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Settlement Houses

Founded in Europe, North America, and Asia in response to the urban poverty that accompanied industrialization and immigration, the Settlement House movement originated with Toynbee Hall, in London's East End in 1884. Distressed by working class conditions in urban slums, a group of college-educated men and women "settled" into a house among the poor. They hoped to bridge the gap between classes as they gathered data on the impact of poverty and experimented with progressive social programs.

The American Settlement House movement was begun by Stanton Coit, an adherent of the *Ethical Culture Movement, who founded the Neighborhood Guild (later the University Settlement) on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1886. Three years later, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago. Addams drew other women into the movement, and they formed a strong political network of female reformers who became involved with local, national, and international campaigns for public health and welfare. By 1910, over 400 U.S. Settlement Houses, funded by philanthropists, and often drawing on the Protestant social gospel of good works, offered medical and social welfare programs as well as education and recreation. The majority of American Settlements were staffed by educated women whose efforts lead to social welfare legislation and the professionalization of social work.

The Settlement House movement coincided with the mass emigration of East European Jews and Jews took active roles in all aspects of the Settlement movement, as donors, administrators, resident staff members, and clients. Lillian *Wald one of the few Jews in the early American Settlement movement, directed the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan from 1893 to 1933. Her funding came largely from Jewish philanthropists, principally Jacob H. *Schiff, and her clientele was largely Jewish immigrants. However, Wald was criticized over the lack of Jewish content in her institutional offerings. In response to this perceived weakness, as well as in reaction to occasional Christian missionary work among Jewish immigrants, middle-class Jews in cities throughout the U.S. and Europe founded specifically Jewish Settlement Houses. In the U.S., these Settlements often grew out of Jewish women's organizations, especially the *National Council for Jewish Women, which aimed to aid and "Americanize" working-class immigrant women and their children. Staff members set up playgrounds and kindergartens, offered classes in art and theater, and established domestic science training programs. Tensions based in differences in social class, political orientations, and religious practice often proved particularly poignant in these institutions, especially in debates between workers and clients on the use of Yiddish and support for Zionism.

The most prominent U.S. Jewish Settlement was the Educational Alliance, founded by Jewish philanthropists in Manhattan in 1889. The Alliance successfully addressed various social problems for those living in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. While all Settlement Houses tried to "make Americans" out of immigrants, adhering largely to an Anglo-Protestant model, the Alliance tried to "make" American Jews, in line with the tenets of assimilated Reform Judaism. As first-generation East European immigrants came of age in the 1920s, they took leadership positions and changed the culture of Settlement Houses to be more accepting of Yiddish and of Jewish particularisms generally. Countless memoirs attest to early 20th-century Settlements providing Jewish immigrants with their first exposure to a world beyond their immigrant and Orthodox Jewish enclaves. These immigrants chose from the offerings of Settlement Houses and integrated into the American mainstream on their own terms. Serving as Settlement administrators and staff members, hundreds of Jews, especially Jewish women, gained practical and professional training and experience. Many went on to lead social welfare policy initiatives in private and public agencies.

By the 1920s, Settlements overall were in decline. In America, this was due to the reduction in immigration and the targeting of progressive social workers during the Red Scare. In addition, Jewish Settlement Houses contended with changing urban populations, as Jews moved increasingly beyond initial areas of settlement. Some Settlements moved with these populations and became community centers; others, like the Alliance, stayed to offer programs to a new population of (largely non-Jewish) urban dwellers.


M. Carson, Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 18851930 (1990); M.N. Feld, "Lillian D. Wald and Mutuality in Twentieth-Century America" (Brandeis University Ph.D. dissertation, 2002); E. Rose, "From Sponge Cake to Hamentashen: Jewish Identity in a Jewish Settlement House, 1885–1952," in: Journal of American Ethnic History, 13 (1994), 3–23; A. Schwartz, "Americanization and Cultural Preservation in Seattle's Settlement House," in: Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 26 (1999), 25–45.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.