitische Freischule in Hamburg as a backdrop for his analysis of the accomplishments and failures regarding the Jews' civic emancipation. In the third part of his article, Heßlein acknowledges the successes achieved with regard to the “improvement of the Jews,” which he mainly sees realized in the introduction of modern Jewish schools. He then goes on to sum up developments with regard to the discussions and conflicts within the Jewish community. His criticism of traditional instruction refers to the poor condition of schools and especially to the inadequate qualifications of their teachers, which had led to numerous deficits: “that religious instruction was insufficient and deficient, that Hebrew classes were not a priority, and that Jewish history was not given any attention at all” (p. 33). He states that the teaching staff were basically untrained for current methods of instruction and had therefore failed entirely: “Many teachers lacked the moral education, most of them lacked pedagogical qualification, therefore [there was] a lack of moral bearing and dignity and there were methodical mistakes. Discipline was not based sufficiently on human dignity, punishments were not psychological.” (p. 33). This assessment of traditional Jewish schooling was echoed by several proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment and Jewish reformers as well.

Criticism of the state

According to Heßlein, the efforts of previous years had substantially improved the situation, however. Due to modern schooling, the Jews' “moral situation” had improved particularly (p. 33). Yet this “improvement” had not resulted in a change of their legal status: although the Jews in Hamburg enjoyed a comparatively “good standing”, there as in other places the city's legislation had “done little for them” (p. 33). Heßlein does not hold back with his criticism of Hamburg's government authorities, where “tough restrictions” (p. 33) and “prejudice” (p. 33) against the Jewish population still existed. Here Heßlein addresses a fundamental problem: while the Jews living in Germany had in fact achieved integration to a great extent, they were still denied legal equality by the state.

New challenges

The “good standing” the Jews enjoyed was mainly based on the achievements of the civic “improvement” as a result of which the Jews had become part of Hamburg’s middle class without enjoying the same rights as the city’s non-Jewish citizens, however. Heßlein therefore insisted that there was more work to be done. For him the changes and modernizations in society also meant new challenges for the Israelite Free School  Israelitische Freischule in Hamburg. He demanded a constant process of renewal that was supposed to guarantee that current requirements were reflected by the school’s orientation: “What used to be sufficient in the past is no longer enough, the school's decline after its highest rise should have drawn attention to this.” (p. 33). Heßlein employs the image of a new “driving wheel” (p. 33) to replace the old one. With regard to the challenges of the present day, Heßlein notes: “The Jews must not lag behind this progress; good schools, however, are the necessary precondition for a rapid, in line with current requirements skill enhancement.” (p. 34). In order to ensure the continued success of the “israelitische Bürgerschule Secondary school for students who were not expected to attend university. (p. 34) it was necessary to furnish it with sufficient funds, for it was presently threatened by decline. Heßlein realized that Hamburg’s Jewish citizens had to step up themselves to fund the school because the senate could not be expected to do so. Only a solid education system could prepare the Jews for future challenges and would mean the discovery of “the philosopher’s stone” (p. 34). This wording once more expresses the author’s hope that a successful education reform would lead the state to honor its part of the bargain and grant the Jews legal equality in the medium term in exchange for their civil improvement.

The article points out that the proven successes of Hamburg’s Jewish citizens with regard to their “civil improvement” had not yet been rewarded with complete legal equality by the state. In Hamburg this was not granted until 1849 and permanently in 1860 when a new constitution was ratified.

Select Bibliography

Carsten Schapkow, Die Zeitschrift Der Orient: Publizistik für die jüdischen Gesamtinteressen im Zeitalter der Emanzipation, in: 600 Jahre Leipziger Universitätsgeschichte, ed. by Stephan Wendehorst, Leipzig 2007, pp. 505-516.

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About the Author

Carsten Schapkow, Dr. phil., is Associate Professor in the department of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is specialized in German-Jewish History and Modern Jewish Historiography from the 18th to the 20th century.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Carsten Schapkow, Education and Reform. The Israelite Free School in the Context of Civic Emancipation (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 06, 2017. <> [March 05, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.