A Ticket Out of the Ghetto

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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These days, life seems so volatile, so captive to the vagaries of both history and Mother Nature, that it is comforting, now and then, to be able to point to something — a view of the world or an institution, say, that has held its own over time and circumstance. Happily, there is just such an organization: the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, which is celebrating its 125th birthday later this month. Over many, many years, the foundation has quietly but assiduously enabled thousands of women from all sorts of backgrounds to better themselves — first as milliners and manicurists, bookkeepers and stenographers, then as teachers and social workers and, more recently, as academicians, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, cantors and performing artists.

With more than a century of philanthropy and social service to its credit, the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women has not only held fast to the ideal of stewardship but also has been keenly receptive to change, shaping its agenda to meet — and embrace — the new. That, coupled with the dedication of its board members — some of whom can trace their involvement with the foundation to their grandparents and great-grandparents before them — and the imagination and resolve of its professional staff, has enabled the foundation to succeed where so many other institutions that have equally distinguished pedigrees have lost their way.

The Jewish Foundation for Education of Women first came into being in 1880 as the Louis Downtown Sabbath School. Established on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by Minnie Louis, a well-heeled member of Temple Emanu-El blessed with considerable charm, abundant energy and a “sanative conscience,” the Sabbath School was designed to transform young, female “denizens of the ghetto” into upstanding Americans by introducing them to the elevating precepts of Reform Judaism and the “cleansing properties of water” in equal measure. Louis’s efforts at moral uplift seemed to have taken hold. “Whatever they were in the beginning,” she proudly told her supporters just two years later, referring to her charges, “they are now — almost without exception — a class of genuine little ladies.”

By the time of its fifth anniversary, the Sabbath School had embarked on a new round of activity, supplementing its program of religious education with one that dealt with industrial or vocational training. “To teach the means to eat one’s honest bread and wear one’s honest dress is as high a religious duty as to teach the Ten Commandments,” Louis explained as she changed course — and ultimately, the school’s name, as well. As the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, it trained girls between the ages of 14 and 16 in what was then considered an appropriate occupation for women: bookkeeping, typewriting, business penmanship, housework, millinery and the “scientific cutting and fitting of dresses.” Providing the daughters of the ghetto with the skills to become economically independent and upwardly mobile, the Hebrew Technical School for Girls soon caught on, prompting its students, faculty and supporters to liken it to an “Aladdin’s lamp.”

By the dawn of the 20th century, as word of its magic spread and its pool of applicants grew larger and larger, the Hebrew Technical School for Girls exchanged its modest quarters for a spanking new facility at 15th Street and Second Avenue, where it would remain until the early 1930s. Up to date in every way, from its ventilation system and well-equipped classrooms to its proudly modern curriculum — which featured courses in sex education as well as in stenography — the school was determined to turn out “fine young women, girls of refinement” as fluent in the social graces as they were with the tools of their trade, explained Nathaniel Myers, Louis’s successor.

A pioneer in the field of vocational training, Hebrew Tech, as its students called it, reluctantly closed its doors in 1932, a victim of the Depression on the one hand and, on the other, of growing competition from New York’s Board of Education, whose sophisticated network of public vocational institutions ultimately rendered it superfluous.

Forced to cast about for a new identity, the school reconstituted itself as the Educational Foundation for Jewish Girls. “Many charities flourish and then die because changed social conditions makes them unnecessary,” the farsighted members of the board acknowledged as it shifted gears. “The need for women’s education has shown a steadily rising trend… America must look to women to augment and supplement men in every field, from architecture to zoology.” In an adumbration of the G.I. Bill, the foundation sought to expand the range of opportunities available to Jewish women of limited means by helping to defray the cost of tuition, often making it possible for many of them to be the first in their families to attend college. In the 1960s, the foundation, newly renamed the Jewish Foundation for Education of Girls, expanded its purview further still by opening its doors to “girls of the Jewish and other faiths.”

In its latest avatar, as the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, the name it adopted in 1976, the organization still nourishes the aspirations of women, many of whom continue to be the daughters of immigrants or immigrants themselves. These days, the recipients of the foundation’s scholarships and internships and the beneficiaries of its mentoring programs hail from the former Soviet Union as well as from the United States, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Iran. Pursuing careers in medicine, biotechnology, social psychology and publishing, among other things, they underscore the remarkable transformations that have taken hold of women’s lives since Minnie Louis, 125 years ago, first held aloft the banner — and promise — of economic independence.

In these grim days, surely that’s cause enough for celebration. Happy birthday, Jewish Foundation for Education of Women. May you continue to thrive!

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