Bildung ("education") was of major concern to the Jews af Austria. Jewish parents wanted a good education for their children and poor Jewish immigrants were far more likely to send their children to one of Vienna's "Gymnasien" (secondary school), the prerequisite for entry into universities, than gentiles with a similar social background. The relatively high percentage of Jews who belonged to the middle class was the most academically inclined in Europe. As Marsha L. Rozenblit put it, "In short, at the Gymnasium, middle-class Jews absorbed the European cultural legacy in the company of other Jews."
The founding of modern kindergartens was supported by the Jews of Vienna to facilitate assimilation and adaptation to Western culture of children from Galician families. It was perceived as an alternative to the traditional cheder (religious elementary school). The head of Bar Kochba, a Galician Zionist Student Society in Vienna, comparing the cheder with a modern kindergarten, demanded that, instead of that traditional school, in which there was neither space nor time to deal with nature, playing and music, there ought to be "real places of education, modern Jewish kindergartens, in which sun, light and air can enter and in which our children's bodies are strengthened."
The strict and elitist Gymnasium with a strong emphasis on humanist education and expecting high achievements from its pupils, was until 1904 the only form of secondary education in the Monarchy which enabled entry into university. Attending a Gymnasium was the goal of all those with cultural pretensions and of anyone who wanted to become either a doctor or a lawyer. Jews perceived it as a chance of professional success and of social acceptance. Although being only roughly 10% of the general population in Vienna, Jews made up about 30% of "Gymnasiasten" before the First World War. About two thirds of the sons of liberal middle-class parents who went on to study law or medicine at the University were Jewish.
Stefan Zweig wrote in his memoirs that "every well-to-do family took care to have its sons 'educated' if only for purely social reasons. They were taught French and English, they were made familiar with music, and were given governesses at first and then tutors to teach them good manners. But only the so-called 'academic' education, which led to the university, carried full value in those days of enlightened liberalism; and that is why it was the ambition of every 'good' family to have some sort of doctor's title prefixed to the name of at least one of its sons."
Another typical statement, expressed by the journalist Arnold Höllriegel, describes what was the aspirations of those students who already came from a liberal background:
"My fellow students [in the Gymnasium] were all sons of merchants, doctors and lawyers, but it was our dream to become something else, preferably poets or sculptors. At least five members of my class, which was composed of thirty students, later actually did produce literature and were published".
In 1910 more than 50% of the Jewish pupils of the Erzherzog-Rainer Gymnasium were exempted from paying fees, a clear indication that poorer Jewish families and immigrant families, much more often than non-Jewish families from a similar background, sent their children to the most prestigious form of secondary education with the aim of enabling them to gain the means need for social mobility. However, Jews were under-represented in vocational schools and colleges.
Providing a good education for their girls was another main difference betwen the approach of Jewish parents and that of the non-Jewish population. Women were neither admitted to gymnasium nor to some faculties of the university prior to the First World War. Private foundations and organizations established several institutions offering secondary education for girls, so called "Mädchen-Lyzeen", boasting a six-year education. In the academic year 1895/96, fifty seven percents of all pupils of the Lyzeum were Jewish and in 1910 forty-six percents of the Lyzeum students were still Jewish girls.
The first school of this kind in Vienna was founded by the tireless and industrious Dr. Eugenie Schwarzwald in 1901. Starting in modest premises, it soon moved to a town house for which Adolf Loos had redesigned the interior. It attracted mainly daughters from upper-class families for whom female education was a status symbol. In 1910/11 nearly seventy percent of its 164 students were Jewish. The number of Jewish students at other Lyzeen, such as these of Dr. Amalie Sobel or Dr. Olga Ehrenhaft-Steindler, was as high as almost ninety percent of the total students.
The "Jewish Private Gymnasium", named in 1927 after Chief Rabbi Zvi Perez Chajes, the so-called "Chajesgymnasium", was opened in 1919. It was mainly attended by students from Jewish families with a Galician background. Modeled on the attitudes of its name-giver, the school tried to harmonise between assimilation and orthodoxy. Leaning towards Zionism, it strived to combine Jewish Nationalism with a humanistic education; a Jewish cultural identity should be matched with loyalty to society. It was a co-educational school that was closed on Saturdays, but with classes on Sundays. Hebrew was taught in a cultural-literal and not a religious approach. A primary school was opened in 1935/36 in the Castellezgasse 35.
After Austrian's annexation to Germany, the students did pass the last Matura in June 1938. The legendary director of the school, Dr. Viktor Kellner, told them, "I don't know what the future will bring you. But one thing I can tell you for sure: One will say the 'Shema Israel' (Jewish prayer) much longer than 'Heil Hitler'." The school was closed down in 1941, and theafter its building was used by the Gestapo to assemble Viennese Jews prior to their deportation. It was reopened in the Castellezgasse on 19 September 1984.
The next step after the "Matura" was entry to university. Vienna University attracted students from all over the Habsburg Monarchy. Jewish students were represented over-proportionally to their percentage in the general population: in the 1880s they made up a third of all students. In 1904 the number of Jewish students declined to slightly less than one quarter. Until after the First World War, the medical faculty had the highest proportion of Jewish students, many of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. In 1890 nearly 50% of all medical students were Jews.
The famous surgeon Theodor Billroth warned in 1875 against the "dangers" of Jewish predominance in medicine. He objected to the large number of new Jewish medical students from the East, whose poverty and poor command of German would lower the academic standards. Billroth claimed that Jews did not simply belong to a different religion, but to a different race. Although he later distanced himself from this view and even became a member of the League to Combat Anti-Semitism, his book rang a bell and anti-Semitism at the university, from teachers and students alike, was a common phenomenon.
Stefan Zweig, born in 1881, and a student at the University of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th, wrote in his memoirs that "neither in school nor at the university, […] have I ever experienced the slightest suppression or indignity as a Jew." The depiction given by Martin Freud, Sigmund Freud's son and a law student, seems to be more typical however. "One day, when I arrived at the university, the entrance was cordoned off by police and I could not get in. The police were there because a gang fight was going on between the balustrades which edged the two broad, sloping approaches to the university. The adversaries were German-Austrian and Jewish students. They fought with sticks and fists, and the Jews were outnumbered by at least five to one. It was quite clear that they could not win, but what a wonderful sight it was, to see Jews, who as a race had been persecuted and maltreated for 2,000 years, finding the spirit to fight back. The police were not allowed to enter the university to stop fights within its gates, so they waited patiently outside, until the balustrades gave way under the pressure of the mass of fighting, struggling bodies. That ended the battle, because the participants were too busy taking to their heels to avoid being arrested to continue fighting."
Jewish students were frequently attacked and anti-Semitism at the universities and colleges was so common that it was almost taken for granted. The student fraternities demanded a numerus clausus for all Jewish students, not only for those from Eastern Europe. When Jews were excluded from many Polish universities after the First World War, they tried to study in Vienna where the return of Austrian war veterans created a shortage of space and an increase in anti-Jewish sentiments. Organized beatings of Jewish students, rare before the war, became a commonplace during the First Republic. Academic anti-Semitism was not limited to Vienna, but also occurred at the universities of Graz and Innsbruck.
Offended by the exclusion from student fraternities and influenced by Peretz Smolenskin's idea of a Jewish-National revival, three Eastern European Jewish students founded the Jewish nationalist club Kadimah in 1882. The name signified "the eastward directions of our strivings, but also at the same time a forward progression" (Reuben Bierer, one of the founders of Kadimah). "Kadimah" influenced Theodor Herzl who supported it after the publication of "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"). Martin Freud, after witnessing the above mentioned fight at Vienna University, asked who the brave Jewish students were and was told that they belonged to Zionist student organisations, the bravest one being Kadimah. "Their headquarters were in the same unfashionable quarter as we lived in, the Ninth. I went there without an introduction and joined."
When the Faculty of Philosophy of Vienna University eventually admitted female students in 1897, Jewish female students were among the pioneers. Eight students, a quarter of all matriculated female students, were of Jewish origin. In the winter semester 1913/14 nearly forty percent of the female students in that faculty were Jewish. In 1900 women were allowed to study medicine and pharmacy. From the very beginning, Jewish students formed a 63% majority of the female student body; thirteen years later still nearly 60% were Jewish, of them 44.5% coming from Galicia. These numbers declined in the inter-war period, when it became more difficult for Eastern European students to study in Vienna. In 1933/34 less than 40% of female medical students were Jewish.