Education – modern

The Strange Side Of History

Avraham Broide


When Modern Education Hit The Sefardi World

In an earlier article we discussed how the Alliance Israelite Universal organization founded in Paris in the late 19th century pioneered help for Jews on an international scale. Unfortunately, the Alliance also considered itself responsible for disseminating secular education in the Sefardi world and was responsible for much of the modernism and cultural assimilation that plagued its larger towns.



Dedicated to helping Jews, the leaders of the Paris based Alliance Organization felt upset at the absence of modern education and culture in Morocco, Turkey, and Tunis and believed it was time for children to devote themselves to more than exclusively Torah studies. Also, due to Muslim restrictions, the livelihoods of many Sefardi Jews were limited to peddling and other lowly trades.

“Schools were the only remedy for this state of affairs,” declared Alliance Secretary General Jacques Bigart.

Funds were dedicated to opening the organization’s first school in Tetuan, Morocco, in 1862. Initially, only limudei kodesh was taught here, but the material was subtly adapted to the Alliance’s goals. The Alliance gained the trust of communities by cultivating an unthreatening, non-revolutionary image and showing respect for Shabbos, chagim and Jewish values. Ashkenazim in Eretz Yisroel who knew of the reformers’ work in Europe for the past century easily saw through the façade and were not so easily fooled.

Alliance classes in Sefardi lands were taught in local languages with French, English and German added to the curriculum where applicable. Hebrew occupied a prominent place, together with the study of the Jewish religion and history. Geography, history, arithmetic, geometry, physics, chemistry, and drawing completed the curriculum.

Over the years, the Alliance was accused of laying the foundation for assimilation even if this was not the organization’s intent. The organization’s central committee took offense and published an announcement in 1920 stating:

“We have always opposed assimilation, which leads to the forgetting of the heritage of our fathers… On the contrary, we strove to preserve the values passed on to us by our fathers and transfer them to our children… Our goal is to educate people [to be] loyal citizens in every country but knowledgeable of their origin and the obligation of solidarity it imposes upon us… with belief in a future of justice and good… with the desire to help with measures that contribute to the victory of good in this world….”

Getting back to its early history, the Alliance opened a second school in Tangier, in northern Morocco, in 1864, and a third in Baghdad the following year. Another school was opened in Tunis, capital of Tunisia, with government assistance in 1878, followed by other schools in places like Algiers, which was conquered by France in 1830 and already had many Jewish children enrolled in government schools.

The Alliance had a partially positive effect in Egypt, center of the Middle East’s wealthiest Jewish community, where many wealthy people had sent their children to schools run by priests and Jesuits which opened on Shabbos and even Yom Kippur. Egyptian Alliance schools opened in Cairo (1896), Alexander (1897) and Tanta (1903). By 1906, the Alliance had schools in Bulgaria, European Turkey, throughout the Turkish Empire in Asia from Yafo to Aleppo and Bagdad, in Egypt, in Tunis, as well as Morocco, Romania and Persia. Attempts to establish educational forums in the United States and Canada had failed.

Progress accelerated after 1879. In 1880 the Alliance had 34 schools. By 1890 the number of schools increased to 54, and in 1899 the organization had 94 schools, 58 for boys and 36 for girls, with a total attendance of 24,000.

The Alliance also set up a beis medrash for rabbis in Constantinople in 1898 whose purpose was to establish a generation of rabbis sympathetic to modern trends and eager to influence the public in that direction.



One of the Alliance’s greatest challenges was setting up schools in Eretz Yisroel, where they were staunchly opposed by Ashkenazi rabbonim who understood their true motivation and sometimes placed schools in cheirem.

In 1882, when Nissim Becher came to set up an Alliance school in Yerushalayim, he was preceded by Dr. Frankel, who set up the Memel School in Yerushalayim with 50 Sefardi students. Other institutions preceding the Alliance included the Blumental School with 40 students, Albert Cohen’s girls’ school with 24 students and his trade school with 25 students. All these schools provided clothing and financial aid to parents to induce them to send their children.

Alliance schools were free only for the children of the poorest, who were furnished not only with free instruction and books, but sometimes with clothing, and children nearly everywhere were provided with a hot lunch at noon. Wealthier parents paid a fee.

Moshe Montefiore had tried unsuccessfully to establish a weaving school in Yerushalayim. No Jewish secular schools existed in the rest of Eretz Yisroel.

Sefardim promised to send Becher their children on condition that their income from the Amsterdam Central Chalukah Fund was not cut off. After a year, his school had 163 students with 54 in a dormitory. Some had moved from missionary schools. Six years later an Alliance trade school was established with about 300 students. A girls’ school set up afterwards had close to 400 students by 1914.

In 1891, Alliance took over an existing school in Haifa whose student body grew to 220 students including 20 non-Jews. There was also a girls’ school in Haifa with 172 students and a school in Yafo. Of 150 children signed up to join an Alliance school established in Tzefas in 1897, only 40 remained subsequent to threats that their parents’ chalukah funds would be cut off. An Alliance school opened in Teveriah in 1898 and a girls’ school two years later.

By 1906, the Alliance had opened trade schools in 28 localities in the Middle East where 700 youths learned tailoring, shoe-making, tinsmithing, and other crafts. A trade-school in Yerushalayim in 1882 taught carpentry, blacksmithing, locksmithing, coppersmithing, metal-founding, and wood-carving to 200 apprentices. A similar institution for girls opened in 1884 taught tailoring, sewing, and embroidery.



Alliance was also involved with agriculture, founding the Mikveh Yisroel agricultural school in Yafo in 1870 on 600 acres granted by the Turkish sultan. By 1899, 210 students were learning how to care for olive-groves, orange-plantations, vineyards, grain-crops, orchards, and garden products, as well as stock-breeding and silkworm-raising.

Founder of the agricultural school, Charles Netter, invited Rav Tzvi Hirsh Kalisher, av beis din of Torun in northern Poland, to supervise the observance of the halachos of Eretz Yisroel and shemittah in 1874. As discussed in an earlier article, Rav Kalisher turned down the invitation to personally supervise the school. In cooperation with Rav Eliyohu Gutmacher of Gratz, he sent written instructions which were the first clarification of hilchos shemittah in modern times.

The school accepted the rabbonim‘s terms, writing to Rav Kalisher, “With great joy we inform our lord that we have already ordered the directors of our house in Yafo regarding the observance of the upcoming shemittah and nothing will be disregarded of all the mitzvos it involves.”

Mikveh Yisroel expertise helped Jews set up new agricultural colonies in Eretz Yisroel.

The Alliance also set up a farming school in Tunis on a 3,000 acre tract of land and taught students from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya.



The Alliance was not the only modernizing factor in Sefardi lands. Colonization of European countries played a large part in exposing Jews to modern life as did the movement of Jews from rural areas to large towns. Because of this, the spiritual lives of Jews from rural areas of Morocco, Tunisia and Kurdistan generally survived intact. The Alliance also had little impact in Jerba of southern Tunisia and Aleppo in Syria.

The Jews, a Study of Race and Environment, printed in 1911, mentions the Alliance as only one factor of the increased educational facilities for Jews in Algeria.

“Algeria is an excellent example of the effects of educational facilities on the Jews,” The Jews writes. “Only thirty years ago hardly any Jewish child attended a secular school, and the Alliance Israelite Universal had great difficulty in inducing them to send their children to the Jewish schools established by this organization. Since the French Government has established a public school system, conditions have gradually changed, so that at the present a large proportion of Jews give their children a French education.”

“It was found in 1903 that 16.75% of the French Europeans, 20.74% of the other Europeans, 6.21% of the native Mohammedans, and 26.65% of the Jews attended the [French] Ecoles Pritnaires et Naturelles,” The Jews adds. “It must, however, not be concluded that the Jews in Algeria are more apt to send their children to school than the Europeans who live there. The latter are mostly colonists, who have fewer children than the native Jews. But the Jews do take better advantage of the educational facilities than the Mohammedans. Even their daughters are often sent to secular schools, which was very rare about twenty-five years ago.”

By 1900 the Alliance had 100 schools with 26,000 students. At the outbreak of World War I its system included 188 schools with 48,000 students. After the depredations of World War II, the number of schools had shrunk to 115 schools with 41,300 students, but by 1948 the number increased to 135 schools with 51,000 students. Then, due to the mass emigration of Sefardim from Muslim countries after 1948, the Alliance organization shrank by 1965 to 86 schools with 28,000 students. By 1981 it had only 38 institutions in 8 countries with 13,627 students.

Today, the Alliance continues to operate dozens of schools and programs in Israel including the René Cassin High School just up the road from Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. It also operates in dozens of countries in Europe, North Africa and Canada.

(Alliance entry in 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia; Dr. Naftoli Ilati, Ha’alliance Israelite, Bein Achdut Ha’am Vehatechiyah Ha’olamit, Sefer Yovel Lekavod Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveichik, Mossad Harav Kook, Yeshiva University, New York, 1984 )

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