Places that Matter

Educational Alliance

click on image for slideshow
Educational Alliance, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Educational Alliance, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Educational Alliance, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Century-old Lower East Side community center
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” 

The quote above is attributed to French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960), who as the child of pied-noirs (a term referring to European, mainly French, settlers who lived in colonial Algeria before the country gained independence in 1962), was well acquainted with the complex relationship between identity, politics and leadership. At the turn of the 20th century, New York City's nascent Educational Alliance was caught in a push-me-pull-you identity struggle similar to the one Camus described as it negotiated its role in Jewish America - a divided community wrestling with self-definition. During its first decades, the Alliance walked the uneasy line between providing overtly assimilationist social services to foreign-born Lower East Side residents, and responding to the acute reality that those very immigrants were actually redefining what it meant to be “American.” However, this early paradox was an important stepping-stone toward the flexibility that has fortified the institution during times of cultural shift, enabling it to continually adapt to the needs of an ever-changing neighborhood. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Lower East Side was dominated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The neighborhood was also one of the most densely populated urban districts in the world, and for many years it remained a culturally distinct ghetto from the rest of New York City, somwhat to the chagrin of the uptown German Jewish community that had begun immigrating to the United States in the 1850s. By time their Eastern European coreligionists began arriving en masse in the 1880s, the uptown Jews were comfortably integrated into middle-class American society. They had faced ethnic and religious prejudices upon their own arrivals, and some feared that the new wave of Jewish immigrants, who brought strict religious orthodoxy and dedication to Old World customs, would offend American gentile sensibilities and rouse dormant anti-Semitism. On the one hand they worried about newcomers with old traditions undermining the established Jewish community's stable position in American society. On the other hand, they recognized that the refugees from the Pale of Settlement had survived dire circumstances back home, and that they would need support and guidance to be able to survive here in the New World as well.

To that end, in 1889, New York City’s German Jewish elite combined the educational, cultural, and religious services of the Aguilar Free Library Society, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) and the Hebrew Free Loan Association into the Downtown Hebrew Institute. The Lower East Side charitable organization was to serve as part settlement house, part community center, and part acculturation battalion for the neighborhood.

Isidor Straus, Morris Loeb, Edwin Seligman, Jacob Schiff and other prominent commuity leaders fundraised $125,000 to build a home for the new Downtown Hebrew Insitute. Ultimately, they hired the New York City-based firm Brunner and Tryon to design a headquarters at 197 East Broadway. Thomas Tryon was a Connecticut-born architect whose early work included bathhouses at Long Beach, New York. Arnold Brunner was a New York City-born Jewish American architect who studied at MIT under William R. Ware, and who worked as a draftsman in George B. Post’s New York City office. Brunner and Tryon designed many Jewish institutional and religious edifices in New York City, including the Mt. Sinai Dispensary, Temple Beth El and the West End Synagogue. After their partnership dissolved in 1897, Brunner continued to enjoy the patronage of the local Jewish community, and that of Jacob Schiff in particular. In addition to creating designs for New York City hospitals, synagogues, academic buildings and public bathhouses, Brunner was a proponent of the City Beautiful Movement, and had a prolific career as a city planner, contributing to plans for Albany, NY, Baltimore, MD, and Denver, CO.

The Downtown Hebrew Alliance (now known as the Educational Alliance) is located at the intersection of East Broadway and Jefferson Street. The five-story Romanesque/Renaissance- Revival/Rundbogenstil (a Romanesque-Revival-esque style popular in mid-nineteenth century German-speaking and German diasporic communities) structure is similar to many of Brunner and Tryon's other designs, and also to Brunner’s later, independent work. Both architects were active in organizations that promoted the revival of classical aesthetic principles (including the Architectural League, the American Institute of Architects, the Municipal Art Society and the American Fine Art Society), and the influence of the then-popular design ethos is evident in the Educational Alliance building. Simple cornices divide the two tripartite main façades, both of which include a one-story base dominated by large, arched ground-level windows, a middle section containing three stories of paired, hung windows, and a top, fifth-floor section appointed with a series of smaller, paired arched windows. When the building was constructed, it contained a large assembly room with a stage, classrooms, a reading room, workshop, gymnasium and five, fifth-floor shower baths. The library was modeled on that of London’s People’s Palace, a popular English settlement house. Over the years, the original building has been enlarged through the acquisition of adjoining properties, but even when it was new, the flagship structure provided a palatial counterpoint to its students’ overcrowded apartments. Actor Zero Mostel grew up on the Lower East Side and attended painting classes at the Educational Alliance. He noted the he had, “never seen such big rooms before.”

In 1891, the building buzzed from 9 in the morning to 10 at night. Seven hundred forty people attended the Alliance’s programs, which were conducted by a staff of twenty-one teachers. English classes prepared immigrant children to enter the public school system. Adults attended either or both day and evening courses in English language, English literature, applied science, biology, music, sewing, stenography, cooking, dressmaking and millinery, among other subjects. Lectures were delivered almost every night.

Two years later, the YMHA dropped out of the partnership, and the organization was renamed the Educational Alliance. It continued to promote “American” ways of doing everything, including keeping house, raising children and worshipping. One of the Alliance’s earliest and most divisive debates centered on defining an American version of Judaism that would suit a national Jewish community of diverse origins. While many of the Eastern European Jews sought to duplicate Old World orthodoxy in their new context, the German American-led Reform movement felt that the United States was the new promised land. Many wanted to adapt, and in many ways secularize, their religious practice. An 1895 brochure proclaimed that the organization’s main goal was “the spread of distinctively American ideas on government, polity and civil life.” Omitting religion from this statement suggests the degree to which traditional public worship was considered a secondary cultural manifestation.

While the Alliance struggled with its relationship to religion, it never second-guessed its responsibility to enhancing Lower East Siders’ quality of life. In addition to providing academic and vocational training, in 1895, Henry McBride informally established the Educational Alliance Art School, which is today one of the oldest community-based art schools in the nation. The Educational Alliance’s gymnasium was the largest and best equipped in Eastside. The Rooftop Garden, opened in 1896, offered respite from heat waves and open, safe and clean recreation space for hundreds of families at a time. The Alliance also took city dwellers on upcountry outings, and offered rural summer camp programs to poor inner city children.

By 1899, the Aguilar Free Library outgrew its space in the Educational Alliance building, and in 1903 the branch was subsumed by the New York Public Library. The collection, boasting 24,000 books, formed the core of the Seward Park Library Branch, which was relocated to a facility across East Broadway from the Alliance building. In a 1990 New York Times Letter to the Editor, Julius Schatz, a Lower East Side native and child of Jewish immigrants, recalled,

the library was not just a haven to read, to do research and homework. It also provided East Side kids the wonderful opportunity to learn about the rich and exciting world of the past and the present - to identify with great historic heroes and heroines, to become informed human beings.

Proscriptive though many of the Alliance’s early programs were, the organization provided low-income families with experiences and opportunities that they could not have imagined in the Old World, including education for young women. And despite the uptown-downtown tensions, the Educational Alliance differed from its settlement house predecessors (like University Settlement) in that it was explicitly formed to serve the social and educational needs of the local Jewish community first and foremost, though not exclusively.

After the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, scores of prominent Eastern European intellectuals immigrated to the United States, and the leaders of the American Jewish community were forced to reassess their approach to Jewish culture and religion. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Jewish Theological Seminary President Solomon Schechter founded the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Zionist movement gained global momentum. As a result, the Educational Alliance adopted a more pluralistic approach to their constituents, and they became more responsive to the downtown demand for Jewish cultural content and traditional religious expression.

Creative expressions were also given an outlet through the Alliance’s Children’s Educational Theater, which was founded on the belief that theater and creativity could serve as civilizing instruments. Eddie Cantor made his first theatrical appearance in the Alliance’s 1905 production of Little Lord Fauntleroy. In 1917, Abbo Ostrowsky formalized the Art School, which offered professional courses in painting, etching, drawing and sculpture for both children and adults. Notable alumni include sculptors Concetta Scaraviglione, Jacob Epstein and Chaim Gross, and painters Abraham Walkowitz and Mark Rothko. The Alliance’s Reading Room offered reference books, as well as English, Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers and periodicals. While the Alliance offered social clubs designed to create model American citizens, it also recognized that low-income denizens were limited in most resources other than creativity. So they instituted a special “model flat” project that replicated a typical Lower East Side household. Rather than teach participants to use amenities that they would never attain, the idea was to teach women to turn their existing living conditions to their greatest advantage. Though some criticized this initiative as patronizing, many women who went through the progam claimed that they found the approach helpful.

Former Educational Alliance president Judge Samuel Greenbaum noted that one of the Alliance’s most significant virtues was its willingness to serve as an incubator of demonstration projects that were later adopted by municipal or private organizations. The Aguilar Free Library was absorbed by the Public Library, and the Board of Education implemented similar English language programs for immigrants. In 1916, the Alliance established a Legal Aid Bureau, and when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) came into existence during the Great Depression, the Educational Alliance became the WPA’s neighborhood headquarters.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish population still dominated the Lower East Side. However, many community members moved to the outer boroughs and suburbs, leaving room for new immigrant groups, including Greeks, Italians, and Irish. From the beginning, the Alliance had served all neighborhood residents, regardless of religion, ethnicity or political affiliation. It also had extensive experience as a site of negotiation. As such, the Alliance was able to maintain its commitment to the neighborhood while it adapted services to the needs of the Lower East Side's new and varied cultural groups. The Alliance began to foster the notion that the local immigrant was not an oxymoron, and although many programs were patriotically flavored, the organization also dedicated attention to preserving immigrant groups’ traditions.

In the 1940s, the neighborhood’s demographics again shifted, and the Educational Alliance moved away from volunteer-run programs to offering social services provided by trained professionals. In 1952, the Alliance merged with Stuyvesant Neighborhood House, a community center of the Stuyvesant Town housing projects, and in 1954 they joined in forming the Lower Eastside Neighborhoods Association (LENA), which focused extensive energies on combating neighborhood juvenile delinquency and drug abuse. In correlation with LENA and the New York City Youth Board, the Educational Alliance established Operation Street Corner, which employed trained social workers to make daily person-to-person contact with members of emerging teenage street gangs. In 1962, Operation Street Corner was included in the federally funded Mobilization for Youth (MFY) campaign, one element of the national War on Poverty.

During the late 1960s, the Alliance dedicated the David L. Podell House for the Elderly at 179-181 Henry Street, a ten-story apartment residential building adjoining the main Educational Alliance edifice, and one of the first apartment buildings to be constructed and operated by a community center. Alliance programming expanded to many populations, including the mentally ill, high school dropouts, minority-group mothers, and vulnerable youth. In the 1970s, it continued to expand, both programatically, as well as into new facilities including a day care center, a satellite West Side branch, and facilities for handicapped students at P.S. 35 in Manhattan. 

As of 2013, the Educational Alliance provides thirty-nine cultural, social and community services and programs for New Yorkers of all backgrounds. The organization operates out of seventeen sites, and serves approximately fifty thousands individuals annually. It continues to respond to the changing needs and goals of the multiple communities it serves, but it still determines its trajectory by considering its past experiences in the Lower East Side. The Alliance neither dictates the future, nor waits to be needed. Instead, it keeps pace with its constituents by helping them learn to help themselves.