American Jews at the Turn of the Century

Modernization and immigration shape the community.

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Eastern European Immigrants

Between 1881 and 1924, more than 2.5 million East European Jews immigrated to the United States. In New York City, Americanization activities were offered by the Educational Alliance beginning in 1893, but many communities around the United States created similar programs on a more modest scale.

Many established Jewish communities opened local settlement houses (mimicking a popular Protestant model) to provide language classes, lectures on cultural subjects, and lessons in citizenship, as well as hygiene and child-rearing instruction and in some cases even free baths. Jewish social workers such as New York City's Lillian Wald, associated with the famous Henry Street Settlement, and Minnie Low of Chicago, nicknamed "Jane Adams of the Jews," earned national reputations as they worked with these newcomers.

The East European immigrants were also active in the shaping of Jewish religion and culture at the turn of the century. New York City became the site of a thriving Yiddish theater and press, and at its heyday in the 1920s, the largest of the Jewish newspapers, Abraham Cahan's socialist Forward, boasted more than a half million readers around the country. In its own unique way, the Yiddish newspaper was a vehicle for acculturation, introducing the new immigrants to American mores and presenting lessons in a non-threatening manner.

Eastern European Jews also frequently formed their own charitable and social networks, such as the landsmanschaftn--mutual benefit societies that provided financial and moral support to individuals from their home towns in Europe--and Zionist clubs. As they became more established they created impressive benevolent societies and institutions, as well.

The Labor Movement

The East European immigrants also played a key role in the American labor movement, where they made up a high percentage of garment industry workers. It is estimated that by 1897, 75% of the clothing workers in Manhattan--a leading center of the industry--were Jewish. A number of Russian Jewish socialists transplanted to America attained central leadership positions in the wider American labor movement, including David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. These activists were influenced by their Russian roots as well as by the horrendous working conditions that characterized most factory sweatshops in New York City.

The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 served as one of the most significant catalysts in the Jewish labor movement, and ultimately resulted in American legislation to regulate working conditions. When a fire broke out in the factory, more than 150 people were trapped inside the locked upper floors of the burning building. Most of the victims were young Eastern European Jewish female immigrants.

America at this time provided both unprecedented opportunities and challenges to Jews. As the American Jewish community stepped from the 19th into the 20th century, it began a process of maturation and consolidation, responding to the new challenges of modernity. At the beginning of World War I, nearly 85% of the American Jewish community was of Eastern European origins. These Jews would play a pivotal role in the community's direction as they increasingly assumed control of key leadership positions.

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Jeanne E Abrams

Jeanne E. Abrams is a professor at Penrose Library at the University of Denver and the longtime director of the Beck Archives and the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, part of the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Penrose Library.