Established by the Frierdiker Rebbe in 1941, the Jewish Hour now occurs in 90 public schools across New York and has had one million Jewish children pass through its ‘doors’.
By Anash.org writer
Editor’s note: For the next 30 hours, your support for Released Time’s wonderful work will go four times as far. From now until the end of Yud Shvat, every donation made at JewishHour.org/donate will be quadrupled.
It’s Wednesday afternoon and 180 bochurim are streaming out of 770, armed with snacks, crafts, and sheaves of paper. During the next few hours, they will spread out around New York City, bringing an hour of Yiddishkeit to 90 public schools.
The original Jewish Hour was instituted by the Frierdiker Rebbe in 1941. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that children of all faiths were entitled to an hour of religious instruction, referred to as ‘released time’, during the school day, so long as the classes took place off school grounds. N
The organization has grown over the decades, and one million children have gone through the program, however, its goal has never been to max out membership. “I tell the instructors during orientation, ‘this is an organization that we hope will self-destruct,’” says Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht. “Our intention has always been for children to transfer to Jewish schools.”
In the 1940s, when Jewish immigrants arrived in America, there weren’t many options for their children’s Jewish education. Most parents–even those from traditional homes–ended up sending their children to public school. When Released Time offered an hour of Judaism at no charge, many of these parents rushed to enroll their children. At its peak in the late 1940s, 10,000 children were attending Released Time’s weekly sessions.
The Jewish Hour occurred in synagogue basements and sanctuaries, and instructors encouraged their students to attend the congregation’s weekly Hebrew School. Released Time offered students lessons about yomim tovim and the history of the Jewish nation but intentionally left out Hebrew reading and writing. When the day school movement gained steam soon after, instructors encouraged their students to make that switch.
“Today’s volunteers understand that their responsibilities are much greater and far-reaching than just one hour,” Rabbi Hecht explains. “They are there to provide a broader scope of Jewish experience for the child and for his or her whole family.”
In the early 1970s, Steven Shenkman would walk from PS 253 in Brooklyn to a synagogue down the block. “It was only an hour a week,” he recalls, “but it made me realize how important it is to be a Jew.” Those lessons stuck with him and he eventually attended bar mitzvah training before his thirteenth birthday.
Decades later, Steven’s twin children were proud Release Time attendees. Same hour, similar curriculum, but the experience was very different. “Unlike my parents, I brought my kids to the Jewish Hour and befriended the teachers. They would come to our house for the holidays. They lit the candles with us on Chanukah, told us stories, brought us matzah for Passover. And always, they were encouraging us to take it to the next level.”
After four years of friendship and gentle prodding, Steven enrolled his three children in a Jewish school. “There’s only so much you can learn in an hour,” the proud dad explains, “and I was worried they would forget what they had covered. Now they are happy and growing in yeshiva. It started with me and continued with my children. We have no regrets.”
In its eight decades, Released Time’s Jewish Hour has inspired over 5,000 students to switch to Jewish schools. For every child who makes the switch, there are dozens more whose primary Jewish education is the Wednesday hour. And instructors make sure it is a meaningful one.
Steven is typical of many Released Time kids who come for the short sessions that are then imprinted on them for the long haul. “We try to reach each soul by igniting a spark,” says current director, Rabbi Zalman Zirkind. “Whether we want to believe it or not, reciting a blessing, hearing a story, singing a Jewish song is how the spark is ignited. And if a child wants more, we encourage him or her to take the next step.”
Every dollar donated at JewishHour.org/donate before 8:00 PM on Wednesday will be quadrupled. Support Released Time’s wonderful work!