Minnie Dessau Louis was one of the most active and important Jewish communal workers on the American scene from the 1880s through the early 1900s.
Born in Philadelphia on June 21, 1841, the second daughter of Fannie (Zachariah) and Abraham Dessau, Minnie moved to Georgia with her family when she was four months old. She returned north to attend Brooklyn’s Packer Collegiate Institute in 1857 and 1858, and in 1866 married businessman Adolph H. Louis.
Louis was an essayist, journalist, and poet (publishing her poems in private editions and newspapers such as the American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger), but she is best known for her philanthropic work in the Jewish community, largely focusing on women and children. She began her career as a volunteer, teaching at the Sunday school of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, and after teaching there for five years opened her own school in 1880. The school was incorporated as the Louis Downtown Sabbath School in 1884 and changed its name to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls in 1895. Even as she was acting as president of the school, Louis still found time for other Jewish communal activities. She was acting president of the Hebrew Free School kindergarten from 1882 to 1883, and a leader of the Mount Sinai Training School for Nurses, serving as the secretary for its executive committee from 1882 to 1886 and president of the school from 1886 to 1889.
Already a recognized leader among American Jewish women by the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Louis spoke at the Jewish Women’s Congress, and shortly thereafter was instrumental in founding the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), as well as its New York City section, in 1894. Also in the 1890s, Louis served as an NCJW national board member (1893–1895), as chair of its first national committee on religion (1894), and as a district inspector for New York’s public schools (1894–1897).
Certainly her husband’s death in 1897 did not slow down Louis’s communal activities. In 1897 and 1898, she was director of the Clara de Hirsch Home for Girls, and from 1900 to 1901 was the field secretary for the Jewish Chautauqua Society. She also served as editor for the Personal Service Department of the American Hebrew (1901–1903). In 1900, Louis retired from her position at the Hebrew Technical School, though she returned to the school in 1906.
Minnie Dessau Louis began her communal career at the beginning of mass immigration from Eastern Europe and died on March 12, 1922, just before mass immigration came to an end. Louis herself perfectly embodied the contradictions of German Jewish philanthropy on behalf of Eastern European immigrants. Today, for instance, the Hebrew Technical School’s instruction in morals, hygiene, and trades is likely to be seen as precisely the type of social control detested by the immigrants. Nevertheless, Louis was extremely committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and devoted her adult life to improving their lot in America.
SELECTED WORKS BY MINNIE DESSAU LOUIS
Hannah and Her Seven Sons: An Incident of the Persecution of the Jews by the Syrian Monarch Antiochus Epiphanes, 167 b.c. (1902).
“What It Is to Be a Jew.” In Souvenir Book, Fair in Aid of the Educational Alliance and the Hebrew Technical Institute (1895).
AJYB 7 (1905–1906): 83–84, 24:102.
Kohns, Lee. “Minnie D. Louis.” PAJHS 29 (1925): 178–179.
National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 18.
Obituary. NYTimes, March 13, 1922, 15:6.
Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women in the United States and Canada, 1914–15 (1914).
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Korelitz, Seth. "Minnie Dessau Louis." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/louis-minnie-dessau>.