Described as a stiff Victorian woman from an old Boston Jewish family, Golde Bamber applied her education and cultured upbringing to become one of Boston’s pioneer social reformers and educators among the city’s Eastern European immigrants.
Born in Boston in 1862, Bamber was raised among the city’s small, elite German Jewish community. In 1879, she graduated from the Boston University’s School of Oratory and began teaching elocution lessons privately and at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. But the great tide of Eastern European immigrants that exploded Boston’s Jewish population from approximately five thousand in 1880 to forty thousand by 1900 drew Bamber’s attention, and she joined the female Jewish leadership in Boston dedicated to relieving the immigrants’ poverty and preparing them for life as fully integrated American citizens.
Invited by Lina Hecht in 1889 to evaluate Hecht’s new Jewish Sunday school, Bamber instead recommended a program that would teach immigrant girls skills in sewing and cooking, as well as provide a basic American and Jewish education. In January 1890, the Hebrew Industrial School for Girls (HIS) opened with twenty pupils on Hanover Street in Boston’s North End. Funded by Lina and Jacob Hecht, Bamber served as the school’s superintendent and director for four decades. In 1892, its partner Hebrew Industrial School for Boys opened on Chambers Street in Boston’s West End. In their first five years alone, Bamber’s schools trained more than twelve hundred children to be “wage earners, breadwinners, and self-respecting citizens,” overcoming initial opposition within the Jewish community to vocational training and manual labor. Educational clubs, vocational classes, even a “Soap and Water” club, taught good citizenship, self-sufficiency, American manners and morals, and the foundations of Jewish knowledge and culture. The school’s motto, “A good Israelite will make a better citizen,” summarized Bamber’s conviction that Jewish and American traditions were compatible and productive, and not antithetical as Boston’s virulent anti-immigration movement argued. Much of Boston’s non-Jewish leadership agreed.
The HIS’s successes garnered financial and political support from Boston’s leading Brahmin philanthropists and institutions, including Unitarian Reverend Edward Everett Hale who asserted that “the much-dreaded Russian Jew … because he has been welcomed with wisdom and kindness, proves to be ... a model emigrant.” Bamber’s HIS, along with Boston’s North Bennett Street Industrial School, served as a pioneering model for the entire settlement house movement in the Northeast. Bamber’s own achievements were recognized by Massachusetts Governor Curtis Guild, who appointed her a trustee for the Lyman School for Boys.
Bamber kept her own education current with her innovations. During the 1890s and early 1900s, she studied vocational guidance and social work with Frederick Allen at Harvard College and Simmons College of Social Work. By the end of World War I, the settlement house approach of the HIS had run its course, and Bamber changed her school with the times. In 1922, the school’s name changed to the Hecht Neighborhood House, and with funds from the bequest of Lina Hecht, purchased a Charles Bullfinch-designed house on Bowdoin Street in the West End. Bamber served as director until her retirement in 1930, introducing one of the nation’s first nursery schools there in 1925 and transforming the institution from a vocational and educational institution for Jewish children and women to a full-service, nonsectarian community center for the West End’s broadly mixed ethnic population.
Golde Bamber was a leader in the emergence of a young, educated, professional class of Jewish women—both from established and immigrant families—who worked cooperatively to create Boston’s new charitable and educational infrastructure for the early twentieth century. Bamber envisioned, institutionalized, and directed new educational structures for the new social landscape. Her pioneering work influenced settlement house, vocational, Jewish, and nursery school education well beyond Boston and well beyond her lifetime.
Bamber, Golde. “Russians in Boston.” Lend a Hand 8 (1892): 168–172; Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Papers. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.; Hecht Neighborhood House. Papers. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.; Solomon, Barbara Miller. Pioneers in Service: The History of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (1956).