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Settlement House Spirit Lives on in a New York School for Immigrants

"Down-town" Legacies: Philanthropy Evolves to Answer New Challenges

If you look closely above the front door of Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, you can see the acronym "HTSG" carved in stone. The letters stand for Hebrew Technical School for Girls, which my grandmother Etta attended shortly before 1906, when the building was constructed.


How a school established for poor Jewish girls became a refuge for today's immigrant students and high-school dropouts in search of a second chance is a story of both a changing city and a legacy of a visionary era in Jewish philanthropy.


The school was founded in 1880 by Minnie Dessau Louis, a journalist, philanthropist and stalwart of the city's premier Reform temple, Emanu-El. Louis first established the school on the top floor of a building on East Broadway, giving lessons in personal hygiene and religion to 30 girls from needy Jewish immigrant families on the Lower East Side. A few years later, the Louis Down-Town Sabbath School moved to Henry Street and expanded its curriculum to include courses in English, ethics, arithmetic, bookkeeping, typewriting, sewing, physical education and biblical history.


Renamed Hebrew Technical School for Girls in 1895, the school was backed by devoted teachers and a board of directors dedicated to the belief that "for those who need help, there is nothing better than to help them help themselves." Instruction was free, supported by philanthropic donations from wealthy "uptown" Jews, including Adolph Lewisohn, Jacob Schiff and Felix Warburg.


In 1906, a brand-new, fireproof, five-story building was opened at 240 Second Ave. with an auditorium, gymnasium, running track, cafeteria and library, as well as classrooms. Locker rooms and a swimming pool could even be found on the basement level.


In an era when few girls received educations beyond grammar school, visionaries such as Nathaniel Myers, Hebrew Tech's long-term president, recognized that "the best way to extend life-long help to needy and deserving young girls was to educate them to become self-respecting, self-supporting, progressive and ambitious." Most entering students were 14 years old and enrolled in a two-year curriculum of courses. By 1909, nearly two-thirds of some 400 students were in the commercial program learning office skills; the rest focused on manual subjects such as millinery and dressmaking.


My grandmother was fortunate to be a student. She acquired skills that kept her out of punishing sweatshops and enabled her to earn good wages as a bookkeeper.


Hebrew Tech closed its doors in 1932, but its mission continued. The board set up a foundation providing financial aid to disadvantaged young women seeking higher education. Today, it continues to award grants and loans, on a nonsectarian basis, as the Manhattan-based Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (www.jfew.org). As Jenna Weissman Joselit put it in "Aspiring Women," her 1996 history of the foundation, "Pink-collar workers in elaborately trimmed hats have given way to corporate lawyers in blue serge suits, while immigrants from Beijing have taken the place of those from Belarus. And yet, surely, Minnie Louis would feel right at home at one of the Scholarship Committee's Monday-morning meetings."


The sturdy school building was purchased by the New York City Board of Education, and for the next 57 years, it was used as an annex for trade and vocational schools.


In 1989, however, something remarkable happened. Howard Friedman, formerly a public school teacher, obtained a grant to found a new school in the Hebrew Tech building for foreign-born and previously "at-risk" young adults between the ages of 17 and 22. Many were high school dropouts who had lost their ways temporarily, for a variety of complicated and overwhelming reasons. Others were new immigrants who spoke little or no English. They were too old, or their lives were too fractured by jobs and family obligations, to attend conventional schools. But Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School would give them the chance to earn academic diplomas and to advance to college and graduate study. More than a century after Louis dedicated herself to the education of poor girls and immigrants, her cause has been given new life.


Today, Manhattan Comprehensive is funded by grants, private donations and the Board of Education. It serves more than 800 students, with a graduation rate of more than 90%. The school is open year-round, seven days a week, until 10:45 most evenings, to accommodate students' outside responsibilities. Roughly 35% have children to support. The Student Life Center provides assistance for job counseling and referrals, housing aid, legal problems, medical care and personal guidance. Volunteers from private and public sectors help students with English, SAT preparation, math, science and history. The need for volunteers is great.


No doubt, few of today's students notice Louis's name inscribed in the marble of the lobby wall or the old brass plaques commemorating Hebrew Tech. But they probably would appreciate the words in my grandmother's schoolgirl autograph album:


"I trust that your success here may be a stepping-stone to successes in your future," wrote Mary Lindsay, one of my grandmother's teachers.


Her friend Rose wrote: "There may be times when you cannot find help. But there is no time when you cannot give help."


Henrietta, another classmate, counseled, "In the tempest of life, when the wave and the gale /Are around and above, if thy footing should fail /If thine eye should grow dim, and thy caution depart/ Look aloft and be firm, and be fearless of heart."


Ms. Gordon is writing a book about family histories.


Copyright (c) Susan J. Gordon
Published The Jewish Forward May 11, 2001