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The Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center
The origins of both the Menorah Center and the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights—and the Jewish centers movement in Los Angeles as a whole—trace to the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center. Here we explore that institution’s history and the influences that inspired its establishment in 1924.
The Settlement House Movement
Amidst the wave of mass migration in the late nineteenth century, the welfare of Jewish children became a pressing crisis. In cities like New York, where some 1,400,000 Jewish immigrants settled by 1914, the sheer volume of poor families crowded into often unsafe, unsanitary, and dilapidated housing raised concerns about public safety that reinforced existing social anxieties about industrialization, urbanization, and American national identity. Immigrant children—who often spent the majority of their time on the streets, unsupervised by adults as their working parents struggled to make a living—frequently became the symbol of urban poverty, their welfare invoked by advocates and activists alike to demand social reforms, as in the iconic photos of Jacob Riis.
The settlement house movement emerged in response to this crisis. Pioneered by Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago, the movement had a seemingly modest goal: to create places in working-class neighborhoods where immigrant families, and especially children, could access resources and support. Largely staffed by college-educated women trained in emerging disciplines like domestic engineering and nutrition science, settlement houses offered vital services for immigrant mothers, including maternity care as well as classes in housekeeping, cooking, and hygiene aimed at reforming their domestic behaviors to better reflect “proper” American norms. Some offered additional adult education programs, such as English-language, citizenship, and job training classes, but most placed their emphasis on providing safe places for children to learn and play under the careful watch of adults. By 1920, some 500 settlement houses had been established across the United States, the women who staffed them, in turn, transforming social work into a skilled profession.
While the impacts of mass migration in Los Angeles were somewhat delayed, by the turn of the century, the city’s Jewish community recognized a need for similar services, and in 1907, the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women opened the Mendelssohn Settlement House downtown to provide temporary housing, childcare, and support for young, immigrant women. As support for the program grew, the local Jewish leaders established a second settlement house on Temple Street (near today’s Grand Park) in 1911 to provide “moral education and social welfare to the Jewish immigrant” under the aegis of the New York-based Jewish Educational Alliance. With the help of a large donation from philanthropist Isidor Straus—co-founder of Macy’s Department Store and major contributor to the Educational Alliance—they purchased an even larger home at 610 Temple St. where they added a day nursery for working mothers, named in honor of Isidor’s wife Ida Strauss. Jewish children, the founders warned, were “running wild” without adult supervision and needed, “a place to meet and play and socialize off the streets and out of cramped little houses.” At their settlement house on Temple Street, “youngsters” could “[develop] their skill in crafts or dramatics” and their mothers could learn “improved methods for child rearing,” and, by doing so, become well-adjusted members of American society.1
The Young Men’s Hebrew Association
These settlement houses emerged years after the first organization formed to address the needs of Jewish youth in the city: the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA). Since 1854, the local Hebrew Benevolent Society had served as the nucleus of the social life of the city’s small and tightly-knit Jewish community. But in the 1880s, as the American-born children of these prominent Jewish families came of age, they found activities of the HBS to be insufficient sources of entertainment and intellectual engagement. At the same time, young Jews in L.A. reported being excluded from the “polite dances and socials” being held by their non-Jewish peers. Eager to create their own social space, independent from both their parents and their peers, they formed a chapter of the YMHA, aiming to provide a communal space for upstanding young men to improve their bodies and their minds in the model of the flagship YMHA on 92nd Street in New York, which featured a library where they hosted lectures, free classes, and debate clubs, as well as an auditorium that functioned as both a gym and a venue for larger events and concerts. The Los Angeles YMHA sought to replicate this model by hosting speakers, lectures, and larger social events, but failed to raise sufficient funds to purchase its own building and largely disbanded.2
In 1915, as the Educational Alliance’s settlement house on Temple Street grew, the Los Angeles chapter of the YMHA reconstituted itself and began holding meetings and events there. A chapter of the Young Women’s Hebrew Association soon followed and dozens of other societies and clubs for young people met there as well. Along with the local Jewish Alliance, the Ida Straus Day Nursery, and the original Mendelssohn Settlement House, these organizations decided to consolidate and confederate their efforts by merging to form the Federation of Jewish Charities (later Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations). All made their headquarters at the Temple Street settlement house, the building serving as a central hub of Jewish life, and particularly for Jewish youth programs, in the city.
The Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center
In the years that followed, Los Angeles’ Jewish population tripled, reaching around 90,000 by 1930. Many of the new arrivals had already spent a decade or more in the United States and brought with them their American-born children and, often, some financial savings. And few of these new arrivals settled in the historic city center near the Alliance’s settlement house. Most instead made their homes in Boyle Heights, where, by best estimates, the number of Jewish residents rose from around 3,000 in 1920 to nearly 25,000 in 1930.3
In 1923, a group of parents, philanthropists, and activists came together to address concerns about the welfare of Jewish children in the neighborhood. Like their predecessors, they perceived a need for support for working families and childcare services that the settlement house on Temple could not meet. But they also identified a new and more pressing concern: that Jewish children’s exposure to “American” influences, at school and in the multiethnic neighborhood, was eroding their Jewish identities. Instead of programs to teach Jewish children how to live like Americans, they argued, Boyle Heights needed programs that would teach American-born Jewish children how to live like Jews. They sought to reimagine the traditional Jewish education offered at religious schools by combining it with the best aspects of the YMHA and the settlement house movement. By doing so, they hoped to pioneer a new type of Jewish social center where they could raise a generation of modern, American Jews.4
The result of these meetings was the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center, which opened in a three-story house at the corner of Michigan and Soto Streets in January 1924. The Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations provided funds to purchase the building and the YMHA donated a vacant lot next door for use as a playground. As their first director, they hired Jacob M. Aklow, who in many ways represented their ideal student: born in Lithuania, Alkow came to the U.S. as a young child, attending City College of New York before moving to L.A. where he took classes at USC, became a leader in the local Zionist movement, and went on to graduate from the Hebrew Teachers Training School in Boston. They also hired Rabbi Moses Tolchinsky, a Ukrainian-born educator who came to L.A. in 1923, to teach after school Hebrew classes Mondays through Thursdays. Within three years of its opening, in addition to the twelve different youth clubs and associations that held regular meetings at the Center, some 500 people a week became regular users of the space.5
Unfortunately, the success of the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center also brought about its demise as increased demand began to stress the facility. Disagreements about whose activities should be prioritized and how best to share the space overlapped with tensions about the Center’s finances and its dual educational and social ambitions. By 1930, the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center had split into two separate organizations—the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center and the Menorah Center—each with its own distinct vision of how best to contribute to the Boyle Heights community.