The Yidishe Folks Shule (Jewish People’s School) provided a secular alternative to the traditional synagogue schools, and emphasized a more Zionist and slightly more religious orientation, compared with the more Yiddishist and culturally focused National Radical School (Peretz School). The Folks Shule emerged during the debates within the Jewish community between established "uptowner" Jews who favored cultural assimilation, and immigrant "downtowners" desiring separate Jewish schools that represented their ideological viewpoints and cultural identity.
A meeting of Socialist, Yiddish and Poale Zion (Labour Zionist) groups in 1911 resulted in the establishment of a secular Jewish supplementary school in 1913. Known as the National Radical School, it followed an educational approach that emphasized social justice as well as Yiddish language and literature. The coalition was soon undermined by internal debates over the language of instruction. In 1914, a group of educators, disenchanted with this academic program, broke away to establish the independent Jewish People’s School (JPS or Folks Shule). Known as "Hebraists," they emphasized a stronger Zionist outlook, Hebrew instruction (alongside Yiddish), as well as the inclusion of some religious education (albeit from a cultural perspective). The National Radical School was renamed the Peretz School in 1918.
While the Poale Zion initially funded both schools, disputes with the Yiddishists over the correct age to begin socialist instruction led the Poale Zionists to retract financial support from the National Radical School, and redirect it exclusively to the Folks Shule. Despite its leftist political roots, JPS leader and Labour Zionist Moshe Dickstein emphasized that the Shule serve the needs of a diverse Jewish population. Indeed, it fulfilled the functions of a school and community centre and addressed the community’s educational, cultural, social, and even spiritual needs.
In 1927, the Folks Shule expanded from being a supplementary school to a full-fledged Jewish day school – the first in Montreal since the synagogue schools of the 1880s–1900s. Students were taught public school curricula as well as Jewish education, history, and literature, Hebrew and Yiddish, and the ideology of the Labour Zionist movement. Under JPS Principal Shloime Wiseman and members of the Folks Farband (People’s Association) leadership committee, which had originally included Yehuda Kaufman, Moishe Dickstein and Abraham Parness, the Jewish People’s School inspired other institutions to modernize their methods of instruction.
The Folks Shule had many locations during its early history, but it would eventually settle on St. Urbain near St. Cuthbert in 1920, staying there until 1952. Another branch opened in 1926 on Waverly and Fairmount, remaining there until 1963. As the community migrated westward, a branch was also built at Van Horne and Westbury in 1956. In 1971, financial constraints and ideological reconciliation led to the reunification of the Folks Shule and Peretz Shule. Renamed the Jewish People’s and Peretz School (JPPS), the unified educational system created Bialik High School a year later, offering a comprehensive curriculum of both secular and Jewish education for secondary students.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
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