A “Children’s Playground” and “Centre for Adults:” The Story of Baltimore’s Jewish Educational Alliance, 1909-1952 Pt 5

Posted on December 19th, 2016 by

Article by Jennifer Vess. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part V: End of an Era

Missed parts 1 – 4? Start from the Beginning.

The JEA maintained a strong settlement house for over forty years. During its first decade it applied the latest theories on social services and moral uplift espoused by Progressive reformers. Its workers pushed for Americanization in much the same way as other settlement houses throughout the U.S. while emphasizing the Jewish nature of the organization. But the country and Baltimore were changing, and the JEA had to change with them. By the 1930s and 1940s, older immigrants had learned to function in American society, their children had grown up as Americans, and the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s had greatly reduced the number of new immigrants, thus diminishing the perceived need for an intensive Americanization process. All over the country new ideas and new needs led settlement houses to shift their purposes, often becoming more like the community centers we think of today.[1]

Members of the JEA's Orion Club on a hike at Orange Groce, April 1933. JMM 1992.231.282

Members of the JEA’s Orion Club on a hike at Orange Groce, April 1933. JMM 1992.231.282

In addition to these nationwide trends, the JEA faced other changes specific to Baltimore. While still loved and popular, by the late 1940s the JEA building on Baltimore Street was no longer the center of a Jewish community. Families had been moving away from East Baltimore since the 1920s, mostly to northwest Baltimore, and the JEA had responded by opening northwest and southwest branch locations.

With its core neighborhood changing, the city’s Jewish population maturing, and ideas about social services evolving, the JEA no longer played the same critical role in meeting the needs of the Jewish community. As had happened forty years before when the JEA was formed, community leaders saw a need to consolidate activities in order to provide the best services. Despite the strong affection boys and girls in Baltimore still held for the JEA, it closed down in 1952 when the Associated Jewish Charities merged the JEA, the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, and Camp Woodlands into the Jewish Community Center, which opened on Park Heights Avenue – the demographic center of the Jewish community in the 1950s.

The JEA had been the center of many East Baltimore lives for forty-three years.  At its height monthly attendance rose into the tens of thousands – 22,000 children and adults per month, according to one report of the early 1920s.[2]  But the impact of the JEA went far beyond numbers. To this day, its loyal members keep it going through the JEA Fellowship Association.  Those who visited and loved the JEA in their youth continue to interact with one another through regular newsletters and alumni meetings. Even without a building the JEA endures.

Continue to Side Bar 1: The Levy Building


[1] Judith Ann Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

[2] January, 1922 meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213.

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A “Children’s Playground” and “Centre for Adults:” The Story of Baltimore’s Jewish Educational Alliance, 1909-1952 Pt 4

Posted on December 14th, 2016 by

Article by Jennifer Vess. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part IV: The Infant Is Safe

Missed parts 1 – 3? Start from the Beginning.

From the moment of the institution’s founding, the JEA staff focused much of its energy on the children of East Baltimore. Children could learn quickly and were often more willing to learn than their parents. As one historian put it, “not only were they captivating and genuinely responsive, but they were the best candidates for the primary settlement purpose of shaping character through personal influence. The children also offered the most important entrée into the life of the neighborhood.”[1] They were also a source of great concern because they were subject to the influence of people and activities that the JEA board and staff considered disreputable. The JEA’s leaders prided themselves on providing a positive environment, which kept kids off the streets, and more particularly out of jail.

Attention to the needs of children began in infancy at the JEA with a nursery and kindergarten. Before JEA leaders had even settled on an official name, they established a committee for the Kindergarten and the Day Nursery. The nursery cared for children under school age. While the middle-class ideal of the early 1900s painted a picture of men at work and women in the home, both fathers and mothers in East Baltimore often had to work outside of the house to provide for the family. As Lewis Putzel, JEA president, explained in 1913, “The burdened mother will leave here her infant for the day, and know the infant is safe.” For the children, the nursery offered an environment for early learning, including art and Jewish culture among all of the other lessons.[2] The JEA nursery, one of the first in Baltimore, functioned from 1909 until 1952, when the JEA closed.

Mary Roten teaching at the Jewish Educational Alliance nursery school, c. 1930. JMM 1992.231.234

Mary Roten teaching at the Jewish Educational Alliance nursery school, c. 1930. JMM 1992.231.234

Kindergartens were an important innovation championed by reformers and progressive educators in the early twentieth century, and the JEA opened one almost immediately. The goal “throughout the kindergarten term was not to instill knowledge in the child as much as to lead him to observe and think,” the staff explained in 1917, when the school year opened with an impressive 120 students. That year the teachers introduced the idea of adding Montessori materials. Despite the success of the JEA kindergarten, the ultimate goal was to transfer it to the public school system. Progressive-era reformers strove to offer essential services to the working poor, but they believed that the government should eventually take over the running of these essential activities. In 1921 the public school system did take over the administration of the kindergarten though it continued to be operated at the JEA.[3]

As children became older, the JEA endeavored to draw them away from the temptation of less reputable entertainments, especially game rooms and dance halls. The settlement workers took two approaches – providing similar but more wholesome activities at the JEA, and shutting down or cleaning up the neighborhood’s more objectionable enterprises. Though the JEA’s list of committees did not initially include entertainment, by 1911 they had added one. As an alternative to rowdy dance halls, the JEA held dances for neighborhood teenagers and young adults starting in 1909. The JEA offered its own game room where children could play chess and checkers or carom pool, a version of billiards played on a smaller table.

As with settlement houses across the country, the JEA worked to extend its influence throughout the neighborhood, launching campaigns against area bars, game rooms, and dance halls. In 1913 the board formally thanked the liquor license commissioners for closing the Hotel Theodore. Seven years later the JEA aimed its sights at the dance halls. In December 1920 the JEA director proposed that the Association of Neighborhood Workers set out to “devise means of influencing Orchestra Leaders thruout [sic] the City to modify the exceedingly jazzy mode of playing. The Association attributed disorder, in many cases, to the music.” The JEA also campaigned against “disorderly houses” – that is, brothels. JEA director Max Carton organized a community meeting at the Eden Street Synagogue in April 1912 to create a formal protest to present to the Supreme Bench and State’s Attorney of Baltimore in order to have local brothels shut down.[4] The board and staff of the JEA pushed the boundaries of their work beyond the brick walls of their building, trying to create a better environment on a large scale.

The Jackson Club practicing basketball in the JEA gymnasium, c. 1935. JMM 1992.231.146

The Jackson Club practicing basketball in the JEA gymnasium, c. 1935. JMM 1992.231.146

The JEA clubs were perhaps the most popular and frequently remembered of all the activities for children. Under the supervision of an adult advisor the children set up the clubs themselves and ran their meetings according to standard business guidelines, electing officers and keeping minutes. The names of the clubs tell us little about the character of each group though they must have meant something to the boys and girls, names like the Aetna Club, Olivet Club, Champion Club, Harvard Club, Sunshine Club, Harmony Club, Puritan Club, and more. Each club, usually separated by gender and age, organized outings to the country, formed sports teams, and sought to improve its members through literary reports and debates. Long after children became adults, in fact long after the JEA ceased to exist, club members continued to meet in alumni gatherings.

Sports featured prominently in the lives of JEA children. They participated in wrestling, track and field, baseball, and perhaps most important, basketball. JEA teams competed against one another and also against teams citywide. The Alliance Citizen and the Baltimore Jewish Times often followed the JEA’s sports activities, reporting on wins and losses and posting schedules for the community. Games were well-attended, with spectators sometimes running into the hundreds. Reminiscences suggest that everyone had the opportunity to participate, whether they were accomplished athletes or not.  The JEA boys and girls prided themselves on their successes (which were many) on the field or court, but they participated in athletics because they loved them.[5]

Continue to Part V: End of an Era


[1] Mina Carson, Settlement Folk, 62.

[2] JEA meeting minutes, November 7, 1909, and November 16, 1921, MS 170, Folders 212 and 213.

[3] JEA meeting minutes, June 5, 1917 and April 6, 1921, MS 170, Folder 213, JMM. On the Progressive goal of expanding government services, see Davis, Spearheads for Reform.

[4] JEA meeting minutes, April 14, 1913, MS 170, Folder 212; resident director report, December 7, 1920, JEA meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213; “East Enders Protest,” Baltimore Sun, April 8, 1912, p. 9.

[5] Jobi Zink, “Amateur Jewish Athletes, Then and Now,” Generations (2004): 84-87.

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A “Children’s Playground” and “Centre for Adults:” The Story of Baltimore’s Jewish Educational Alliance, 1909-1952 Pt 3

Posted on December 12th, 2016 by

Article by Jennifer Vess. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part III: Not Only a Children’s Playground

Missed part 1 & 2? Start from the Beginning.

The “Jewishness” of the JEA, while not a common element of the settlement house movement, did not conflict with the more typical settlement house activities that took place there. The JEA, like other settlement houses, split its attention between children and adults, though children probably made up the largest number of visitors and enjoyed the most programs. Still the board of the JEA was adamant that “This House is not only a children’s playground, but a centre for adults.”[1] Programs, lectures, and classes aimed at adults addressed many of the issues dear to the hearts of reformers of the day – health and sanitation, culture, and citizenship.

Bettering the health of the poor included improving diet, improving hygiene, and improving sex education. Many settlement houses offered access to health care and settlement workers strove to instruct residents on the latest scientific methods for maintaining good health. The JEA gave rooms to organizations such as the Babies’ Milk Fund Association, the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association, the Health Department Nurses, a Babies’ Clinic, and the Council Milk and Ice Fund. Families took their children to the clinic at the JEA for check-ups and shots, and benefited from organizations that distributed milk and other nutritional foods. These organizations instructed families on such topics as how to eat better and prevent illness.[2] And what they didn’t teach, the JEA would.

Jewish Educational Alliance Orchestra with Benjamin Klasmer conducting, 1919. JMM 1977.24.1

Jewish Educational Alliance Orchestra with Benjamin Klasmer conducting, 1919. JMM 1977.24.1

For the settlement house workers of the early twentieth century, issues of health were informed by science. What people learned from their parents was not as important as what science could teach. Settlement house workers introduced new ideas on cooking and nutrition, such as the JEA’s Dietetics classes offered to the Mothers’ Club. Scientific education also included introducing topics that had been considered inappropriate for public discussion, such as Social Hygiene – essentially, sex education. While much of the Social Hygiene movement focused on eradicating prostitution, classes and lectures also discussed the biology of the body and sexually transmitted diseases. In 1909 the JEA held a class on Social Hygiene, in 1916 they offered a class on “sex hygiene,” and five years later they gave space to the Maryland Social Hygiene Society.[3]

Along with improving health, JEA workers also hoped to improve the mind. Like other settlement houses, the JEA offered opportunities for neighborhood residents to enrich themselves intellectually and culturally. Practical trade classes (stenography, sewing, salesmanship, bookkeeping) taught young people and new immigrants skills for gaining employment. But settlement house workers, often college-educated men and women, also promoted self-improvement for its own sake. They shared their liberal arts education through lectures and introduced art, music, and history to the immigrant neighborhood.[4]

Alliance Players perform "Professor Mamlok," c. 1937. JMM 1996.56.27

Alliance Players perform “Professor Mamlok,” c. 1937. JMM 1996.56.27

The JEA offered a constant stream of lectures and concerts and in its later years the Baltimore Museum of Art even opened a branch at the JEA for art exhibitions.[5] It also engaged its neighbors in creating music, theater, and art. The JEA Orchestra, made up of children and adults, began in 1917 with twenty-seven members and grew to be an eighty-eight piece ensemble known beyond the walls of the JEA. According to the daughter of its longtime orchestra leader, “It was considered the best nonprofessional . . . symphony orchestra on the East Coast.”[6] The JEA also sponsored the Alliance Players, an amateur performance group that became very popular over the years. In addition, the JEA’s visitors were encouraged to learn on their own. Its reading room contained books for adults and children, and the JEA also supported the presence of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in the neighborhood.

One of the most important goals of any early twentieth century settlement house was the Americanization of recent immigrants. “Americanization” was a catch word of the day that embraced the teaching of the English language, American history, civics, and more. Settlement workers saw Americanization as the best way to address the problem of a diverse society – by creating coherence through assimilation. Achieving citizenship was the logical step for immigrants, and settlement house workers wasted no time in starting new arrivals on the process of becoming “naturalized.” The first head workers of the JEA, Max and Rosa Carton, set about forming citizenship classes within a year of the organization’s establishment.[7]

JEA English class, 1919. JMM 1992.231.73

JEA English class, 1919. JMM 1992.231.73

Many reformers believed that the government – in the form of the public schools – should take responsibility for running citizenship classes, but the city did not assume that responsibility for many years. The JEA offered Americanization programs, English classes, and at one point an Alliance Summer School for Foreigners, which gained the attention of John W. Lewis, the State Supervisor of Americanization.[8] These activities lasted as long as the constituency reflected a recent immigrant community. Over time, however, the push for Americanization decreased as older immigrants adapted to their new country and new restrictive federal laws curbed the influx of immigrants.

Continue to Part IV: The Infant is Safe


[1] January 1921 report, JEA meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213.

[2] January 1921 report and March 1920 reports, JEA meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213.

[3] “Jewish Educational Alliance,” Jewish Comment, December 17, 1909; Aaronson, “Jewish Charities: A Settlement Diary;” January 1921 report, JEA meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213. On the Social Hygiene movement, see Social Hygiene 7 (Menasha, Wis.: American Social Hygiene Association, 1921): 139-165.

[4] Davis, Spearheads for Reform, 40.

[5] BMA Art News  (October 1943): 1.

[6] Blanche Klasmer Cohen, “Benjamin Klasmer’s Contribution to Baltimore’s Musical History,” Maryland Historical Magazine 72, No. 2 (Summer 1977): 274.

[7] JEA meeting minutes, October 31, 1910, MS 170, Folder 212.

[8] JEA meeting minutes, February 7, 1911; JEA director’s report, October 6, 1921, MS 170, Folders 212 and 213.

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