Academic journal article American Jewish History

Brownstones and Brownsville: Elite Philanthropists and Immigrant Constituents at the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn, 1899-1929

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Brownstones and Brownsville: Elite Philanthropists and Immigrant Constituents at the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn, 1899-1929

Article excerpt

For more than six decades after its founding in 1899 the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn (HES) served the densely populated Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Brownsville as a multipurpose community center. It offered its local constituency of Eastern European Jews and their children a wide range of educational, athletic, social, and cultural programs, much as its more famous counterpart, the Educational Alliance, did on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The central role that HES played in the neighborhood makes it a fine lens through which to study a number of issues, including the largely neglected history of Brownsville itself. Above all, the history of HES offers a look inside the storied relationship between the so-called Uptown Jews--Americanized, well-to-do do-gooders of mainly Central European origin--who founded the society, and the Yiddish-speaking "Downtown Jews" they were so eager to assist in becoming proper Americans. (The shorthand labels themselves reveal their own Manhattan-centricity, for in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn the wealthy philanthropists lived in the brownstone neighborhoods downtown, while the immigrants resided on the outskirts of the built-up city.)(1)

The relationship between the Americanized Jewish establishment and the Eastern European newcomers has long been the subject of scholarly concern, even debate. Historians generally recognize that the interaction between the two groups, while often tense, included elements of cooperation. Over time the uptowners' early hostility and condescension toward their downtown cousins lessened as the latter gained in influence and came more to resemble the established community.(2) But how did the two sides negotiate their relationship from day to day on a local level? As David Kaufman has recently argued, community centers like the HES provided the "meeting ground" where the two segments of American Jewry hammered out their "common purpose and shared interest."(3)

In the activities of the Hebrew Educational Society the wealthy sponsors and the immigrant clientele struggled to shape both the organization and their relationship to each other. The society's story complicates the usual dichotomy between an elite American community and an immigrant mass. In fact, several different elites had a role in determining the course of the organization's work. The society's founders, for example, constituted a tightly knit group anxious about both its position in the broader community of proper Brooklynites and its relationship with the larger and wealthier Jewish elite on the other side of the East River. Significantly, even as they looked nervously over their shoulders at Manhattan's wealthy Jewish leadership, Brooklyn's philanthropists drew considerable support for much of their work from segments of the immigrant population itself, particularly young people and upwardly mobile professionals. The benefactors of HES therefore had to take into account the views of at least part of the society's immigrant constituency from the very start.

As the brownstoners and Brownsvillers worked out their relationship they also strove to define the meaning of Americanization. While both sides shared some assumptions concerning the need to develop an appropriate American Jewish identity, they often had different conceptions of how that identity should be constituted. Thus, while the founders favored Reform Judaism the clients inclined toward the emerging Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. And while the sponsors endorsed a unitary and conventional Americanism, the local people leavened their Americanism with a healthy dose of Zionism, a respect for the Yiddish language, and an occasional interest in social radicalism. By the 1920s the balance of power in the HES had shifted decidedly in favor of the Eastern Europeans. The founders' aims for immigrant acculturation had been met in part; the society's new immigrant and second-generation leadership resembled them in many ways. …

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