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Educational Alliance

Educational Alliance: A History of a Lower East Side Settlement House

by EJ Sampson


When it was founded by German Jews in 1889, the Educational Alliance successfully managed to follow University Settlement House’s initial footsteps by setting up shop in the Lower East Side with a large building of its own. In doing so, it immediately achieved prominence as a premier settlement house serving immigrants. By 1911, the Alliance found itself in very good company indeed: settlement houses had by then become practically ubiquitous in that diverse but primarily Eastern European Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Yet, when anti-immigrant sentiment succeeded in diminishing immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe in the period between the World Wars, the Educational Alliance did not fade out as did most of its sister institutions from that earlier time.

Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side of New York City
Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side of New York City

Rather, the Educational Alliance adjusted sufficiently so as to learn how to weather and address changes in its core neighborhood and larger social context. It balanced the growing professionalization of settlement house work by becoming community-based, and kept its emphasis on encouraging public civic culture even as in other ways it aligned with a social service “agency” model. And it kept it eyes on its Jewish origins not only in its neighborhood work, but in negotiating its internal ethos. This flexibility and neighborhood focus allowed it to later move into fields such as working with the elderly even as it inherited other local settlement houses (most notably Stuyvesant Settlement House and much later, the Emanu-El Settlement House which had by then evolved into the 14th Street Y). Historically, these adjustments can be seen as points of negotiated contention in a multi-purpose organization whose programmatic balance and priorities have shifted over time so as to emphasize different valences. As a result, the Edgies — its local nickname ‑‑ remains a living, breathing, and growing neighborhood institution serving many constituencies.

This overview of the Educational Alliance touches primarily on its initial history that is connected to that of earlier Jewish immigration. It rejoins Educational Alliance’s past to the larger story of the settlement house movement it belongs to by describing its earlier settlement house activities, including its ongoing commitment to shaping public civic life. In attending to how the Educational Alliance differed from other settlement houses in its origins, it raises the question of whether there really was simply one idealized model for that initial settlement house movement, especially in the Lower East Side.[i] Lastly, it suggests that the initial bumps in Educational Alliance’s neighborhood interactions were a predictable result of its origins and that the flexibility of its internal culture was affected for the better by its process of adjustment.

A Settlement House for the Masses: The Lower East Side

Educational Alliance’s impact in terms of scale is unusually large given the sheer number of people who have gone through its doors. Even in 2012 the Lower East Side remains the area of the U.S. statistically most associated with immigration due to its long service as an initial destination. Enormous numbers of immigrants and migrants were once squeezed into the neighborhood’s less than two square miles then deemed the world’s densest urban area. These numbers can be glimpsed in the words of historian Elizabeth Israels Perry, the granddaughter of a famous couple who had worked at Educational Alliance in its early days:

“Thousands of immigrants passed through Alliance programs. In 1902 alone, thirty five thousand attended lectures, one hundred thousand went both to religious services and indoor entertainments, and three hundred thousand used the reading room and roof garden.”  (Perry. 2000) (16).

Its ability to provide services to vast numbers of constituents when taken in combination with its unusual longevity effectively created an organization with an enormous institutional impact. This is especially true if it that impact is understood to encompass the lives of founders, staff, social workers, interns, volunteers, and current constituents as well as those of alumni and their descendants. But it is the overall quality of that experience along with its scale, which made the Edgies a very special place even within the ranks of the settlement house movement.

The Educational Alliance was founded by German Jews in response to an influx of Eastern European Jews whose economic and political hardship started a migration at a point when the U.S. was industrializing and labor was needed. That immigration accelerated rapidly when in 1881 pogroms accompanied the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Eastern and Central European Jews initially settled in lower Manhattan in an area which rapidly became known as the Great New York Ghetto. Over two million Jews came to the U.S. between 1881‑1924. Initially, most settled on the Lower East Side, an already poor area populated with Irish and then German speaking immigrants. Simultaneously as well as later on, various Italian, Slavic, African American, Latino, and Chinese (Fujianese) communities all helped define the neighborhood, which meant that both migrants as well as immigrants eventually became important constituencies for the Educational Alliance.

In thinking about how settlement houses affected immigrant cultures and lives, attention needs to also be paid to how daily encounters with immigrants and other constituents changed settlement houses. Much of this interaction was mediated by staff and often by the female board members who ran its programs for women and children. To be effective in attracting Eastern European Jews and to achieve aspects of its own agenda, the Educational Alliance was pushed into to becoming more broadly attuned to its neighborhood’s various cultural and religious sensibilities and to somewhat moderate its initial stress on rapid Americanization. Thus, the difficult exercise of narrowing the gaps between the goals articulated by Educational Alliance’s German Jewish founders’ and those expressed by its earliest Yiddish speaking immigrant constituents can be viewed as a multi-directional process which generated institutional change in its wake. Over the years this earliest shift remained a model for focusing its institutional culture on the area’s changing needs, an approach which arguably helped enable its long-term survival.

A Settlement House: Public Civic Life and Arts

Girl's Club on Roof of Hebrew Educational Alliance. Photo courtesy of Educational Alliance.
Girl’s Club on Roof of Hebrew Educational Alliance. Photo courtesy of Educational Alliance.

Like many former settlement houses, Edgies is fondly remembered across numerous generations. Myriad stories can be told of the thousands of immigrant and first generation street kids and adults who joined its clubs and gyms, played on its roof, and attended its camps, art school and concerts. Children who attended its programs gained the needed vocational and educational skills to mitigate the many risks associated with deep immigrant poverty, miserable lodging and work conditions and rapid cultural displacement. Its children’s groups provided friends as well as activities, often leading to lifetime friendships. “Society” clubs, such as the Grand Street Boys Association which was founded by Edgies’ alumni, sustained its institutional ethos of immigrant children becoming role models for younger children through charitable giving. Immigrant, and later on, American-born, adults had their own activities including the highly-intellectual programming provided at its college-bound Davidson School, whose earlier model helped inspire Educational Alliance’s College Prep program today.

While the Lower East Side was well known for its lively street life, settlement houses, including the Educational Alliance, greatly preferred immigrants learn about the appropriate exercise of public civic life through their participation in activities which took place in the strictly supervised areas that comprised its buildings and camps. If getting kids off of the streets is the hallmark of settlement work, Educational Alliance took it to a level all its own. Given the endemic overcrowding of the Lower East Side, its constituents learned how to be American citizens in part by learning how to participate in the large-scale public activities which took place in its urban spaces and summer camps including but not limited to roof gardens, gymnasiums, meeting rooms, conference and concert halls, theaters, assemblies, pools, kitchens, reading rooms and classrooms. It should be noted for both children and adults, gender separate activities were often the rule; propriety and supervision were very much taken into account wherever both genders mixed. Nor were the domestic arts ignored; like many settlement houses, it stressed the new science of domestic economy in cooking, budgeting and in the notion of a proper American housewife and mother.

Educational Alliance had a large gym, which like its numerous camps, promoted exercise for both boys and girls. Generally, it promoted public health by shifting children away from the “insalubrious milieus” of the street, and sometimes those of the home. It promoted the pasteurized milk stations funded by Nathan Strauss, the brother of its first president, Isidor Strauss. From its earliest days, it provided baths as well as classes to promote hygiene. Like most settlement houses and reformers generally, its agenda promoted exercise as a response to public health concerns of immigrant contagion and the “reform” of the “sickly” immigrant body into that of an idealized healthy American. Such concerns are not surprising in an era in which TB was popularly, if erroneously, called the “Jewish disease.” Quarantines were frequent in a neighborhood typically depicted in terms of its crowded tenements and streets.[ii]

Nor was the Educational Alliance reticent about its larger cultural goals when it came to recreation. As its Souvenir Booklet shows:

…Social work [recreation] is “to develop the social instincts through various forms of innocent pleasure…. Games, magazine reading, social clubs”, and “the more elaborate forms of socializing influences, such as musical and dramatic entertainments, art exhibitions and others of a similar character. The Educational Alliance has, by its concerts and art exhibitions, become a means of elevation as well as of mere recreation.” (Souvenir Book of the Fair in Aid of the Educational Alliance and the Hebrew Technical Institute 1895) (20-21).

Rather wisely, the Educational Alliance typically combined its elevating moral agenda of health and citizenship with that of recreation and entertainment. Its roof garden provided pleasurable entertainment and supervised evening strolls in the fresh air. The neighborhood swarmed to hear its concerts, lectures, and art shows. Even for those somewhat more fortunate, the Educational Alliance provided recreation and culture, often with a capital “C” so as to entwine citizenship with morality. By 1903, its Children’s Theater performances (associated with Mark Twain) were justly famous.

A Postage Stamp Honoring Mark Twain
A Postage Stamp Honoring Mark Twain

Just how massive this effort was in shaping a type of public civic life is eye-popping in today’s terms. Though the Children’s Theater was controversial with Board members and short-lived in part because of perceived “professional” overtones, it was of a piece with much of its work. Edgies’ staff typically advocated that all of its concerts, performances and lectures should be top-notch so as to attract immigrant audiences and improve their tastes. In 1907, Mark Twain described his understanding of Alliance’s children’s programs:

They are taught that the true motives of life are to reach for the highest ideals. The dramas that they play have morals that lend toward this aim. And best of all, they are taught to act for themselves and to think for themselves. …

…For fourteen years Isidor Straus, the president of the Educational Alliance, has devoted himself to educating these future citizens. The Educational Alliance greets them at the steamship landing and from that time onward, never loses track of them. Their morals are watched; they are educated in the practical things of life….. We have good reason to emulate these people of the East Side. They are reading our history and learning the great questions of America that we do not know and are not learning, and they are learning them first hand and doing their own thinking. (Stevenson 2006, 1907) (658)

Although Twain and Strauss held different views as to patriotism, there was enough overlap regarding the importance of the arts in shaping citizenship for Twain to aptly paraphrase Isidor Straus’ goals and actively participate in implementing them.  Citizenship, moral character, and art should be bundled together as necessary for the individual refinement and “elevation” of the neighborhood’s for immigrant residents. If, as Twain indicated, exposure to good art was seen as fashioning an appreciation of more refined notions of recreation, similarly the direct reading and discussion of the Constitution and other core American historical documents helped fashion good citizenship.[iii] Both reinforced a proper moral notion as to what skills and programs would help shape an immigrant child into a proper, self-supporting Jewish American citizen in a democracy.

The Souvenir Booklet from its earliest fundraising Fair (1895) speaks to these goals. ”The scope of the work of the Educational Alliance shall be of an Americanizing, educational, social and humanizing character” (19). But its sense of Americanization, in molding individuals morally through its recreational and educational activities, owed something as well to German Jewish notions of Bildung as necessary to character formation. Bildung stressed sacrifice, duty, group activities, planning and self-sufficiency and patriotism in the making of the responsible future citizen but it also deemed essential the fostering of an individual sensibility that was married to a deeply aesthetic appreciation of the arts as part of its attendant moral values. In putting their best foot forward, Educational Alliance’s initial founders explained:

The noblest and best principles of Jewish-American citizenship underlie the foundation and maintenance of these charities. We owe it to ourselves to impart to our less fortunate co-religionists a proper appreciation of their duties and privileges as American citizens and as Jews, in order that they may, of their own volition, work for the best and the noblest in our midst. (Souvenir Book of the Fair in Aid of the Educational Alliance and the Hebrew Technical Institute 1895).

Tellingly, much of Educational Alliance’s past fame rests on its emphasis on the high-level cultural and educational programming provided by its staff.  While Isidor Straus may now be best known as the gentleman who dignifiedly went down with the “Titanic,” arguably his “richest” legacy can be seen in the roster of Educational Alliance’s famous art school alumni and staff that includes Chaim Gross, Sir Jacob Epstein, the Soyer brothers (Raphael, Moses and Isaac), Ben Shawn, and Louise Nevelson. Its music programming was done partly by Belle Linder (Mrs. Henry Moskowitz) who went on to become Al Smith’s campaign manager as well as the grandmother of historian Elizabeth Israels Perry. Later on, Alliance’s photography school was started by Rebecca Lepkoff.

Eddie Cantor
Eddie Cantor

Alliance’s early entertainment and theater personalities include Edie Cantor who became Edgies’ poster child for success and a future board member. It also included actor and comedian Zero Mostel, who played Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. Its Breadwinner’s College (Thomas Davidson School), a progressive and philosophically oriented high school and college program, was run by Professor Morris Raphael Cohen who met Davidson at a lecture given at the Alliance. Unsurprisingly, he also met his wife there. Likewise, its list of faculty and alumni is quite distinguished.

Yet, there is much more to add to this picture of a large, successful, turn-of-the century settlement house with its myriad alumni. Educational Alliance would be the first to say that its success should not be judged primarily by whether its alumni or staff names appear in bold face. In meaning to elevate the character of all its constituents, in attempting such a large-scale “reform” of its co-religionists, the Educational Alliance was not being merely ambitious. It aimed at being massively successful at providing the needed skills for jobs and the type of education necessary to achieve social mobility, including for girls. Its numerous interventions undoubtedly enhanced the possibility that poor immigrant children could succeed in America. Its programs were meant to generate an appreciation for Western arts and American democratic civic life in ways that changed children’s lives: Edie Cantor had been a gang member prior to joining Educational Alliance’s theater programs and summer camps.

And yet, particularly in its earliest years, some of these programs generated controversy. Whether or not this division is entirely historically sensible, settlement house work was seen by staff and constituents as tied to Americanization at its core. Conversely, recreation [social work] was seen as promoting participation in the arts and in American civic culture, a formula also seen as more congenial to fostering some sort of Jewish programming orientation. (This question as to what exactly a Jewish settlement house should be in the context of the settlement house movement will be addressed later on.) In other words, some of the Alliance’s settlement house programs were controversial since their stress on Americanization was seen as encouraging children (and often adults) to move away from a Jewish identity, and particularly away more traditional and familial cultural and religious understandings. Also the Alliance’s religious understandings of American Jewish values largely reflected the tenets of Reform Judaism and its views on the need for the Americanization of Eastern European immigrants.

In following the larger settlement house movement’s agenda of Americanization in a rapid and somewhat rigid manner, its German Jewish Board triggered predictable resentment which was often reported in the Yiddish press.[iv] Alliance’s staff and Directors were often caught in clashes when implementing Board directives. Some questioned the value of promoting a rapid pace of Americanization and wondered about the impact of its policies in in the context of addressing the rise of juvenile delinquency. David Blaustein, an early Head Worker advocated that the recreational aspect be stressed rather than the settlement house, in effect suggesting that Edgies needed to supplement its program with Jewish content (108-100, 114) (Bellow 1990). This issue of what got lost in the rush to Americanization is not unique to the Educational Alliance: the larger question still animates historians as well as many others in debating the initial legacy of the settlement house movement in dealing with new immigrants. But it surfaced very visibly at the Educational Alliance because its constituents viewed the situation as one in which German speaking Jews were seen as trying to make Yiddish speaking Eastern European Jews into a very particular type of American.

To its everlasting credit, and in part as a response to its quite vocal constituents who often published their critiques, Edgies transitioned from a top-down cultural model to one which started reflecting more of the Eastern European Yiddish culture of the neighborhood.[v] At the beginning of the twentieth century it started providing topical lectures and sermons in Yiddish by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Masliansky and others, and allowed the language to be spoken in its halls. It started stressing some of its older Hebrew Free School Association (HFSA) religious programs for children and opened its People’s Synagogue and its Young People’s Synagogue. While it never became an official supporter of the labor or suffragette movement, its politics started slowly shifting into those of a generalized advocacy for the neighborhood including jobs, housing, and citizenship. And in doing so, it starting becoming beloved in its neighborhood, something which Lillian Wald, the founder of the Henry Street Settlement House graciously acknowledged on the occasion of Edgies 25th anniversary dinner (112) (Bellow 1990).

A Programmatic Model

Educational Alliance’s search to broaden the adoption of its successful interventions into immigrant life was modeled somewhat along Reformer lines as was much settlement house activity. But its institutional trademark was the ability to initiate and then successfully operate model programs so that public entities would be able to subsume and offer them more broadly. Even better, this often resulted in the city paying Educational Alliance for these programs or “demonstration projects” which furthered its ability to institutionalize them.

New Jewish immigrants are sent to the Alliance school fresh from their Russian homes. Photo courtesy of Educational Alliance.
New Jewish immigrants are sent to the Alliance school fresh from their Russian homes. Photo courtesy of Educational Alliance.

Initially Educational Alliance had offered evening English classes for adult immigrants and daytime ones for children. As an educational provider, it joined other settlement houses in strongly advocating for laws to ensure mandatory childhood schooling as well as adult education for immigrants. This larger settlement house agenda was intimately related to promoting the Americanization of immigrant children even as it joined forces with Reformers looking to prevent child labor.[vi] This also matched well the prevailing German Jewish view that historian Jacob Marcus describes which saw: “The road to opportunity lay only through the American educational system; secular, not religious training was basic.”(597) (Marcus 1981)

By 1904, both its childhood and adult English programs were officially put under the auspices of the Board of Education (41) (Bellow 1990). Once those laws were passed in New York State, Educational Alliance was able to successfully transfer and incorporate its educational programs into New York’s school system, and often was able to continue to run them as paid activities. (Milstein 1990; Bellow 1990). Eventually its kindergarten programs were adopted by the Board of Education.

It also was able to move some of its religious instruction programs to Board of Education auspices (in New York City public school children were entitled to a certain amount of religious instruction time provided by outside institutions). In that same year it began strongly reinforcing public school by making its after-school activities increasingly a continuation of that world, including through its numerous boys and girls clubs. This became an important focus so that local public school children would be tightly bonded into groups that continued to play together safely during after school hours. Also the Alliance was well aware that children were likeliest to play with children from their surrounding blocks, a factor important in deciding their public school options as well as in influencing their choice of settlement houses.

Since one of its original founding organizations was the Aguilar Library, it initially established needed Aguilar neighborhood library branches for immigrant readers: children and adults. Again once having modeled how to do this work, the Educational Alliance was able to have these branch libraries — with their different adult literature and extended hours for children who needed to do homework — become part of New York’s growing public library system along with the Aguilar Library itself (Milstein 1990).

The Educational Alliance's Legal Aid Bureau is established in 1911, lending advice and support to up to 30,000 callers each year. Photo courtesy of the Educational Alliance
The Educational Alliance’s Legal Aid Bureau is established in 1911, lending advice and support to up to 30,000 callers each year. Photo courtesy of the Educational Alliance

A little later on, the Educational Alliance was able to do the same thing with legal advice, a needed and hard to come by type of service that offered immigrants assistance concerning jobs, housing, marital issues and legal papers. By 1911 its archives show that “The Educational Alliance’s Legal Aid Bureau is established, lending advice and support to up to 30,000 callers each year. (Milstein 1990). That agency was eventually absorbed into the Legal Aid Society since these same papers show that financially supporting its Legal Aid Bureau was a constant struggle given the demands for trained and bi-lingual staff and raised questions as to which genders should best do which work for what pay. Its Breadwinner’s College (Thomas Davidson School), became the “model of adult education and directly inspired the evening session at City College, adopted in 1909, the first such program leading to a bachelor’s degree.” (63) (Bellow 1990). Once New York City established a similar program in 1917, Breadwinner’s was officially “retired” from the Educational Alliance.

Like many other settlement houses, Educational Alliance focused on taking city kids out of tenements and streets to bring them to the American countryside to learn how to work and play in supervised groups. The camping movement of course was based on the idea that removing children from the city would improve their health [and values]. Yet in an age when tuberculosis was endemic, it can be argued that it had just that effect. Here Educational Alliance again provided the initial model for camps for urban Jewish youth that would be incorporated as the standard for a larger organization; this time it provided the model for what would become the Jewish Federation’s camping arm. Camps like Surprise Lake clearly created a major bond for those who attended them: a book could be literally written just about camps including Camps Solomon and Leah, which were run not just for children, but also for adults as the neighborhood increasingly aged.

Early Programs and Jewish Philanthropic Origins

Early settlement houses often looked to actively serve poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. [Another history could be written about Southern Italians and settlement houses.] As historian Jacob Marcus (1981) noted “Every community of size in early twentieth century America, had at least one settlement house, in the Jewish ghetto district. Some were established by Gentiles, others by Jews. The settlement house was a social-service center to aid and acculturate immigrants” (98) [emphasis added]. This was truest in New York. By 1910, the area then referred to as the Great New York Ghetto,[vii] had over 500,000 Jewish residents, making it at once the densest place on the planet as well as the world’s largest Jewish city (Diner 2000) (131).

The Educational Alliance was founded, funded and run in 1889 by German speaking Jews, from wealthy, prestigious uptown families. This section alludes to some of the other incentives for German speaking Jews to intervene in the Lower East Side at a time in which “the Jewish problem” and the “ghetto” figured heavily in America’s response to these Eastern European immigrants. Marcus goes on to say that “the Educational Alliance was well known for the diverse programs it offered. Its work encompassed educational, social, religious, and even welfare services.” (98-99). That it was specifically Jewish was not unusual; according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, a little less than half of U.S. settlement houses were sectarian (Wade 2005). Was there debate over whether its focus on Jewish immigrants made sense? Certainly, Alliance’s founders explicitly meant to show that New York’s prominent Jews had stepped up to address the problem which had arguably landed at their doorstep.

In that context, it seemed appropriate that their response have some Jewish educational and religious component — especially when its founders noted that missionaries were offering competing services for Jewish children. What was less obvious was how that was to be accomplished since German speaking Jews were primarily involved with a type of Reform Judaism highly attuned to American life. It should also be noted that figures such as financier Jacob Schiff who was heavily involved with Educational Alliance and with religious life, gave generously to other settlement houses without a specifically Jewish agenda or clientele. These approaches were not mutually exclusive.

Following in University Settlement House’s footsteps, the Hebrew Institute, as it was briefly called in 1889, was at first an attempt at rationally consolidating different Jewish charitable institutions under a new building’s institutional umbrella, by locating it smack in the middle of the poverty-stricken area where immigrant Jews needed the most assistance (Bellow 1990) (34-37). German speaking Jews who had the advantage of a longer experience of living in America were rather proud of the Americanized communal institutions which they had developed. The creation of Jewish ghettos in New York and elsewhere was not a welcome development even as German speaking Jews stepped up to found numerous charitable institutions in which they sought to help and mold their “co-religionists”.

The Educational Alliance [then the Hebrew Institute] in other words started as an umbrella organization running a building. By 1893, the Hebrew Institute had been renamed the Educational Alliance; the groups which had helped start its 197 East Broadway building were reconfigured. The Aguilar Library shifted into a public library, and the YMHA pulled out altogether and went uptown where it became known as the 92nd Street Y.

The Hebrew Free School Society (HFSA) work was directly taken on by the Educational Alliance with the provision of additional Baron de Hirsch charitable funds. In taking on these programs, the Educational Alliance immediately could provide classes to teach English, with their own school libraries, religious instruction and vocational training allowing it to expand into other activities even as it relied on the HFSA’s prior services (Berkowitz 1964).

It immediately inherited a number of the Jewish charitable programs that had already been put in place by New York’s German speaking Jewish community, most particularly programs which were often already run or staffed by women.[viii] Some of these were the “welfare” organizations that Marcus refers to which directly provided the sort of aid to the poor that philanthropists often saw as misplaced charity. Other Sisterhood or HFSA programs made the Alliance the provider of some of the first kindergartens and nursery schools for immigrant working mothers. It also made it a provider of free Jewish religious education since the Hebrew Free School Association (HFSA) was one of its founding organizations.

This not only gave its programming a “head start,” but also gave it a somewhat contradictory appearance. Educational Alliance’s push for the rapid Americanization of Eastern European Jews into its own particular model potentially competed with and/or complemented its other agendas. Just what sort of Jew did its American model provide? Turning Eastern European Jewish children into proper Americans also meant putting religion into a somewhat separate sphere as German Jews had already done in America. It didn’t seem possible to entirely ignore religion in looking to train children about morality which was seen as being reinforced religiously. Also, it was only in providing a modicum of Jewish education that Eastern European Jews would potentially move away from (an “Oriental” superstitious) Orthodoxy, toward an embrace of a Reform Judaism associated with the Enlightenment view of religion.

Hence Alliance’s earliest history shows some of the back and forth on the necessity of supporting HFSA’s classes. After being neglected they were later seen as a resource, and modernized so as to somewhat improve the children’s classes as well as the adult classes geared towards teaching those that Alliance had first made war on: the much denigrated traditional religious teachers, known as melamdim (Marcus 1989; Berkowitz 1964; Bellow 1990; Milstein 1990).

Educational Alliance’s early push to Americanization was not unique. Historically, settlement houses focused on immigrant children (and adult mothers) so as to promote their Americanization as part and parcel of their physical and intellectual development. How they did so varied greatly. Undoubtedly, Educational Alliance’s founders saw themselves as participating in that tradition even as they envisioned it in ways that spoke to their own fusion of Jewish institutions with American life. New York’s settlement house movement was modeled along the lines of a type of philanthropy associated with goals of the American Progressive movement which reflected a type of Protestant ethos of philanthropy. If the “fit” was not entirely consistent with all of the aims of Educational Alliance’s German Jewish founders, the emphasis on Americanization and service through philanthropy was most attractive as traditional views of religious charity shifted. Julia Richman, the Alliance’s first female Director, wrote in 1893:

The Jews of America, particularly the Jews of New York City, are, perhaps, the most charitable class of people in the world…we have reached a point in the development of various sociological problems which makes it imperative that philanthropy be placed above charity. The need of charity must disappear as we teach the rising generation how to improve its conditions. (Marcus 1981) (422)

Hence, Educational Alliance’s emphasis on patriotism and citizenship in many forms cannot be pulled out of the multiple contexts in which its founders operated. Adam Bellow’s internal centennial history notes wryly in describing Educational Alliance’s beginnings that “Patriotism and social etiquette were indeed the main educational fare for children at this time, and the papers often carried reports of class exercises at the Alliance in which children waved flags and recited the pledge of allegiance in groups of five hundred and more” (76) (Bellow 1990). But without debating the issue as to whether German speaking Jews were more motivated by altruism than self-interest, these turn-of-the-century contexts included the rise in American anti-immigrant sentiment along with the expression of newly racialized forms of anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly then, some German Jews expressed an almost palpable fear of Eastern European Jewish behavior as giving rise to, or serving as an excuse for, anti-Semitism. In 1903 NYU Professor and Educational Alliance Board member Morris Loeb characterized the Uptown vs. Downtown Jewish communal divide as a struggle between Eastern and Western civilization and went on to say: “… It is our duty to care for his [the Jewish immigrant’s] speedy Americanization even more than for his physical welfare… [E]ntry to the land will be forbidden, if it becomes clear that they want to eat American bread, without acquiring American ways.” (The American Hebrew, 1903 as quoted by Bellow, p 82).

As has already been intimated, New York’s Americanized German speaking Jews feared that anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment would become widespread. The limits of German Jewish acceptance into top levels of American society were becoming increasingly apparent in 1890s when they experienced anti-Semitism of a “society” sort in not being accepted into hotels, residences and clubs. Community leaders worried that a large influx of poor traditional Jews with noted radical tendencies would promote anti-Semitism in an era becoming increasingly marked by anti-immigrant eugenics discourses in which Jews were seen as an inferior race.

This furthered an initial sense that the faster Eastern European Jews became American and stopped being a burden on the German Jewish community, the better off all would be. It was one thing to protest a despotic Russian Czar’s support of pogroms aimed at fellow Jews; it was quite another to support the one third of Eastern Europe’s Jews who migrated to the United States from 1881 to 1924 (Bellow 1990). Not least, the garment trade became another area of commonality/disharmony; when three quarters of the neighborhood’s Eastern European Jews became garment workers, their employers were often German Jews.

But anti-Semitism, including a famous incident in 1908 in which downtown Jews were accused by New York’s police commissioner as being responsible for 50 percent of its crime, was a real issue. Eventually the Bingham affair along with the rise of the eugenics and anti-immigration movements forced both German speaking and Yiddish speaking Jews into more nuanced and somewhat better coordinated responses, with which the Alliance and its principals were more or less deeply involved.[ix] (This topic will be touched upon again in a later section.)

While its focus on Americanization remained, the Alliance’s shift in emphasis can be seen as a multifaceted response in which criticism from immigrant organizations and constituents accompanied an internal institutional realization that the strengthening and inclusion of the immigrant family and its religious ties were essential to Alliance’s fight to prevent local juvenile delinquency. Its staff, and its relatively short-tenured initial head workers (Spectorsky and Blaustein) as well as its Rabbi, Adolph Radin, all understood it as having gone too far in undercutting traditional familial life and authority by un-mooring children from the familial and religious strictures of Yiddish language and culture.[x] To recap, after charging full speed ahead in regard to Americanization, the Educational Alliance rapidly found out that its primary focus on rapid acculturation created American children who had little in common with other family members, or with immigrant culture, religion and community. Unsurprisingly, that focus was eventually seen as accelerating behavioral problems associated with poverty and too rapid change, most particularly juvenile delinquency. One response was to beef up the HFSA programs in regards to religious/moral training along with a variety of religious options; another was to provide higher quality cultural programming; yet another was to allow neighborhood groups to meet in the building and speak Yiddish.

Clearly in a poor, highly political Yiddish speaking immigrant neighborhood whose residents lived in tenements and labored in the sweatshops of a newly evolving garment trade, patriotism and etiquette were not enough. The Lower East Side’s Jewish residents could be described both as far more traditional religiously and often politically radicalized by its working and slum conditions. So here we have a settlement house whose original goals get changed through real-life contact and interactions with a neighborhood of Eastern European Jews who not only had something to say about how they should become American, but also how they should be Jewish. This complex dynamic which included the staff, founders, donors, and constituents of Educational Alliance made it possible to shift its institutional goals and methods so that it remained the neighborhood’s premier Jewish settlement house.

It also meant that the programming of its Jewish component (seen as moral in part) became somewhat emphasized at this later point. There was less emphasis on fully remaking its religious contours along the lines of Reform Judaism, and Alliance’s prior focus on crime prevention, literacy, the arts and job skills grew. This early tension as to its role as a Jewish settlement house and in creating a new generation of American Jews longed marked Alliance’s history. As an institution it has been tugged in different directions programmatically over its many decades including in its relationship to local Jewish communities.

Settlement houses were associated primarily with the impoverished mass migration that accompanied a period of urban industrialization; over four hundred settlement houses were founded starting in the 1880s (Wade 2005). But the earlier fears of German speaking Jews that migration from Eastern and Southern Europe would be stopped, were mainly realized after a xenophobic America shut its gates tight in 1924. Even for those that found themselves needed during the Depression, most had shut down by or after World War II when social mobility had shifted upward for a prior immigrant generation. Ultimately its evolving neighborhood focus pushed it towards what its chronicler Adam Bellow terms a “general cultural pluralism,” which made it easier for it to deal with demographic changes of all sorts in the inter and post-War years.

In supporting and running what would eventually become a much admired and copied settlement house for Eastern European Jews, German speaking Jews were also slowly changed as a community through participating in an older Jewish tradition of communal charity. German Jews now found themselves a minority within a minority, eager to become the model for America’s larger Jewish community which stemmed from Eastern Europe. The Eastern European Jewish immigrants that Educational Alliance served did not simply become more American; they also shifted a prior sense of what it meant to be a Jewish immigrant in America. All of these strains went into shifting an initially contested institutional monologue into a more complex dialogue with the neighborhood’s diverse Eastern European Jews.

Therefore, to understand how Educational Alliance has survived so well afterwards, it’s worth underscoring two points. First, the nature and extent of its core neighborhood’s ongoing, evolving, and compelling needs. The Lower East Side is a place where University Settlement, the Henry Street Settlement, Hamilton-Madison House, and the Grand Street Settlement all remain lively institutions today. As their names suggest, like the Educational Alliance, they all see themselves as an important part of the Settlement House movement’s origins in New York, and as institutions that remain vitally needed now. Although their role has changed, arguably they hold much of the local security net in place. Secondly, in noting Educational Alliance’s institutional persistence, some of the debates and solutions concerning its institutional identity can be seen as persisting, albeit it in new forms, from its founding days.

Female Role Models

Prior to founding Educational Alliance, German speaking Jews were already deeply associated with their own communal institutions including those of prominent Reform synagogues where women were already busy working with the immigrant poor in what were called “Sisterhoods of Personal Service.” The United Hebrew Charities was already spending most of its funds on the neighborhood. Generally German speaking Jews wanted to see the Lower East Side’s impoverished Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrant children become American, self-sufficient and (optimally) interested in Reform Judaism.

The Sisterhoods remained important in providing primarily volunteer and then professional staff and directors who had actually worked with the immigrant poor; they founded the Jewish community’s kindergartens, school and after-school programs. It seems reasonable to see their role as providing an impetus which helped propel Educational Alliance’s subsequent interest in professionalization of settlement house work and its overall focus on girl’s education. They also are important in founding the National Council of Jewish Women, the Chautauqua Society and other institutions which overlapped with Educational Alliance’s Directors’ social circles.

What is extremely noticeable in Educational Alliance’s records is the rise of its initially German Jewish female staff and (occasional) director in promoting an institutional stance on training young girls whether in vocational trades or in the arts. An argument can be made that for Educational Alliance, girls’ wages were understood as a settlement house extension of more typical emphasis on male “breadwinners.” But this can be nuanced by a deeper appreciation of evolving Jewish values in this regard, expressing a more bourgeois view of German Jewish womanhood’s aspirations: spiritual, intellectual might require a career. This included worrying about whether girls would actually marry, or what would happen if they married and then needed to work.

Julia Richman, who was the Alliance’s first woman director, and first assistant superintendent of New York’s Board of Education, said of her own generation of German Jews:

“…it is my belief, that this change, this revolution, yes, this progress is more noticeable in the position held by Jewish women of America (notably the descendants of European emigrants driven from their home forty or fifty years ago), than in that of any other class in our cosmopolitan society” (Marcus 1981) (421).

Richman ascribes this career orientation to a lack of suitable marriageable partners as well as to “…the desire to give children greater financial advantages than the parents enjoyed; the financial value of a woman’s work; the frequent necessity of women to contribute to the support of families; …” (421). In encouraging the rise of a professional class of German Jewish administrators, social and case workers, there is an impact on the education and training of Jewish immigrant girls that resembles some of the training given to young men expected to become “breadwinners.” In this regard, in promoting the education of girls and women as the key to mobility and culture, the Education Alliance’s origins and priorities remain a clear focus for subsequent generations

Then there was the perceived necessity to provide vocational and other education for Jewish girls and women so that they could potentially be self-supporting.[xi] Again, Alliance’s offerings in this regard were somewhat at odds with that of settlement houses which undertook to primarily reinforce the newly American male head of household as the breadwinner, even as in other ways those settlement houses sought to undermine certain traditional, familial authoritarian structures. In the male breadwinner model, women’s work could be taken to mean that the husband was not an adequate “provider.”

Lillian Wald of the Henry Street Settlement took note of Alliance’s work in this regard, stating that it had “…indicated its recognition of the changed condition of women by preparing girls for shop life and professional life, as well as home life.” (112, fn1) (Bellow 1990). While its Legal Aid Bureau certainly went after deadbeat husbands with all of the vigor that the Reform/Progressive movement could muster, as Wald recognized, the Educational Alliance was also clearly offering educational options that far surpassed American sensibilities that vocational training for immigrant girls was meant to train them to become household servants.

For an earlier Reformer like Belle Linder, a.k.a., Mrs. Henry Moskowitz (Elizabeth Israels Perry’s grandmother), that advocacy was turned into heading the Factory Investigation Commission put together by Al Smith and Frances Perkins after the Triangle Fire. Belle’s political career led her to going on to become his campaign manager (ex officio). Belle met both of her husbands at the Educational Alliance, something which also gives us insight as to some of the ways in which settlement houses functioned in pulling together people from similar and different backgrounds.

A Settlement House with Some Differences

In other words, to become successful, Educational Alliance deeply changed in ways which allowed it to become neighborhood-centric and thereby broaden its programming in meeting a wider variety of needs based on neighborhood input and participation. And this neighborhood focus has continued to serve it well and remains critical in an area which is one of the most socially and economically stratified in New York City. So, the Educational Alliance is not an odd survivor. Its survival is related to its origins, values, and history which enabled it to see a needy neighborhood’s issues more holistically over time. In looking at its activities which like that of many settlement houses included classes in English, citizenship, cultural and arts programming, physical education, and vocational training these changes can be discerned. It moved from a focus on child and adult education to an embrace of young adult programming, religious instruction, support for the immigrant family and culture, and to programs for the elderly in response to the many changes in the Lower East Side’s demographics.

Yet for all of its prominence, including spawning clones using its name in eight other cities, New York’s Educational Alliance is not listed in the Russell Sage 1911 Handbook with its directory of settlement houses (Robert Archey Woods 1911). Among the noted differences in settlement houses, was the question of the nature of the settlement house’s workers and staffs’ relationship to their surroundings. Yet this also raises complicated questions as to whether the Jewish was seen as sectarian, and the movement’s nominally Protestant “social Christianity” as non-denominational. The Jewish Women’s Archive opines that:

Though most settlements claimed to be nondenominational, prior to World War II only a few houses successfully integrated Jewish and Christian workers. In 1911, settlement worker Boris D. Bogen estimated that there were seventy-five Jewish settlements (or neighborhood centers, so called because the staff did not live there) in addition to fifty-seven non-Jewish settlements or centers dedicated to serving a Jewish population. (Lederman 2005)

In other words, for those insistent that staff should be “settled” in their communities, a further complication in understanding New York’s Educational Alliance’s history, is whether its initial East Side residence supervised by Sophie Axman was primarily staff housing for a few. Whether institutionally it should have become more akin to the idealized institutional model espoused by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch was clearly a debated question for those who saw that as the sine qua non of being a settlement house. Not everyone saw it that way, least of all its founders, nor, necessarily most of its staff.

Belle Lindner, a.k.a. Mrs. Henry Moskowitz, wrote an upbeat article about being one of the first Jewish female settlement house workers living at the Educational Alliance. But that positive experience which included her implementing much of that institution’s cultural programming still was still a far cry from a model that was famously based on Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, perhaps best expressed in Simkhovitch’s words which remain on United Neighborhood House’s website:

…the aim of the settlement or neighborhood house is to bring about a new kind of community life…It is in the community or neighborhood that people seek and fight for solutions to their concrete, daily, local and immediate problems. Although the community remains the focus of the settlement’s attention, it is through the personalized and direct involvement with the individual, in the context of the family—often throughout a lifetime—that the settlement fosters and supports the values of fellowship and mutual support.[xii]

Perhaps we are all best served by simply noting that debate as critical in pointing out the need for a comprehensive relationship between any institution and the communities it serves. And in fact, most “ideal” settlement houses had to give up on that aspect by World War I. The combination of a top down approach with a sectarian agenda perhaps can be taken to indicate that Educational Alliance in its origins is better described in some ways as a neighborhood or community house. But that distinction would be entirely lost on its alumni and founders, for its Board minutes demonstrate that it always referred to itself as a settlement house. Indeed Edgies provided all of a settlement house’s activities and in most cases far more, and in doing so, met and catered to the needs of its local population.

One other initial difference was clearly that the politics of most board members, founders, and funders were initially more conservative than that of its staff and certainly those of its constituents.[xiii] But for Educational Alliance a movement into a sort of labor advocacy did come. It was something which most settlement houses did initially and which often got them into trouble with their funders. But in Educational Alliance’s case, it happened later, with the homelessness and joblessness of the Depression providing a large impetus in that direction. After World War II, the Educational Alliance rapidly became a non-sectarian agency. It shifted its priorities once again as this time it hotly debated whether it should become a Jewish Community House. It decided instead to keep its Jewish focus by focusing on the community’s newer demographics which meant working particularly with the elderly and the religious in a neighborhood that lost most of its younger Jewish population. At the same time, it expanded into new fields such as gang prevention and mental health services for the larger neighborhood. It did so by parlaying its past strengths and skills so that its cultural programs and facilities were increasingly used by Latino and African-American and then by Asian youth and families.

In effect, the Alliance reversed the model of many settlement houses which had started as non-sectarian, but weren’t able to shift again to serve newer populations. That institutional culture stood it in good stead when newer migrants from Latin American and Asia later joined the neighborhood’s earlier Puerto Rican migrants and its African-Americans who had come in the “Great Migration” from the South. And they worked with social work schools, most particularly NYU’s, to help re-orient themselves and implement these new agendas, particularly for those at highest risk in the community through detailed community based studies. By the 1960s, “Almost two thousand students affiliated with New York’s seven graduate schools of social work had their field work placement at the Alliance over a twelve-year period — more than any other agency in the country.” (182) (Bellow 1990).

This strenuous training in debating its identity in relation to its neighborhood constituents has stood it well since, unlike many settlement houses, it learned how to be flexible in a neighborhood that continued to be needy in both new and old ways. By the 1960s a fully professionalized Educational Alliance (EA) was acting as one of the neighborhood’s biggest social service agencies in pioneering Head Start programs and Mobilization for Youth (MFY) along with other “War on Poverty” activities. Again, it is well worth noting in this regard, that its deep partnerships with social work schools helped encourage it along this path. It is estimated that over 12,000 NYU students have been trained in social work, at Educational Alliance’s facilities.

In short, along with the Henry Street Settlement, the University Settlement House, and the Grand Street Settlement House, Edgies remains vitally needed today. It was founded in what is now a rapidly changing neighborhood which once all but defined European immigration as it became the densest urban site in the world by 1911. The Educational Alliance has had to learn over its a hundred and twenty odd years of existence how to reshape itself to serve its varying constituencies, including those of today. Its initially hard-won cultural flexibility has helped give it the ability to focus on varying neighborhood needs even as the neighborhood has changed. The rapid neighborhood changes of the last decade have created new priorities, including that of running a leading edge urban Y. Arguably an analogous process is needed again today as its core catchment area undergoes rapid gentrification even as some of the area’s migrant and non-migrant communities struggle with poverty and limited access to formal education and social mobility.

While, Educational Alliance is non-sectarian, it takes pride in its participation in a Jewish philanthropic tradition best reflected in programming which is attuned to

Senator Robert Kennedy visiting the Alliance. Photo courtesy of the Educational Alliance.
Senator Robert Kennedy visiting the Alliance. Photo courtesy of the Educational Alliance.

different communal needs, including that of the area’s Jewish residents. Again, Edgies’ continuity in this regard is not accidental. Since Educational Alliance always emphasized the cultural (and often the edgier) arts, that aspect has continued to draw in newer residents including more upscale ones. Its shared urban spaces today include art studios and gyms, pools, rooms for parenting groups, buildings for Head Start groups and nursery schools, after-school programs, early intervention programs, transitional housing, Jewish religious/cultural programming, senior housing, NORCs, addiction transition services, and the list is just a beginning. Edgies noted in 2010: “We offer 44 programs at 27 different locations to 30,000 people a year.

Today Educational Alliance’s website describes its mission as: “The Educational Alliance is a community-based organization offering a wide range of programs that integrate education, social services, arts and recreation throughout Downtown Manhattan. We are a Jewish organization, serving people of diverse ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds who live, work and learn in our neighborhoods. We strive to nourish the total person, strengthen family connections and build inclusive communities.[xiv]



Alliance, The Educational. 1903-1927. Minutes of the House Comittee of The Educational Alliance: 1903-1927. Edited by T. E. Alliance, The Educational Alliance Minutes. New York.

Bellow, Adam. 1990. The Educational Alliance: A Centennial Celebration. Edited by W. Keens. New York: The Educational Alliance.

Berkowitz, Philip. 1964. The Hebrew Free School Association and the Educational Alliance: 1897-1907. New York: American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Diner, Hasia. 2000. Lower East Side Memories:  A Jewish Place in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goren, Arthur A. 1999. The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews In The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews New York: Indiana University Press.

Lederman, Sarah Henry. 2005. Settlement Houses In The United States. In Jewish Women:  A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, edited by J. W. s. Archive.

Lingwall, Jeff. 2010. Compulsory Schooling, the Family, and the “Foreign Element” in the United States, 1880-1900,  Heinz College Second Paper. Public Policy and Management, Heinz College,

Marcus, Jacob Rader. 1981. The American Jewish Woman, 1654-1980. Paperback ed. New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Repeated Author. 1989. United States Jewry, 1776-1985. Paperback ed. New York: Wayne State University Press.

Repeated Author, ed. 1981. The American Jewish Woman, Documents: A Documentary History. Paperback ed, Jacob Rader Marcus. New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Milstein. 1990. The Educational Alliance. In Milstein Famlly Jewish Communal Archive Project, edited by YIVO. New York: Milstein Family.

Museum, The Lower East Side Tenement. 2000, 2005. Disease in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Health and Disease, Tuberculosis. In Lower East Side Tenement Museum Docent Source Book. New York City.

Nahshon, Edna, ed. 2006. From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Perry, Elizabeth Israels. 1992, 2000. Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, Northeastern University Press by arrangement with Routledge.

Robert Archey Woods, Albert Joseph Kennedy. 1911. Handbook of Settlements. Philadelphia: Charities Publications Committee, Russell Sage Foundation.

Souvenir Book of the Fair in Aid of the Educational Alliance and the Hebrew Technical Institute. 1895. Educational Alliance. New York: Press of De Leeuw & Openheimer.

Stevenson, Frederick Boyd, ed. 2006, 1907. Mark Twain on the Scope of the Children’s Theater. Edited by G. Scharnhorst, Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Original edition, Brooklyn Eagle News Special, 24 November, 2007, 1.

Wade, Louise Carroll. 2005. Settlement Houses. In Encyclopedia of Chicago, edited by T. N. L. Chicago History Museum, and Northwestern University. Chicago: Encyclopedia of Chicago.


[i] This question of whether one past model fits all has been raised by others, academically and otherwise. In 2010, the main strands of the settlement house movement held a conference in the Lower East Side, called “The Settlement Summit: Inclusion, Innovation, Impact.” The cover page for the conference proceedings noted “Never before have the memberships of IFS, UNCA and UNH come together in this type of gathering. Collectively we celebrate the integrated, community-based, multi-purpose “settlement house” model that has not only survived the test of time, but is thriving, innovating and leading the way to stronger, more inclusive communities in many  settings around the world. Our goal is to exchange ideas, build capacity, review challenges and research, and increase our collaborative strength and networks to further our work following the Summit.”(1)

[ii] “In the public mind, tuberculosis was known as a “Jewish disease”, yet statistically Jews had a lower mortality rate than gentiles. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the highest rate of death from pulmonary tuberculosis was among Irish and Scandinavians and the

lowest among the Jews. Anti-semitic views of Jewish immigrants as being unclean and diseased fostered this thinking. Tuberculosis was also associated with the clothing industry (it was sometimes referred to as “tailor’s disease”), presumably as a result of an unhealthy

environment in the crowed work shops which nurtured consumption. Perhaps because Jews were chiefly engaged in the manufacturing of clothing, the concept of the Jewish tubercular tailor grew.” (Museum 2000, 2005)

[iii] From 1904 – 1905, Educational Alliance’s Evening Summer School was founded by Paul Abelson. With school attendance becoming compulsory in 1904, by 1905 it is a proper program for English summer classes for adults. Paul Abelson was principal of the Educational Alliance’s evening summer school from 1905 to 1910.” Bellow later describes him as the “first Russian Jew to earn a doctorate from Columbia’s Teachers College, and an Alliance staff member” (85) He was instrumental in moving adult classes into Yiddish to further improve adult Americanization by teaching text such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This revised curriculum was adopted by the Board of Education’s adult evening classes once Educational Alliance gets this to be undertaken as a city-provided program (86) (Bellow 1990) “He was the first person to be designated to teach history and civics in Yiddish by the Board of Education for its lecture courses (1902). Bellow also depicts Abelson as concerned that Jewish children are being assimilated too rapidly (85).

[iv] There is a larger question here of both how the settlement house movement initially, as well as German Jews in particular, viewed Eastern Eurpoean Jewish immigrant values and culture.

[v] Historian Elizabeth Israels Perry quotes from the novels of Joseph Golomb: “1935 publication of Joseph Golomb novel Unquiet about resenting Edgies uptown attitude but benefitting from it.

“Unquiet describes how a young immigrant at first resents the Alliance for treating him as a “slum product” to be ‘uplifted by someone from the ‘silk stocking’ upper reaches of Society. Eventually the Alliance’s social activities helped him cope with adolescence, and he comes to depend upon them.” ….“In later years, many Alliance members looked back on its clubs, plays, and classes, and outings as high points in lives of drudgery and despair, and on its practical courses as crucial to their success. (Perry 1992, 2000) (16)

A review of this earlier sort of literature, which includes a look at the Jacob Gordin’s 1903 parody of Educational Alliance’s founders called “The Benefactors of the East Side”, and its responses on the part of Alliance’s Board, shows a sort of start and stop in this particular tug of war to reshape Eastern Europe’s Jews. As Bellow notes: “Yiddish had been banned from the premises of the Alliance in the early years. Only English or German were to be spoken there.” Bellow depicts that policy as resulting in the Alliance appealing mostly to the unaffiliated youth of the neighborhood. “The Jewish elders tended to be Orthodox and Yiddish-speaking; the intellectuals tended to be either secular radicals or Zionists. The emphasis on patriotic exercises and “acceptable behavior,” the weak religious impulse of Reform, and the initial ban on Yiddish therefore alienated a good portion of the Downtown populations.(77) (Bellow 1990).

But it is still a complicated relationship even at the point that is most characterized by this sort of mistrust: its Head Worker (Director) David Blaustein is asked in 1908 by Eastern European Jews to have Educational Alliance organize an extremely public  “nonpartistan” funeral for Shomer, a well-known Yiddhish writer that was attended by over 100,000 people and whose public activities centered around the Educational Alliance.(32-38) (Goren 1999)

[vi] “In many states, compulsory schooling laws were particularly aimed at the children of immigrants. Catholic immigrants from Europe needed education in public schools{ the foreign born needed assimilation into American Protestant culture. (see Richardson, 1980; Eisenberg, 1988 for a discussion on the passage of compulsory schooling laws). Immigrant children were more likely to work than their native counterparts, and much less likely to attend school during their teenage years. Compulsory schooling could be seen by legislatures as solving two problems at once: the evils of child labor and the dangers of alien culture and religion.” (5) (Lingwall 2010)

[vii] Children of the Ghetto was Israel Zangwill’s 1890 choice of title in a book describing the Jewish East End of London. Edna Nahshon (2006) sees its new use of the term ghetto as echoing “… the biblical designation of the Jews as the children of Israel, while presenting the current immigrant Jewish community not only as a product of common ancestry but of a tangible geographical environment, thus implying the question of their identity once they leave the ghetto. Zangwill layered the medieval meaning of ‘ghetto’ as a compulsory area of residence with the added modern signification of a homogenous urban enclave with its own subculture…Within a decade of its publication, Zangwill’s novel had inspired such titles as Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896)… [and] Hutchins Hapgood’s:The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902)…. As early as 1903, Jack London further elasticized and appropriated the Jewish term by calling the entire area of East London ‘a ghetto’ to which the dominant economic class had confined its undesirable yet necessary workers” (20-21).

[viii] Here are two examples of such women. Minnie Louis (Mrs. Henry Dessau Louis) for instance ran the Hebrew Free School kindergarten from 1882 to 1883 which becomes part of the Hebrew Free School Association that is a founder of Educational Alliance. She is president of the Hebrew Technical School of New York for Girls. And Field Secretary, for the Jewish Chautauqua Society. She writes the poem for the Alliance’s 1895 Fair Souvenir Book. She later becomes the Vice President National Conference of Jewish Charities and District Inspector for the Department of Education.(Marcus 1981) (97-98). Similarly, Julia Richman, who is a Director of the Alliance through its Aguilar connections, helps in its publication as part of the National Council of Jewish Women. (Richman is also the first New York City Board of Education female assistant superintendent, a connection with the Board of Education that Educational Alliance valued, is insistent on girl’s and women’s education, but clearly holds some of the stronger feelings on how Eastern European Jews need to be remolded in order to become American.

[ix] As Berkowitz (1964) and Marcus (1981) each indicate, circa 1903-1910, there is a growing sense of the importance of instilling a strong sense of morality before behavior becomes an issue that appears in the court system. Berkowitz sees Educational Alliance as primarily concerned with “immorality” at the expense of HFSA’s better thought out educational and Jewish programs. “For a while, the Alliance was concerned with probationary boys. These boys were involved in club activities. Furthermore, the Alliance was concerned with the ever growing number of court cases that involved Jewish children.” (52) (Berkowitz 1964) Police Commissioner’s Bingham’s 1908 remarks attributing half of NYC’s crime to downtown Jews bothered both communities, arguably the uptown even more. Hence the creation by Rabbi Judah Magnes of the New York Kehilla, an uptown effort at dealing with downtown Jews, which was by and large supported by the Educational Alliance.

[x] This is part also of why eventually and somewhat painfully Educational Alliance comes around on the question of allowing Yiddish and a somewhat more pluralistic sense of religion into the building 15 years after its founding (not necessarily in ways that connect the two, but both are associated with Eastern European Jewish life). “In 1907 the Committee on Religious and Moral Work recommended that no activities be permitted in the Alliance Building on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.” (42) (Berkowitz 1964). EA gets involved in slowly moving to a type of Jewish pluralism when it sees that its policies—strongly associated with the removal of traditional culture–have negative impacts above and beyond that of alienating core elements of its adult constituency. Alienating children from their parents’ culture can have a devastating impact on families. The loss of Judaism and of Jewish values for children makes for a slow rethinking about a need for Jewish cultural pluralism. “The Alliance’s Americanization program has sometimes been criticized as blindly… assimilationist….Acting under the prevailing environmentalist assumptions of the Progressive Era, the German Jews sought… to create a new American Jewish “content” in the malleable raw material of the Lower East Side. The German Jewish philanthropists did not at first concern themselves with the possible loss of Jewish content that might follow this uprooting.” (77) (Bellow 1990) Conversely, EA’s “moderates” advocate reinforcing Jewish familial ability to function economically and otherwise at the beginning of the 20th century. Having EA offer different cultural/religious options that keep children with families becomes important to helping people on the LES. Social workers also get involved in these debates in moving away from an idealized, imposed Americanization. Superintendent David Blaustein gets caught up in this and is seen as advocating for the older generation on intergenerational issues; he is described as a “Hebrew scholar.” Paul Abelson[x], Adolph M. Radin, and others get caught up in this fight (with different positions).

[xi] And this topic is complicated in other ways that are debated by historians. Having Jewish girls work outside the household does not seem to have invoked neighborhood or specifically religious opprobrium although their wages were usually turned over to their families. This is sometimes linked to the existence of both practical and idealized role models in Eastern Europe where women were often active in selling in the market place and in business.

[xii] Clearly aspects of this debate are visible in some institutions self-depictions. See United Neighborhood Houses current website statement:“Many settlement staff today continue to live in the same neighborhoods as their settlement’s program participants. The shared sense of community still exists between settlement staff and the people who participate in settlement programs. From the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, settlement house staff resided in the same buildings in which neighborhood residents participated in programs and activities. Living in close proximity, settlement staff regarded the people who used the settlement as “neighbors,” not “clients.”

[xiii] Its German speaking Jewish founders were not interested in having a settlement house become associated with radical labor advocacy for garment workers at a point in time when three quarters of the neighborhood’s Eastern European Jews worked in the garment trade. Interestingly enough, in New York at least, some of the settlement house major funders overlapped: for instance, Jacob Schiff gave generously to University Settlement House and to the Henry Street Settlement as well. (And while he was proud of Lillian Wald’s nurses, he disagreed with her overall politics as well as with her putting up a Christmas Tree at the Henry Street Settlement.)

[xiv] (

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Sampson, E.J. (2012). Educational Alliance: A history of a Lower East Side Settlement House. Retrieved from