Hebrew school can be either the Jewish equivalent of Sunday school – an educational regimen separate from secular education, focusing on topics of Jewish history and learning the Hebrew language, or a primary, secondary or college level educational institution where some or all of the classes are taught in Hebrew.
The first usage is more common in the United States, while the second is used elsewhere outside of Israel, for example, in reference to the Colegio Hebreo Unión in Barranquilla, Colombia, or the Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto.
According to an article in the Jewish Quarterly Review entitled “The Jewish Sunday School Movement in the United States” and printed in 1900, “the exact beginning of the American Jewish Sunday Schools is obscured by uncertainty and difficulty of opinio” though it is largely credited with the works of Miss Rebecca Gratz, a Philadelphia Native, who sought to provide Jewish schooling to those most in need. As students received secular schooling, Miss Gratz understood the need to provide Jewish history and Jewish traditions to those most lacking a basic understanding in Jewish Education. In fact, Jewish Sunday School grew largely in response to Christian Sunday School as a means of providing proper Jewish Education to students who otherwise lacked any religious grounding in Jewish traditions and history or lacked the financial means necessary to attend such a school. As a devout Jew, Gratz dedicated her life to helping the poor and neglected. In 1818, “under the sponsorship of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia was created on March 4, her birthday, with about 60 students.” To this day, Rebecca Gratz is referenced as “the foremost American Jewess of her day”.
Hebrew School is typically taught on Sunday and on one day of the week either Tuesday or Wednesday in the evening following secular education in private or public schools. Hebrew School Education developed in the 1800s and is largely credited to Rebecca Gratz.
Today, typical Hebrew School education starts in kindergarten and culminates in the tenth grade with confirmation. While the idea of confirmation largely grew out of Reform Judaism, it is largely practiced by both the Reform and Jewish Conservative Movements today. However, Hebrew School Education is based in the Reform and Conservative Movements and therefore, not practiced in the Jewish Orthodox Movement. Instead Orthodox students attend religious schools on a daily basis such as Yeshivas where they study Jewish texts like Torah and the Talmud in greater depth. Orthodox schooling often prepares young boys to become rabbis and involves a deeper level of study than Hebrew School Education provides. Whereas both boys and girls study in Hebrew Schools in a co-educational environment, education in the Orthodox community is based on single-sex education with greater emphasis placed on traditional roles for men and women.
However, some Orthodox congregations do offer Hebrew School for non-Orthodox students, such as the TAG Hebrew schools common in Chabad houses.