The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Philadelphia*
by Charles S. Bernheimer, Ph.D.

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

The observer of conditions in the lower section of the city is surprised by the remarkable intellectual interest of the Russian Jew. Accustomed to associate a low intellectual plane with a low economic plane, and to expect a lack of learning where there is a lack of the order and grace of the well-clad and the outwardly polished, he is surprised that amid the so-called "slum" population there should be a people who have a high standard of ability, an intense desire to acquire knowledge, and great strength of purpose in carrying it out. To class this people as to educational ideals with the mass of low class American residents, the foreign immigrants, and the negroes among whom they live, is to misunderstand their history and their aspirations.

It is the purpose of this study to examine the attitude of Russian Jews toward education as it is indicated in the institutions here, and to ascertain the effect which these institutions are having an their individual and social development.

Probably no single agency has a more far-reaching educational influence, especially in molding ideas in accordance with the standards of our country and our time, that the public school. It gives to the son of the immigrant the same advantages as to the son of the native born, and in many instances the transformation to similarity with the latter is swift and complete.

One of the most striking features which the free educational development of the country has helped to bring about is the difference in habit of mind between parent and child. The parents are usually too old, too set, and too depressed by economic conditions to acquire the English language and to adapt themselves to the ways of the English-speaking people. But they give their children the opportunity; and these seize it with great eagerness and determination.

The teachers of the schools in the lower section of the city, are, as a rule, so far as I have been able to gather, pleased, on the whole, with the Jewish pupils. They are impressed with their keenness and alertness, and regard them as better material than other pupils of foreign parentage or birth. The Jewish pupils come to school with the disadvantage of hearing a foreign tongue spoken in their homes. This disadvantage once overcome, they are abreast of the best American-born pupils.

I visited a vocation school class in the southern section where the pupils were as neat, clean, and bright as could any where be found. There was no appearance of "slumminess" such as the up-town resident would look for. The principal of the school explained that as the vocation school was regarded as privileged, there being not room enough for all who applied, the parents took particular pains to have their children present a tidy appearance. The principal, for my benefit, asked all who were Jews to raise their hands. Up went the hands of nearly the whole class of youngsters, a showing which alike surprised the principal, the teacher, and me. In the other classes of the vocation school the attendance of Jewish pupils was also large and their general appearance attractive.

Some of the teachers of the public schools take a strong personal interest in the pupils. Where the parents seem short-sighted they endeavor to influence them, so that the children shall be kept at school with regularity and shall not be taken from school till they have completed the several grades. Where they observe special proficiency they try to have it developed. An instance of this is the sending of pupils to the Industrial Art School. They see much latent ability, which owing to the rush and push of our hurried life cannot be developed; and its possessors are doomed to eke out a humdrum existence.

In one of the poorest localities a principal informed me that the instances were rare in which the pupils of her school proceeded to the higher schools. Economic pressure apparently compelled the parents to take their children from the schools as they reached the higher grades.

With the betterment of economic conditions among the Russian Jewish people, there has been a steady growth of attendance in the upper grades, the higher schools, and the professional institutions. Our high schools and colleges are enrolling a remarkably large number of Russian Jewish pupils, who show a high standard of scholarship, of which a noteworthy indication in the past few years has been the securing of prizes and honors.

The following compilation made up of data furnished by the principals of the respective schools shows the total number of pupils and the proportion that are Jews, in the section bounded by Locust Street on the north, Moore Street on the south, the Delaware River on the east, and Nineteenth Street on the west,-- a district comprising the greater portion of the Russian Jewish community of the city.

The result shows that of a total of 21,485 pupils in the public schools of the described area, measuring about two square miles, 11,683, or 54.4 per cent, are Jews.1

**editor's note: This table is not included here.**

One principal, in whose school nearly one half of the pupils were Jews, said: "A close study for years with these children enables me to make the statements from actual knowledge. Of all foreign children, the Jews are to be preferred as citizens of the future." The response to the specific queries was as follows on the part of this principal; the questions being those put in each case where inquiry was made:

Q. "How do the Jewish pupils compare in scholarship with those of other nationalities?"
A. "Very much above all others in behavior, in aptitude, and general deportment and scholarship."
Q. "Their interest in American institutions?"
A. "Great interest in anything patriotic."
Q. "Encouragement of parents toward education?"
A. "Most liberally encouraged and urged to become proficient."

Another, in whose school a large majority of the pupils were Jews, wrote: "Only for the difficulty in learning English they would compare very favorably with American children."

A report from a school in which nine-tenths were Jews stated: "The parents attend our school exhibits in large numbers."

In reference to a school in which half were Jews the statement was made that, "They manifest a lively interest in American history and institutions; that the encouragement of education by parents is 'active ' and that they are, with remarkably few exceptions, appreciative of effort on the part of the teacher."

The head of a school in which nearly all were Jews wrote: "As a rule brighter and more studious than other nationalities. This is particularly noticeable when we compare them with the Italians."

The comment of a principal, three-fourths of whose pupils were Jews wrote: "As a rule, the Jewish children are quick at figures. They are attentive to school work. So many, even of American birth, hear a foreign tongue spoken that the teaching of language is difficult."

A kindergartner of whose pupils all but three were Jews wrote: "I have always considered them very bright and apt. They soon overcome the difficulty of the unknown tongue and make themselves understood."

The replies were almost unanimous in agreeing that the parents encourage education. From the teachers' standpoint, this means that they take an interest in the school record, attendance, and conduct of their children.

One of the matters of complaint is the failure of many parents to enforce the attendance of children on the days preceding holidays and the Sabbath. Evidently they are required at home to help "clean up " previous to these special days, and both parents and children do not seem to realize the importance of conforming to the school routine when it comes into conflict with some of the set habits of the home. It is suggested that parents' meetings with the teachers would remedy this as well as some other matters connected with school discipline. But the fact that many of the parents do not understand English and most of the teachers know only that language, is an effectual bar to the success of such meetings.

The following observation of a principal should be considered : "They (the parents) encourage the boys, but less interest is shown in the girls. The latter leave at an earlier age." This is quite true and in accordance with ancient orthodox custom. It does not apply to Jews who have adopted the modem occidental point of view.

The children show a decided interest in American institutions so far as the teachers have been able to observe. They learn the patriotic songs and study the history and constitution of the country with the same earnestness as other pupils, and have a general desire to adapt themselves to the prevalent customs and habits. The rapidity of adaptation is in accordance with the cosmopolitanism of the Jew.

The results, on the whole, seem to indicate that the Jewish pupils excel the other pupils with whom they are associated in the lower section of the city, namely, the negroes and those of foreign extraction, chiefly Italians, and that they are fully on an intellectual plane with those of American extraction; that the parents encourage education; and the children show an active interest in the country, and consequently possess the initial elements for becoming intelligent, law-abiding citizens.

In one school, where the children outside of the Jewish, were largely of American parentage, the Jewish pupils showed fully as high a standard of scholarship as the latter. This was brought out by an examination of the averages of boys in the higher grades.

The James Forten Elementary Manual Training School, on Sixth Street above Lombard, was at one time largely attended by negroes. Now over ninety per cent of the pupils are Jews2.

There is a large negro population in the neighborhood of this school, which does not patronize it, whereas the Jewish population has taken strong advantage of it. In fact, measured by the test of their neighborhoods, the attendance of Jewish pupils at schools is exceptionally large.

There is a large attendance of Jewish pupils in several of the night schools down-town. At the William M. Meredith, Fifth Street above Fitzwater, fully ninety per cent of the average attendance is of Jews. In the Mount Vernon, Catharine Street above Third, the percentage is equally large.

It is not my purpose to discuss the efficiency of the public night schools, in this connection, though a careful investigation would, I feel confident, reveal much to criticize. It is certain, however, that the needs and demands of the foreign speaking populations are not adequately considered, when the fact is pointed out that these schools are open but from October to February, three evenings of two hours each to the week, with adjournment during the Christmas holidays. The foreign populations, certainly the Jewish, are eager to learn, and the educational authority is acting against their best interests as citizens, in not giving them a more adequate system of education in the same spirit as that which is accorded the pupils in the day schools. It is because the requirements of the populations are not sufficiently considered in public night school instruction that supplemental teaching in other institutions is made necessary. In the district there are a number of public kindergartens having an attendance of Jewish children varying from two to ninety-seven per cent of the total number of pupils. In addition there are a few private kindergartens to be considered, among which may be mentioned those of the Young Women's Union, the Home of Delight, and the College Settlement (433 Christian Street), in which nearly all the pupils are Jewish. In some respects, the kindergarten is more valuable to the child of foreign origin than to one whose parents are native, for correct language, in accent and tone, can be taught, so that it will not have the disadvantage of some of the older children, whose English is spoilt at home in a way that is sometimes difficult to correct when they come to school.

It has been shown that Russian Jews attend the James Forten Elementary Manual Training School in large numbers. Manual training is regarded as especially valuable for children who live in the densely populated districts and are thus thrown upon the streets. And it is of particular worth for the Jewish people. The teacher of the Sloyd work in this school informed me that the Jewish pupils show full average proficiency, and he has not the failures in drawing to report which were reported in the regular schools. The mind and the hand work in harmony, and the result is not only good finished products, but the formation of a finer finished product in the pupil himself.3

Among the Jewish institutions performing an important work in the educational development of the immigrant population is the Hebrew Education Society. In its building, Touro Hall, at Tenth and Carpenter Streets, there is a night school for English branches, in which hundreds are being taught our language. Such a school as this is especially valuable to the newly arriving foreigners, who, with their utter lack of knowledge of the language, would be helpless in most public night schools. Industrial education is pursued in the form of dressmaking, millinery, garment cutting, cigar making, and stenography. The reading room, the library, and the auditorium for lectures and entertainments are valuable adjuncts in the work of this institution. The auditorium, which has a seating capacity for fully six hundred persons, is used by other organizations, without cost to them, for literary and social events. Free religious exercises on New Year's Day and the Day of Atonement are held here under the auspices of the society.

Also located in this building is the Manual Training School conducted by the B'nai B'rith fraternity. Boys from eleven to sixteen years of age attend. The hours are arranged so that they will not conflict with those of the public schools. Some boys who have attended its classes are assisting in mechanical trades. The work of this school, though small, is important in helping, if ever so little, to turn the trend of development in the direction of manual trades and diversity of occupation.

One of the large schools of the Hebrew Sunday School Society holds its sessions at Touro Hall, the others in the lower section of the city being located in rented halls at Eighth and South and Fourth and South Streets. The largest attendance in the three schools is about twenty-five hundred altogether. The pupils are taught chiefly Bible history.

The Young Women's Union, at 428 Bainbridge Street, is an important centre of influence. It is developing in its personal work. Formerly devoting itself to the day nursery and shelter for young children and to classes conducted along institutional lines, it has been adding the club feature. The young people are formed into small groups, usually with a leader, whose personal contact with the club is valuable in molding the conduct and adapting the point of view of the individuals. Then, too, the Juvenile Aid Association, which takes charge of all matters pertaining to the delinquent young people within the age of those subject to the juvenile court law, has become a most valuable feature of the Union's work. The probation officer who is given charge of all boys and girls brought up in the juvenile court is an appointee of this association. A part of the work of the association which promises good results is the placing out of young delinquents. To recur to the activities of the Union in its building, besides the clubs and the classes, the gymnasium and the library are adjuncts of its work.

The Home of Delight, at 426 Pine Street, embraces a kindergarten, a library and reading room, game rooms, savings bank, classes and clubs. The class work includes sewing, embroidery, drawing and general elementary subjects. The Home serves as a centre of social activity for the people in the northern portion of our southern district. The matron lives in the house with her family.

Among the influences particularly for the young people none has been more important in my judgment than the Philadelphia College Settlement, at 433 Christian Street. The beneficiaries are chiefly Jews. I have had occasion carefully to study and observe the work for seven years and I can testify to the valuable results which are accomplished--not results, it is true, that can in any adequate degree be put down in tabulated statistical form, but which count for much in the uplifting of the individuals and the upbuilding of their characters. Not only is the personal contact of the residents and their associates with those who come to the settlement promotive of refinement and culture, but the educational value of the class and club work is of decided benefit, especially in broadening the point of view. The games and dances, the concerts and theatricals, the English instruction and discussions are effective means for promoting the finer development of the young people in the hands of the Settlement workers who endeavor to bring into their house an atmosphere of cheer and good breeding. The head worker of the Settlement, Miss Anna F. Davies, has prepared for me the following appreciation: "My experience in the Philadelphia College Settlement has led me to believe that the Russian Jewish population furnishes the element of our congested districts which is most responsive to educational effort. This seems true of the wider education of a social type, the value of which the Settlement especially emphasizes, no less than of instruction pure and simple. Feeling and taste are sensitive, and where there is acquaintance with good standards, will usually and instinctively choose wisely. It is safe to assume that the Jewish applicant for club or class may be appealed to on the mental side; that he has a brain and will enjoy exercising it. To the teacher or club leader who has the tact to smooth away the obstacles of a slightly known language the returns in interest and appreciation are large and immediate. Students who cannot be trusted with the spelling of English monosyllables and whose composition is unintelligible except to a kindly intuition, have read Emerson and Shakespeare, under guidance, with keen interest. One such said on one occasion, 'That is grand, but if I'd try to read it at home I couldn't make out at all.' In the familiar phrase the Russian Jew needs only , 'half a chance.' That given he will do the rest. He does need greatly wider economic opportunities and the intercourse with the more privileged which will form, unconsciously to himself, a finer type of social standards than his Russian past has developed." 

Among the Russian Jewish people themselves the Hebrew Literature Society has developed. It has a house of its own at 310 Catharine Street. At its meetings discussions on religious, scientific, political, and social subjects are held. The lectures, usually on Sunday afternoons, are given by well qualified men from the universities and colleges, and the large audience which is attracted is thus afforded well digested information. There are also on other occasions addresses and discussions in Yiddish on Friday evenings. In addition to participation in debate, members may avail themselves of the library, which contains volumes in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and German. In the discussions the language employed is sometimes English, sometimes Yiddish. The society promotes the social life by entertainments and dances. A gymnasium is contemplated and with it there is likely to be developed physical training, both for the older and the younger generation.

The Educational Alliance, located at 516 Spruce Street, is so called because it is the result of an amalgamation of the Educational League and the Hebrew Students' League. Its chief work, which was organized by the former in 1903, is free instruction to the immigrant in English, elementary and advanced arithmetic, algebra, history, and literature. The instruction is given four evenings each week, and the enrollment is over 200, with a nightly attendance of about 100. This season (1904-05) a paid superintendent has been engaged. The main result of the direct co-operation of the Students' League has been the availability of its members as teachers, the Students' League having given up its own class work. It, however, retains its identity for social purposes and for the founding of a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. Its members are college students and graduates and higher school men.

The Young Men's Hebrew Union is the outgrowth of a number of small literary societies. It is the most representative of the young people's societies whose members are imbued with American social and educational ideas. The character of its work can best be judged by reference to its debates, mock trials, lectures, amateur dramatic performances, entertainments, receptions and dances. Its Women's Auxiliary, which holds separate meetings, helps in the social work of the organization. Its rooms are at 229 Pine Street.

Literary societies come and go among the younger people. The names change, but many of the members are the same in a list of societies that may be made up at any time. These organizations are a valuable feature in the se1f-educational efforts of the young people, and though they tend at times too much to mere dialectics, this is by no means a serious result compared with the good accomplished.

We have, then, some large societies, besides a number of smaller ones, promoting the intellectual life among the Russian Jewish people themselves, as distinguished from the public schools, the settlements, and the educational societies organized more or less from without.

It would be valuable to have one of the branches of the public library in this district. There may not be a neighborhood spirit that understands how to call for it, but there is no question in my mind that once established the library would be most largely patronized.

In connection with the subject under discussion it should be noted that a number of young people take advantage of the low tuition fees of the Drexel Institute and Temple College and are thus materially helped in their efforts to improve their education.

No reference has been made here to the religious education of the young people because that has been amply treated in the chapter on the subject of religion.

This review of the educational influences surrounding the Russian Jews of Philadelphia should be convincing evidence of the intellectual desire of the community and the intellectual stimulus which it is receiving--a desire and a stimulus which make for high class citizenship.

1 In 1899, of the total number of pupils, 17,000 in round figures, in practically the same territory, about 7,500, or 45 per cent were Jews.

2 The nationality of the pupils has changed in the last two years in a remarkable degree--instead of a majority of negroes, there is now a preponderance of Russian Jews, who must be taught English before they can enter the regular graded classes. And this adds to the requirements in the teachers. Even in the class now under the care of the school, the well known characteristic of the Jews, that of a carefully guarded family life, is evident, so that the school has much better support from parents than heretofore, and considerable appreciation of the benefits the children receive." Report of the President of the Board of Education (Samuel B. Huey) for the year ending December 31st, 1898.

3 See Speirs, The James Forten School, an experiment in social regeneration through elementary manual training. Civic Club, Philadelphia, 1901.







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