Hebrew Technical Institute, 1937

Scott Kraft via Flickr

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The Heyday of Vocational Training

Not all Jews dreamed of becoming doctors or lawyers. More than a century ago, schools taught a generation of immigrants ‘manual education’—to increase their own job prospects, and to aid assimilation into American culture.

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 27, 2023
Hebrew Technical Institute, 1937

Scott Kraft via Flickr

The American Hebrew, New York’s leading English-language Jewish newspaper of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was not given to peppering its pages with exclamation marks. But something about the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys, the subject of numerous editorials and feature articles throughout the 1880s and ’90s, captured its imagination, giving rise to lots of them like these: “If it did nothing else, it were a grand, noble work! But it has done more! [And] this is not all!”

In its effusiveness, the paper was not alone. Some of the leading lights of the New York Jewish community of the late 19th century, among them the Buttenweisers and the Bloomingdales, the Schiffs and the Loebs, felt the same way. They threw their financial support and cultural weight behind the institution with the fancy name, whose three imposing, interconnected buildings were located on a small triangular plot that spanned East Ninth and Stuyvesant streets in Manhattan’s East Village.

A testament to the community’s embrace of social engineering and its belief in the possibility of change, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys, which opened in 1884, is little known today. Though its cluster of “chastely decorated,” multistory structures still stands, and several hard-to-read plaques, both inside and out, acknowledge their origins, most passersby have no idea of what went on inside. The institution deserves a better fate.

Harnessing the latest educational theories about vocational training to growing concern about the city’s steadily increasing population of immigrant Jews, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys sought to better their lot in the New World, lest they fail to make the most of their opportunities and flail about, unable to find a secure footing in the urban economy. To prevent that from happening, it offered “lads” between the ages of 12 1/2 and 17 a three-year program in the practical arts: woodworking and metal work, toolmaking, applied electricity, and the drafting of architectural plans.

American Jewry’s advocacy and promotion of vocational training was nothing new. For years, New York’s Hebrew Orphan Asylum provided some measure of manual education to its young charges, seeking to shore up this most vulnerable of populations who, lacking in parental guidance, ran the risk of making bad choices down the road. The Hebrew Technical Institute was distinctive in that it was not only an independent, free-standing institution, but also trained its sights on Jewish boys from intact families, who were either immigrants themselves or the offspring of immigrants, both of which confronted limited economic prospects.

A communitywide initiative with membership numbering in the thousands, the school sought to encourage those under its close supervision to work with their hands, to take up the lathe rather than the pen, expanding their access to positions as skilled artisans and mechanics. “Yes, the little Jewish hands of these Jewish boys could really do mechanical work, aye, and do it so well, that one scarcely could tell that Jewish hands wrought the work, so like was it to the work of non-Jewish hands,” rhapsodized The American Hebrew in 1886.

As much an exercise in deflection as in economic opportunity, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys made a point of discouraging them to follow the traditional pursuits that had for years characterized the Jewish ethnic economy such as business, the law, or medicine. Referring to “diversification,” and “redistribution,” it actively steered its students away from these more typically overcrowded fields of endeavor and into brand-new arenas of “usefulness.”

The Hebrew Technical School for Boys was fueled by more than concern for the economic well-being of its less fortunate co-religionists. The so-called normalization of the Jewish economic profile, a long-standing preoccupation of both European assimilationists and Zionists, drove its agenda in the United States of the late 19th century. By augmenting the number of American Jewish workmen while, concomitantly, shrinking the pool of American Jewish businessmen and professionals, it hoped to advance the community’s integration into the body politic, simultaneously nipping antisemitism in the bud. That was the plan.

But first, the Hebrew Technical Institute’s supporters had to overcome considerable parental opposition. Suspicious of well-heeled do-gooders busily promoting tools rather than books, or, worse still, potentially fostering a different understanding of religion, immigrant parents were reluctant to enroll their sons in its classes. They preferred to see them “follow a gentlemanly calling” rather than be a carpenter; in other instances, they couldn’t afford to keep them in school when they could be helping out at the store. So pronounced was local resistance that some of Hebrew Technical’s supporters “went from house to house to visit parents” to persuade them that enrolling their boys in the school would be a boon rather than a burden.

Over a century ago, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys made use of an arresting drawing of a woman flanked by two boys to characterize its aspirations
Over a century ago, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys made use of an arresting drawing of a woman flanked by two boys to characterize its aspirations

The first class comprised fewer than 25 students. As word of the school’s reputation and its salubrious results circulated, the number of students grew to several hundred each year. Proud of its efforts, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys released a celebratory booklet on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, in 1909. In addition to the usual plaudits and financial statements, it was filled with carefully arranged photographs of the wide variety of tools students deployed; the capacious, abundantly lit spaces they occupied; the distinguished-looking, highly disciplined principals and instructors who trained them; the estimable trustees who financed their efforts; as well as lots of charts and graphs detailing the school’s growth over the years. Taken as a whole, it furnished a compelling profile.

The school’s commitment to training the heart and the head as well as the hand, was especially striking. Its comprehensive technical education was supplemented by classes in English and mathematics, opportunities to shower regularly, and, thanks to the generosity of a women’s auxiliary, a nourishing hot lunch. To ensure that these hungry youngsters would not be left to their own devices and select sweets to eat, each student had set before him a “wholesome” and “substantial” meal of which, we are told, rarely was anything left on the plate. (What it consisted of and whether or not it was kosher was left unsaid.)

When not feeding the students or instructing them in how to operate various pieces of machinery, the school took them on field trips to factories for a firsthand encounter with the industrial world. During the summer months, some of the boys went “tramping” with the staff in order to experience the glories of nature.

Hebrew Technical Institute’s staff and trustees also saw to it that Jewish boys experienced other New Yorkers in all their glory by opening up their facility to non-Jewish students. Much was made of nonsectarianism. “Considering that in the work-shop and the draughting-room our pupils will meet others than their own race, and as nothing sectarian marks the character of the institution,” the Hebrew Technical Institute welcomed everyone, Henry Leipziger, its director in the early years, explained.

This facility, added another of its champions, will “demonstrate to the world that the Jews are not only able to take up practical mechanical pursuits … but are ever ready to join with their fellow-men of whatever creed, in the common cause, the good of humanity!” Later still, in 1903, the facility opened an evening trade school for those already in the field eager to deepen their skills.

Hebrew Tech’s success inspired several kindred enterprises, among them the Jewish Training School of Chicago. Established in 1888, it brought both young immigrant girls as well as their brothers under its Adler & Sullivan-designed roof for a relatively short period of time during which the fairer sex were trained in sewing and the sterner sex in mechanical drawing, among other respectable pursuits.

Chicago students were also provided with a more generalized, “all-around training” in the virtues and “ethical principles of cleanliness, punctuality, helpfulness, kindness and love of truth,” so that, upon graduation, they would emerge into the light of day as “gentlemen and ladies in the truest meaning of the terms.”

The Jewish Training School of Chicago, its director Joseph Stolz proudly related in a thickly detailed annual summation of its very first year of operations, might not be in a position to do much with older immigrants, but children were another story. “These saplings can still be bent. Of them we make clean, honest, useful, educated Americans.”

Closer to home, the Baron de Hirsch Trade School, which at first took up an entire floor of the Hebrew Technical Institute before moving into an expansive facility all its own on East 64th Street in Manhattan, took a slightly different tack. It held out more hope for young adult immigrants, or “refugees,” as they were called in one 1893 account, than its Chicago counterpart.

Following a brief, five-month period of training in a limited number of trades such as plumbing and sign painting, it enabled them “as speedily as possible” to obtain positions as “competent” helpers and low-level workmen. In one celebrated case the The New York Times saw fit to publicize, a recent arrival named Louis Kaiser won a prize for building a very handsome oak bookcase. He told the paper of record that six months ago he didn’t even know how to drive a nail.

The Hebrew Technical School for Girls, which took its name, as well as its cue, from the Hebrew Technical School for Boys, was another celebrated venue of this kind. Under the careful ministrations of Minnie Louis, a “better class Jewess” who knew no Yiddish and not much about traditional Judaism, either, but who sought determinedly to improve the condition of immigrant Jewish girls, this institution didn’t so much hammer home as gently cultivate the notion of young Jewish women at work in “elevating and refining trades” such as sewing, millinery, bookkeeping, and typewriting. Likened to an Aladdin’s lamp, it drew increasing numbers of female students to its doors on the Lower East Side, necessitating the building of spacious new quarters on East 15th Street and Second Avenue (where it, too, still stands).

Beloved by its graduates, the Hebrew Technical School for Girls enjoyed a good run, and much favorable publicity, between 1886 and 1932, before it handed over the keys to New York’s Board of Education. By then, vocational training had become part and parcel of the public sector’s purview; consequently, funding and maintaining a parallel universe of institutions no longer made sense, fiscally or programmatically, for America’s Jews.

Soon enough, in 1939, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys followed suit. Having successfully trained 4,000 students, it closed its doors for good, but not before offering a long-term lease on its properties to New York University so that it might enhance its teaching training program in the industrial arts. Today, a large purple banner fluttering in the wind outside of 34-36 Stuyvesant Street indicates that it’s home to NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Over a century ago, the Hebrew Technical Institute for Boys made use of an arresting drawing of a woman flanked by two boys to characterize its aspirations. Upstanding and handsomely attired, they represent the school’s products, its students. The female figure is clad in a wine-colored Grecian-style gown, her sinewy arms draped just-so around the shoulders of the two males, neither unduly intimate nor too distant. The gears of a machine frame her head, like an industrial halo.

Who is this alluring figure, both timeless and of the moment? Her identity is not immediately forthcoming. Might she represent one of the school’s benefactresses? Symbolize a loving parent, perhaps, or a beneficent America? Nope. It turns out that she’s none other than the Muse of Industry: seductress and protectress all at once.

This remarkable image, unlike any I’ve ever seen in a Jewish communal context, celebrates the marvels of modernity as well as the faith in progress, goodwill, and humanity that kept it humming. It resonated once; maybe it might resonate again.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.