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August 4, 2020 3:44 am

How American Jews Championed Righteous Social Change

avatar by Harold Brackman

Opinion

The 92nd Street Y (now known as 92Y) on New York’s Upper East Side. Photo: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.

The years before America’s entry into World War I were an age of progressive reform. In 1912, socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs garnered 6% of the nationwide vote — and a much higher percent of the Jewish vote on New York’s Lower East Side.

One facet of progressive reform in the era was the Social Gospel movement, which attempted to update traditional religion to remedy the inequities of an urban-industrial society where big business ruled. The Social Gospel was synonymous with Protestant ministers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist who preached in New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”

But Jews also participated in the Social Gospel, as Jonathan Sarna has shown. Reform Jews took the lead, such as Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was schooled in Orthodoxy in Germany but embraced Reform in the US.

And conservative rabbis were not immune to the call of social reform. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America was incorporated in 1902, with Solomon Schechter — who supported Zionism, unlike most Reform Jews — as its leader, and social reform-minded banker Jacob Schiff financing the Seminary.

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For all Social Gospellers, the new settlement houses that spread across urban America were spearheads for reform. Protestant women like Jane Addams, who launched Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, are given much of the credit. The social settlements all focused on the diverse new European immigrants, mostly Catholics and Jews. They emphasized “Americanization” through English-language classes and civics.

In 1890, the Jewish Messenger, voice of uptown New York’s Jewry, announced that the Russian Jewish immigrants “must be Americanized in spite of themselves.” Hadassah founder and Zionist Henrietta Szold founded the first night school for Russian Jewish immigrants.

Jane Addams articulated the doctrine of “immigrant gifts” that encouraged the newcomers to be proud of their diverse Old World heritages and what they could contribute to enrich America.

Jewish pioneers of the settlement house movement deserve recognition. New York’s Henry Street Settlement was launched in 1893 by Lillian Wald with the aid of Jacob Schiff. Henry Street was primarily a community resource for Jewish immigrants, but from early on, it maintained an “open door” policy toward African-Americans as well. Schiff made a stirring address at one meeting held in honor of the birthday of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.

There were four Jewish-founded settlements in 1895 — and 24 in 1910.

A lesser known but instructive example of Jewish-founded social settlements was Milwaukee’s Jewish settlement house, the brainchild of Elizabeth Black Kander who broadened the concept of “women’s work” from the family to “society,” which she conceived as people’s shared “home.”

Insisting that religious and social reform was also Jewish, she joined the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which provided sewing, cooking, and English classes to Russian Jewish immigrants. She then founded the Milwaukee Jewish Mission at Emanu-El Guild Hall, which evolved into a settlement house.

The leadership among Jewish settlement house workers shifted in the 1920s to the American children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. They continued the Jewish social reform tradition.

Historian Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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