by Maxwell Greenberg
The expansion of industrial capitalism across American cities at the turn of the 20th century offered working-class, mostly white and immigrant women new avenues for employment and recreation. The garment industry in particular transformed historically gendered work, often done traditionally in domestic spaces, into an "unskilled" sector of the industrial economy. The shifting location of women in the public sphere became a proxy for national anxieties around industrialization, urban poverty, and the breakdown of "traditional" middle-class familial values. The presence of women in the workplace challenged their “natural” position in the home, giving rise to an impression among some, more affluent women, that work outside the home made women vulnerable to the vices, diseases, and predators of urban life. It also, importantly, raised concerns among the same about the potential abandonment and neglect of working women's children. Without proper maternal supervision, children (immigrant children, in particular) could similarly be lured into the dangers, preyed on by predatory adults, and otherwise tempted by immoral influences, indefinitely cast as outsiders to proper bourgeois models of family making.
The settlement house movement and the related emergence of day nurseries offered an organized, Progressive-era response to the anxieties provoked by industrialization, urbanization, and particularly the inclusion of women and mothers in the workforce. With the explicit purpose of uniting “all the Jewish women [and to] promote the interest of the Jewish people,” the the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Mother’s Alliance (JMA) in Los Angeles directly responded to these concerns by establishing programs to support child rearing, particularly on behalf of working Jewish mothers. In 1916, with the help of a large donation from Isidor Strauss, the Alliance established a day nursery for the children of factory workers at their headquarters at 610 Temple Street (near today's Grand Park).
Reflecting the shift in Jewish residential patterns and the growing population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the neighborhood, in 1935, the Alliance closed their original day nursery and built a new center in Boyle Heights, once again naming it after the daughter of a major financial supporter of the project. Located on North Breed Street near several other Jewish community institutions, the center represented a meeting of Jewish and Progressive era values. It offered a safe environment in which to nurture and socialize children using the latest theories of child-rearing and education. The pride of L.A.'s affluent and established Jewish community leadership in the nursery was clearly demonstrated in this short, promotional film narrated by Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Along with the Modern Talmud and Social Center—and the two Jewish centers that emerged from it, the Soto-Michigan JCC and the Menorah Center—the Julia Ann Singer Nursery provided both crucial support and childcare services for working families that were not widely available or affordable in the early twentieth century. But these institutions also reflected Jewish communal developments that went beyond the welfare of Jewish children. They emerged during an era where both state-run and secular institutions became increasingly involved in child supervision and socialization through welfare programs and social work, offering a model of organized and professionalized child-rearing as a solution to deeper social anxieties about the Jewish future. Julia Ann Singer Nursery and other centers offered an approach to ethno-religious community building and preservation that was animated by concerns of more affluent Jews about the domestic behaviors of their working-class brethren and aimed to raise a new generation of more "modern" Jewish Americans.