Academic journal article Shofar

The Jewish Mutual Instruction Society: Education for Anglo-Jewish Workers, London, 1848

Academic journal article Shofar

The Jewish Mutual Instruction Society: Education for Anglo-Jewish Workers, London, 1848

Article excerpt

"The object of the meeting was to adopt some measures whereby the working class, particularly of the Jewish nation, might participate in the heavenly gift- instruction."1 So said the chairman at a public meeting held in the last week of 1847 in east London. In attendance were 150 people who had heard about the intention to establish a Jewish Mutual Instruction Society (JMIS).2 The meeting was held in Houndsditch, a distinctly Jewish environment, and was reported in the English Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle.

Mutual instruction societies, or mutual improvement societies, where teachers and lecturers alike were members of the working class, were common in England in the 1840s. As J. F. C. Harrison writes, they represented "the working man's own solution to his educational needs; it was the most truly indigenous of all the early attempts at working-class adult education." Harrison further points out that "the spontaneous formation of mutual improvement societies even in places where other means of adult education, such as mechanics' institutes, already existed was an indication of the dissatisfaction with the latter institutions."3 Such dissatisfaction was indeed expressed by the chairman of the meeting for the establishment of the JMIS, who noted that there was actually a Jewish institution in the area but it was inaccessible to the lower classes.

This article explores the exclusive features of an educational undertaking in the Anglo-Jewish community, the JMIS, which is rarely discussed in the study of the history of Anglo-Jewish adult education.4 Tom Woodin, for example, suggests that "the histories of immigrant and minority ethnic communities are waiting to be written in relation to a number of educational and cultural movements and campaigns in Britain."5 The current discussion takes the perspective of social-educational history. Cultural influences on the Jewish community's educational endeavors are examined within two contexts: the first is the internal context of the Jewish community's cultural-social world; the second is the British Victorian culture in which the Anglo-Jewish community lived. The article examines the influence of self-improvement ideology and the mechanics' institute movement in the social-educational history of the Anglo-Jewish community.

The article examines if, and in what way, the JMIS was a distinctive Jewish society; if it actually was a mutual instruction society; and the nature of its activity and management. The study considers to what degree the Anglo-Jewish community accepted the JMIS and illustrates the help of non-Jewish supporters for the Jewish educational venture based on a joint Jewish-Christian relationship. Research is based on reports that appeared in the contemporary Jewish periodical press, keeping in mind that the sources necessarily limit the range of perspectives on the organization.

The Ideology of Self-Improvement and Adult Education

Mechanics' institutes and mutual instruction societies founded in England during the development of industrial society as means of adult education were the result of the ideology of self-improvement, one of the most prominent aspects of Victorian society. The push for the acquisition of useful knowledge was influenced by Benthamite utilitarianism, and aimed at rational and practical improvement as a means to increase the happiness of all mankind.

Public lectures in mechanics' institutes or improvement societies, publications through circulating libraries and readers' clubs, and cheap book series and penny magazines were some of the means through which the prosperous classes attempted to promote the self-enlightenment of the workers. This was their solution to the two problems that had been identified as hindering laborers from getting an education, time and money. Penny magazines and the publications of the Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge operated in accordance with this theory.6 The mission was to provide the masses with "improving" literature, rational reading material, and practical knowledge. …

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