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June 21: The Communalist

June 20, 2015

minnie_louis_smWriter, educator, and activist philanthropist Minnie Dessau Louis, founder of the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, a vocational school housed ultimately at Second Avenue and 15th Street in New York, was born in Philadelphia on this date in 1841. Dessau Louis was an instrumental founder of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1894, a director of the Clara de Hirsch Home for Girls, a field director for the Jewish Chautauqua Society, a leader of the Mount Sinai Training School for Nurses, a journalist, and a poet. The Hebrew Technical School took its name in 1895 after existing for eleven years as the Louis Downtown Sabbath School. It taught English, hygiene, secretarial and bookkeeping skills, as well as needlework skills, drawing, and costume design. Most entering students were 14 and enrolled for two years. Today the building houses the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, which serves new immigrants, most of them with little English. A stalwart of Temple Emanu-El, the “cathedral” synagogue of Fifth Avenue, Dessau Louis exemplified the German Jewish communalists of her day, working to “civilize,” protect, and assimilate the massive Eastern European Jewish immigrant influx. In 1903, she privately published Hannah and Her Seven Sons, which was recently made available as an e-book out of consideration for its historical importance.

“Louis insisted on Temple Emanu-El’s support for a Sunday School whose ‘prime object’ would be to ‘inculcate habits of cleanliness’ among the habitually unclean immigrant girls who gave all Jews a bad name. ‘Since the world has elected to regard us as a brotherhood,’ she noted with some asperity, ‘why shall we attempt to withstand the force of the ages?’ ” —Melissa Klapper, American Jewish Archives