At the beginning of his term (from 1905 to 1910) as principal of the Educational Alliance’s summer evening session, Paul Abelson made a dramatic change in the curriculum. In an effort to Americanize his immigrant students—almost entirely Jewish refugees from Russia, Poland, Romania, and Austria-Hungary—Abelson required that they read three texts in Yiddish: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin.
It was an effort to humanize immigrant adjustment, a revival of respect for Yiddish culture, that followed what many historians have described as the harsh assimilationist tactics of German Jews who founded the Educational Alliance, affectionately known as Edgies, on the Lower East Side and erected a five-story building there in 1891.
Turn-of-the-century photos of the early years at Edgies, the flagship settlement house at 197 East Broadway (now the Manny Cantor Center), show men and women in assembly, dressed in white shirts and dark pants/skirts. They stand at rigid attention, their arms raised uniformly as they salute the American flag. The school offered evening classes in English and citizenship, serving a staggering number of immigrants. According to Jacob Riis, renowned photographer and social activist, “there were more than 330,000 persons living on the Lower East Side in 1890, making it the most densely populated urban district in the world, twice as dense as the worst London slum.”
From 1880 to 1910, more than 1.5 million Jews arrived in New York. By 1924, when stringent immigration laws were passed, some 3.5 million Jews had entered the country. Influential German Jews, who had arrived decades earlier (1830s-1880s), saw as their mission civilizing many of the new foreigners, whom Rabbi Jacob Silverman at Temple Emanu-El in 1889 warned had “loud and awkward gestures” and would be “naturally repulsive and repugnant to more refined American sensibilities.” Abelson, the first Russian Jew to earn a doctorate from Columbia’s Teachers College, strongly disagreed. Adam Bellow and Didi Goldenhar, the authors of The Educational Alliance: Celebrating 125 Years, wrote that Abelson “opposed a too-rapid process of assimilation, particularly with regard to Jewish children,” and that “he stressed the need for empathy with the poor and for a spirit of personal service among settlement staff.”
According to Deborah Dash Moore, professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan and the author of Jewish New York, “The Educational Alliance was important to Jewish immigrants a century ago because it catered to different age groups: It ran programs for children, boys separate from girls; for mothers (during school hours); it offered classes for immigrants in English as well as opportunities for clubs to meet and set their own agendas; it had social occasions (dances) and lectures for adults. It started out secular but eventually added religious services, although the rabbi the alliance hired was not politically progressive.” In her book, Moore described Edgies as a kind of department-store model of social service, a place where hundreds of thousands of visitors to the building wore down the marble steps.
Now in its 130th year and still at the same address, Edgies has undergone many changes but much remains constant. Conceived as a settlement house to serve Jewish immigrants, it currently provides an extensive range of services to diverse downtown community residents, some Jewish but many more Hispanic and Chinese, all the while creatively holding on to its Jewish core values.
By the time I came to Edgies in 1973 as a parent with two preschool children in hand, it had weathered decades of change. Middle-income cooperatives with many Jewish residents ringed the building and a growing population of Hispanics, many of them Puerto Rican, lived nearby. Chinatown’s boundaries were expanding, too. Artist friends with kids who lived downtown in the South Street Seaport area had spread the word about an innovative nursery school run by Claire Kaplan where children made prints from fish bones instead of coloring clowns within preprinted outlines. No one mentioned the word Jewish.
The Coop Nursery Preschool was a gem, attracting black, white, Chinese, and Hispanic kids whose parents were drawn to its Lower East Side location and, for a very few of them, to Edgies’ settlement house immigrant history. There was a modest Jewish contingent including my son Daniel and daughter Julia; Ivy Shapiro, daughter of Amy Snider and artist Joel Shapiro; Marian Raab, daughter of former New York Times journalist Selwyn Raab (who fondly remembered studying boxing at Edgies); and Saskia Grooms, the daughter of artists Mimi Gross and Red Grooms and the granddaughter of artist Chaim Gross, who studied art at the Edgies’ Art School in the 1920s and subsequently taught there for 50 years.
In the 1970s, the Coop Nursery Preschool did not officially celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays—although several parents remember an enthusiastic hamantaschen-baking session with their toddlers. A decade later, Edgies experimented with a special Beit Ha Yeled class for the children of Orthodox families with the idea of weaving Jewish holidays and traditions into the curriculum. Toby Turkel, for many years the president of the Tribeca Synagogue, sent her 3-year-old son Avi to Beit Ha Yeled in 1983. Although she kept Shabbat and had a kosher home, Turkel was not Orthodox and she was eager for her son to be exposed to his Jewish roots. “Everything was fine until one Christmas, when Avi came home with a bag of toys,” Turkel said, laughing as she retold the anecdote. “Evidently, Santa Claus’ sleigh had touched down at another program in the Edgies building and, in the spirit of diversity and inclusion, the Beit Ha Yeled kids had been invited to join the party.”
In recent years, as it evolved from a Jewish settlement house to a community center serving the diversity of the Lower East Side, the leaders at Edgies reflected on their past. They asked themselves: What did they want to hold on to in their Jewishness and how could they retain Jewish values in a place that was not exclusively Jewish? “The journey was a challenging one, involving bringing together people who were not only culturally and racially diverse but also socio-economically diverse,” explained Rabbi Joanna Samuels, founding executive director of the Manny Cantor Center, the name given to the Educational Alliance’s flagship settlement house when it reopened in 2014 after a $60 million gut renovation. Manny Cantor was a Polish immigrant who launched a successful wholesale dry-goods business in America. Although Cantor never studied at Edgies, his sons endowed the building in their father’s name, identifying it as a place that embodied both his personal values and his commitment to giving back to the community.
The new center includes three floors of classrooms, a modern physical fitness center, three art studios, and offices for staff and social workers, topped by a spectacular, glass-enclosed rooftop venue with a kosher kitchen. Looking east, one can see the logo of the Forward painted on the side of the Forward Building, now an expensive co-op. It’s a dramatic site for weddings and bar mitzvahs but it is also the place where neighborhood seniors eat their breakfast and lunch daily for the modest tab of $1.50.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world, are the Hebrew words that appear prominently on the Manny Cantor Center website under a bold self-description: “The MCC is a living laboratory of the universal Jewish values of inclusion, diversity, and community.”
Samuels and her staff, both in the preschool and in the art school, as well as parents and students, told me just how seriously the nonprofit still takes this idealistic goal. “Our mission is to alleviate the economic segregation that plagues New York City,” said Samuels, adding that there are two things that keep her up at night: “Israeli politics and income inequalities in New York City.” Samuels believes that everyone could step up and solve the inequality problem if they tried but that sadly people ignore the issue. “Unless people build civic bonds, things will get worse,” she said. Samuels sees this as the charge that the MCC should, indeed must, take on.
Wellington Z. Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, praises MCC for its fine work. “Today, in these volatile times, MCC continues to serve as an anchor and a major resource center in helping the local community and the latest arrivals,” he said. “From public forums to workshops, from art studios, classes, exercises and gym to all forms of assistance leading to citizenship, countless generations have benefited from the center’s critical work. The impact and legacy speak for themselves.”
Manny Cantor Center welcomes through its doors neighbors who most probably would not meet in the lobbies of their buildings or on the streets nearby: residents of adjacent NYCHA housing; residents in the Seward Park, Hillman, and East River co-ops, which no longer fall under the Mitchell Lama Program and are now free market; residents of walk-up, dilapidated tenement buildings in Chinatown; and younger and newer residents who have moved into the new upscale co-op buildings dotting the Lower East Side.
Outside, they lead different lives. Inside, they share the MCC, not side-by-side but together. Last October, for instance, the MCC celebrated Sukkot at the same time as the Chinese Moon Festival. Neighbors of all ethnicities and religions ate moon cakes from local Chinese bakeries in the sukkah—a structure originally intended to offer shelter in the wilderness. “That idea couldn’t be more important to immigrants today,” Samuels said.
An adult chorus (all Chinese) sings songs in many languages; prominent in their repertoire is the Hebrew song “Oseh Shalom.” When MCC moved into the renovated building in 2014, its opening ceremony combined the Chinese Lion’s Dance with putting up mezuzot on doorways. To educate the staff (most of whom weren’t Jewish), MCC prepared a paper explaining that a mezuzah was affixed to a doorpost to bless walking into and out of their space. “There are many ways to bless a space,” Samuels said, “and our job is to interpret religion in the most open and inviting way.”
With the rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric in America following the 2016 election, MCC commissioned photographer James Maher to interview 25 immigrants from the Lower East Side—neighbors, staff, volunteers, and family of the Educational Alliance and the MCC, culminating in the exhibit Sharing the Miracle: Storytelling in Our Immigrant City, which opened on Hanukkah 2017. The following Passover, with support from a UJA Federation Neighborhood Improvement Grant, MCC printed Telling the Story: A Haggadah for Our Immigrant City, interspersing these stories and photographs with the Jewish narrative of the escape from Egypt.
Today, Maher’s striking photographs line the hallways of the building. “I’m from Syria,” wrote Fatima, an MCC staff member who lived through nine months of the uprising in Homs and came to the United States in 2012. “I never, ever imagined that these things would happen in my country.” She looks directly into the camera, the light bouncing off her dangling, filigree earrings.
Beyond offering public events designed to bring diverse communities together, the MCC provides targeted programs for neighborhood residents. When Alan van Capelle joined the Educational Alliance as CEO in 2014, he restored citizenship classes in partnership with the Chinese Progressive Association, determined to continue Edgies’ historic mission. MCC hired social workers who spoke both Cantonese and Mandarin, to meet the needs of older and newer residents in Chinatown.
Today, in the Educational Alliance preschool, 250 students attend classes funded by Head Start, the NYC Department of Education, and private tuition. Some 160 of these children come from families whose income falls below the poverty line.
Under the leadership of director Jacqueline Marks, the number of classes has grown dramatically from four to 19, staffed by 65 teachers—with three or four in each classroom. The EA preschool serves infants and toddlers through the age of 5 and it follows the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, a town in northern Italy whose educational model has influenced many in the early childhood field. In their design, all children are thought of as “competent, credible, and full of potential.” The teacher plays the role of a researcher and a scholar, families are partners, and the environment is the third teacher.
“Jewish identity is extremely important to us,” Marks said. “In the past, Edgies served a large immigrant population that was Russian, Polish, and Eastern European. Now, we serve immigrants who are Chinese and Honduran. What we have held on to is our core Jewish values.” Marks sees Jewish values through a much wider lens. “It’s spending time in Seward Park where a large contingent of our parents and children pick up garbage and help with recycling. It’s taking care of our neighbors, our community and our planet,” she said.
While the Lunar New Year is the biggest celebration at the school, the students do celebrate winter holidays. “We celebrate light,” Marks said. “Families bring in traditions from their homes: menorahs, latkes, stories of visits to Christmas tree farms, and treats for celebrating Diwali.”
Individual preschool classes have separate funding sources. According to the guidelines from Head Start and the NYC Department of Education, there can be no religious education in classes that they fund. So, Shabbat can only be celebrated in the seven preschool classes where parents are willing to pay private tuition (some scholarships are available). “Shabbat at Edgies is a moment of reflection,” Marks said. “We ask ourselves: What was joyful? What was hard? What is hopeful? The children bless the challah and we turn down the lights.”
For Carmelle Safdie and her partner, Spencer Everett, Edgies has been the perfect school for their infant son Gene. Safdie, an artist, was raised Jewish in Israel; Everett was not raised Jewish. When they decided to raise their son as a Jew, they were attracted to tradition. “We liked the idea of embracing positive aspects of Judaism without it being a religious program,” Safdie said. Everett praised the Manny Cantor Center for being “an ambassador for Jewish values across different ethnic groups. It’s such a beautiful and positive thing.”
On the lower level, in three busy studios, in the EA Art School, a direct descendant of the iconic downtown venue where Chaim Gross, Moses and Isaac Soyer, and other New York school artists taught generations of aspiring artists in life drawing classes, current students learn to center clay on a pottery wheel and to capture the delicate veins of a leaf in a Chinese painting class. It’s an understated but vibrant environment, unlike some of the slicker venues uptown. According to director Susie Walter, the art school has expanded exponentially over the past two years with an 83% increase in registration.
Raymond Chan, a Greenwich Village resident who works in finance, came to MCC to go entirely outside of his comfort zone. “Not only did this mean a new world of pottery, but it also meant the Lower East Side,” he said. “The MCC is remarkably inclusive and welcoming—something that is both rare and precious in such a big city and at this moment in our country’s history.”
Chan’s praise for MCC reflects the institution’s respect for “treating people, whatever their income, like customers, not clients,” said van Capelle. This is true at all four of Edgies’ brick and mortar places: the Manny Cantor Center, the 14th Street Y, the Sirovich Senior Center on East 12th Street, and the Center for Recovery and Wellness on Avenue D and East 4th Street, the most recent addition to their portfolio. “There are very few spaces where people who are doing better can share space with people who are struggling,” van Capelle said.
Samuels echoes his sentiments, especially for the EA Preschool. She stresses the need for economic integration in early childhood programs schools. In partnership with the Century Foundation, EA’s Preschool is convening a one-day conference on Oct. 30, an effort to have more peers work together as a community of early childhood educators.
It’s a moment of leadership and activism that holds true to Edgies’ Jewish tikkun olam roots.
(Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly cited the cost of the $60 million MCC renovation.)
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Roslyn Bernstein, an arts and culture reporter, is the author of Illegal Living and Boardwalk Stories and Professor Emerita at Baruch College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Her most recent writing project is a young adult novel set in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Adolf Eichmann trial.