Founding of Young Women's Hebrew Association in NY
Although an earlier organization of the same name had existed beginning in 1888, the Young Women's Hebrew Association (YWHA) founded in New York City on February 6, 1902 was the first independent YWHA. Earlier organizations of similar focus and name had existed only as auxiliaries to Young Men's Hebrew Associations (YMHAs), which had been founded as early as the 1850s. The new organization, founded at the home and under the leadership of Bella Unterberg, combined religious, social, and cultural recreational activities in a way that redefined the possibilities of Jewish communal life.
Meant to serve the needs of young women, especially working girls, the New York YWHA's synthesis of social and religious aims distinguished it from the YMHA, which sought to bring Jewish men together within a secular Americanized setting. The new YWHA was a great success, recording an attendance of over 21,000 during its first year.
Emphasizing Judaism to a much greater degree than did the YMHA, New York's YWHA included a synagogue on its premises from an early date. The synagogue drew men and women from the neighborhood as well as the Jewish working girls who were the Y's prime constituency. The YWHA also sponsored dancing, athletics, music, and summer camping programs, and inspired a national network of similar institutions, particularly in the Northeast.
Although the YWHAs were pioneers in creating institutions that were true community centers, their success was soon imitated or taken over by other institutions. Numerous synagogues in the 1910s and 1920s remade themselves as “synagogue centers,” incorporating the religious and secular activities first combined by YWHAs. Moreover, most of the existing independent YWHAs lost their autonomy during this same period. In the early 1920s, many YWHAs merged with their local YMHAs, while others were taken over by the Jewish Welfare Board and its local affiliates. Most of these mergers meant the loss of female leadership within these organizations.
Bella Unterberg remained the president of the New York YWHA until 1929 and served as the only woman on the national organizations—the Council of Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Associations and the Jewish Welfare Board—that fostered the creation of a Jewish Community Center movement. The New York YWHA resisted the merging trend until 1942 when its activities were transferred to the 92nd Street YMHA. The two organizations formally merged in 1945, as the Young Men’s And Young Women’s Hebrew Association.
Few realize that the vibrant 92nd Street Y, which describes itself as “offer[ing] something for everyone,” as well as Jewish Community Centers around North America, owe much of their vision to the model of the Young Women’s Hebrew Association.
To learn more about the Young Women's Hebrew Association, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: Frieda Schiff Warburg.
Source: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1536-1540; David Kaufman, Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History (Hanover, NH: 1999); www.92y.org/content/frequently_asked_questions.asp.