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The Immigrant Experience in NYC, 1880-1920 (Module #1)

This module is intended for use before playing the game Jewish Time Jump: New York and can stand alone without the game. It provides context for the Jewish immigrant experience in that period and introduces students to the different types of characters they will be meeting during game play (workers, activists, and manufacturers, to name a few).

Jewish Time Jump: New York lesson plans and activities were developed in partnership with ConverJent: Games for Jewish Learning and made possible with generous support from the Covenant Foundation.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Individuals flee countries of origin to escape social, economic, religious, and political oppression.
  • While some immigrants were able to fulfill their dreams in America, others discovered that the opportunities they were searching for in the United States were not readily and equally available to all immigrants.
  • Access to work and a sustainable income were essential for immigrants to lead happy, healthy lives.

Essential Questions

  • What motivated Jewish immigrants to move from their home countries to the United States?
  • What was it like to be a garment factory worker in early 20th century New York?
  • What was it like to be a garment factory owner in early 20th century New York?
  • How did employees’ and employers’ experiences differ from one another?
  • How did some young immigrants’ experiences differ from the experiences of young Jews today?
  • What aspects of work did immigrants find rewarding and what did they find challenging?

Notes to Teacher

Each section of the lesson outline includes instructions for alternate activities to help you adapt the material for students at different reading levels and groups of various sizes. If you have feedback—positive or constructive—after teaching this content, please let us know.

Some educators have requested a timeline of Jewish immigration to include with this activity. We recommend picking a few of the most relevant events from this era to share with your students. This timeline from the American Jewish Archives includes major waves of immigration as well as other important milestones. Another timeline, from the Library of Congress, shows American Jewish events alongside American and World events. Jewish Time Jump focuses on the years 1880–1920.

Introductory Essay(s)

The Immigrant Experience in NYC, 1880-1920

by Judith Rosenbaum and Lori Shaller, Jewish Women's Archive

SPOILER ALERT: This essay contains spoilers for the game Jewish Time Jump: New York. It also provides background information you may find useful as you lead students through both the lesson and the game.

Between 1881 and 1924, two million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States, fleeing persecution and seeking freedom and economic opportunity. Some came from small, traditional shtetls, while others had already migrated to urban centers in Eastern Europe and encountered radical movements such as the Socialist Labor Bund. Many settled on New York City’s Lower East Side, where they lived in tenement housing and worked alongside other Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the area’s sweatshops and textile factories. While some immigrated with their families, many young men and women came to America on their own. They frequently sent money home to help support their families and to bring relatives over from Europe.

Though Jewish immigrants in this period faced difficult conditions in housing and work, their experiences in America were still an improvement over their lives in Eastern Europe. In America, they were able to find jobs, even if those jobs involved harsh conditions and low pay. Immigrants could also move freely across the country and practice Judaism openly, which was not always allowed in their countries of origin.

The tenements Jewish immigrants lived in when they arrived in US cities were large, crowded apartment buildings built to house the multitude of workers immigrating to the US in the late 19th century. They were characterized by lack of light, air, and sanitation. Families often could not afford an entire apartment to themselves and would take in boarders to help pay the rent. Even with this additional income, in many families, every member had to work, even the littlest children.

Sweatshops were often the first workplaces for new immigrants. Frequently operating out of the tenement buildings, sweatshops were small workplaces where workers did “piece work.” This meant that workers were paid by the piece, usually doing one specific part of the garment–making process. For example, one worker might be responsible for sewing collars onto shirts, another for sleeves, and yet another for finishing a garment by sewing hems or snipping loose threads.

Work in both sweatshops and in larger factories was tedious and was done under difficult working conditions—poor lighting, uncomfortable chairs, stifling heat in the summer, and frigid cold in the winter. Workers were fined for such infractions as arriving late to work and for damage to their machines. In order to increase their profits, sweatshop bosses would reduce the pay per completed piece of work, so that workers either had to work faster to complete more pieces—and risk injury to themselves—or miss out on potential earnings.

Some garments were produced in larger factories rather than in sweatshops. These factories might employ hundreds of workers, and the working conditions could be just as bad or worse than in the sweatshops. For example, workers were not to talk to one another as they worked nor could they go to the bathroom unless they were on a formal break. In both sweatshops and the factories, workers often worked fourteen hours or more a day, six or seven days a week. There was no minimum wage, and children and women were paid less than men.

Working men had begun to organize themselves into unions of laborers in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century there were unions of needle–trade workers such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers union, and the Cloak Makers Union. The unions negotiated pay rates, working hours, and safety conditions for all members with the managers of the companies for which the laborers worked. Women were generally not included in the union and so did not benefit from the collective bargaining between unions and managers. The male union leaders mistakenly assumed that women would not be interested in the union because they would only work until marriage and therefore might not be committed to improving the workplace.

Despite the lack of support from male union leaders, women—led by Jewish immigrant workers such as Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich—were eager for the benefits and protection that unions offered and began to organize themselves. In 1907, the women who dominated a garment shop making underwear walked off the job together to protest “speedups, wage cuts, and the requirement that employees pay for their own thread.” After they won relief from most of these indignities, they were allowed to join the ILGWU. Increasing participation by women in union membership and leadership was crucial for the unions’ growth and success.

Unions not only addressed worker grievances; they tried to support workers in every aspect of their lives. They offered educational programs, social and cultural events, and vacations at union–run camps. The unions came to understand that they needed to address not only workers' basic needs of higher wages and safer working conditions but also the greater human needs for education, community, beauty, and dignity—a concept captured in the phrase “bread and roses.”

Though the origin of the slogan is unclear, it was expressed in a 1911 poem by James Oppenheim, popularized by Jewish labor activist Rose Schneiderman in the context of a women's suffrage campaign in 1912, and later applied to a strike of primarily women workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that took place in 1912. In the 1970s, singer–songwriter Mimi Farina set Oppenheim’s poem to music and it has since become a labor anthem recorded by many artists.

Lesson Plan

Part 1: Introduction to the Jewish immigrant experience

(40 minutes)

  1. Use the photo activity to provide students with background and context for the lesson. You may choose to share additional content from the introductory essay.
  2. Choose 5–6 images from the photo activity and tape or place them around the room, labeling them with numbers (#1, #2, etc.)
  3. Write or display the focus question and have a student read it aloud. Focus question: What was it like to be a Jewish immigrant worker in New York at the turn of the century?
  4. Direct students to walk around the room (no particular order is necessary), using their Observations and Impressions Worksheet as a guide for exploring the information and images.
  5. Divide class into three groups (or more, depending on the number of students you have) and give each group a few of the images and accompanying information. They will look at these more closely together.
  6. At the end, bring students together for a discussion based on the focus question. Be sure to point out key themes:
    1. Reasons Jews left their countries of origin and their expectations for life in the United States
    2. Differences in the Jewish immigrant experience—immigrants arriving before 1900 could move up in economic class while more recent immigrants started at the lower rungs of the manufacturing business
    3. Details of the experiences of immigrants in terms of home, work, and social life

Alternative Methods for the Introductory Activity

Method 1: Gallery Walk

  1. Choose 5-6 images from the photo activity and tape or place them around the room, labeling them with numbers (#1, #2, etc.)
  2. Write or display the focus question and have a student read it aloud. Focus question: What was it like to be a Jewish immigrant worker in New York at the turn of the century?
  3. Individually, or in groups of 2–4, students should start at one image and respond in writing to the following prompts, posting their responses next to the image, either on sticky notes or butcher paper. (It is helpful to have each group use a different color sticky note or marker.)
    1. What kind of image is this (a photograph, illustration, or political cartoon)?
    2. How does this image make you feel?
    3. What questions would you ask to learn more about what is going on in this image?
    4. Each student/group should rotate to the next image and do the same until they have seen the whole gallery.
    5. At the end, bring students together for a discussion around the focus question. Be sure to reference their observations and questions, and point out key ideas:
      1. Reasons Jews left their countries of origin and their expectations for life in the United States
      2. Differences in the Jewish immigrant experience—immigrants arriving before 1900 could move up in economic class while more recent immigrants started at the lower rungs of the manufacturing business
      3. Details of the experiences of immigrants in terms of home, work, and social life

Method 2: Whole Class Activity

For smaller groups of students, or with learners who need more direction from an educator, follow the protocol for the worksheet activity or the gallery walk, but do it as an entire class, being sure that every student has a chance to share and respond equally.

Part 2: Real Stories Document Studies

(45 minutes)

Historical Beit Midrash: Historical texts are excellent for studying in chevruta (meaning “fellowship”), a method of partner learning that grows out of the Jewish tradition. Give each pair 1–3 texts to study, choosing from the excerpts from memoirs by Rose Cohen, a Jewish worker, and by Louis Borgenicht, a Jewish factory owner.

  1. In pairs (you may choose to pre-assign the pairs or allow students to choose their own), students read the text line by line, making sure they understand all of the vocabulary and asking one another clarifying questions as necessary.
  2. Students should restate the passage in their own words. What is the author saying?
  3. Next, students should ask one another some questions about the text. What more do you want to know? What do you not understand? What additional information do you need?
  4. Last, provide students with the discussion questions included with the text and have them discuss the answers together.
  5. Be sure to reiterate that there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to interpretation and opinion. Disagreement makes the conversation richer and opens up opportunities for learning and new ideas.
  6. End with each chevruta (learning pair) writing one thing on a large KWL chart (three columns; one each for what students know, want to know, and what they learned) and reviewing their responses as a class.

Alternative Methods for Document Studies

Method 1: Small Group Work

Divide students into groups of 3–4 (depending on the number of students in class). Students should read the selected passages together and then use the discussion questions as a guide for talking about the issues presented in excerpts. Teacher will bring students together for a summarizing discussion and point out key themes.

Method 2: Large Group Work

Rather than splitting into groups, some educators may choose to read these texts together as a class and discuss the questions together as a large group.

Part 3: Demonstrating Understanding

(30 minutes–1 hour, depending on how much time you give students to work on their projects.)

  1. There are two options (below) for closing activities. Educators may choose to assign one activity or allow students to decide which they would like to do. Educators may also choose whether to have students work individually or in groups.
  2. Explain the activity to students and answer any questions they have.
  3. Allow students at least 20 minutes to work on their piece.
  4. Educators should decide whether to have students present their work to the class, to one another in small groups, to their chevruta partner, or not at all.
    1. Reflections: Writing Letters Home: Students can choose to write a letter from one of two perspectives: a recent immigrant working in a factory or a more established immigrant who has achieved financial and professional success.
    2. Compare and Contrast: A Day in the Life of a Teenager: This activity can be an art, acting, or writing activity. Students can make a grid displaying the differences between the two time periods, creatively depict the differences using various art mediums, or write and act out a skit.

Document Studies

Photo Activity

Photo Activity

"Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews" by Emil Flohri

"Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews" by Emil Flohri
Full image
Emil Flohri's political cartoon "USA to Russian Tsar: Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews", published around 1904. Chromolithograph.
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Oppression in the Old Country

Jews who lived in Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924 experienced extreme anti-Semitism and were persecuted by the government and their neighbors because of their religious beliefs. Many of these Jews immigrated to the United States in search of a better life and more opportunities. This print appeared after a 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, Russia.

pogrom: A violent riot aimed at massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews.

Shelter Us in the Shadow of Your Wings, 1901

Shelter Us in the Shadow of Your Wings, 1901
Full image
Illustration regarding the Jewish immigrant experience in America: Shelter Us in the Shadow of Your Wings, copyright by Heb. Pub. Co. 1901.

Did They Find a Better Way of Life?

During this period, Jews in America had many freedoms which they had not experienced in their countries of origin. In the United States, Jewish immigrants found jobs and places to live—often with relatives or friends from their home countries. However, their new lives weren’t always what they had imagined.

A Visiting Nurse on Call

A Visiting Nurse on Call
Full image

A visiting nurse on call assists a patient.

Courtesy of The Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

Uncomfortable and Unhealthy Living Conditions

Because of tight and often unhealthy living quarters, people became ill and needed the care of health professionals—doctors and nurses—who often visited them at home.

Backyard of a Henry Street Branch, 1915

Backyard of a Henry Street Branch, 1915
Full image
Backyard of a Henry Street Branch, 1915.

Backyard of the Henry Street Settlement

The Henry Street Settlement is a not–for–profit social service agency in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City that provides social services, arts programs, and health care services to New Yorkers of all ages. Here, immigrants could also pursue educational programs and learn English. Henry Street was one of many organizations—Jewish and secular—that helped immigrants find their way in their new home.

Sweatshop circa 1900

Sweatshop circa 1900
Full image
A dark, cramped sweatshop, circa 1900.
ACWA Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University

Sweatshop Working Conditions

Many Jewish immigrants found work in the garment industry sewing clothes and coats or making hats. Garment workers often worked in their homes (or the homes of their employers), in cramped, hot, tenement apartments called sweatshops. This photograph of a tenement sweatshop is from around 1900.

Garment Factory circa 1910

Garment Factory circa 1910
Full image
A large garment factory, circa 1910.
Courtesy of ILGWU Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University

Factory Working Conditions

As time went on and technology advanced, more and more workers sewed clothing in large factories. It was loud and crowded, and the hours were long with few or no breaks. Workers often had to pay for their own supplies (needles and thread) and were sometimes injured by the machines. Many of these factories also employed children and teenagers. Some of the money workers earned went towards food, lodging, and cultural activities, but much of it was sent overseas to help relatives living in their home countries.

Triangle Factory Owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck

Triangle Factory Owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck
Full image
Triangle Factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck.
Courtesy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

Jewish Factory Owners

The owners of these larger garment factories were often Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States 20 years earlier and managed to save up money to build their own businesses. In this picture, the Jewish owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., Isaac Harris (front row, center, with hands folded) and Max Blanck (right of Harris), pose for a group photo, most likely with workers in their factory.

Garment Workers Rehearse a Chorus for ILGWU's Theater, Labor Stage

Garment Workers Rehearse a Chorus for ILGWU's Theater, Labor Stage
Full image

Garment workers of 1938, no longer sodden machine-serfs, link their past and their present in this picture as they rehearse a chorus in the I.L.G.W.U.'s own theater, Labor Stage, before a photo-mural depicting the hero-leaders of union history. I.L.G.W.U.'s extracurricular program got national attention last winter when its still current revue Pins and Needles, performed entirely by members, became a major hit of the Broadway season. A good-natured satire on capitalism, the show has netted a neat capitalistic profit of $35,000.


Photograph by Hansel Mieth in "ILGWU: A Great and Good Union Points the Way for America's Labor Movement," LIFE Magazine, August 1, 1938, 45.

Unions Not Just for Organizing

Labor unions helped workers organize and work together to get better wages, hours, and working conditions. Unions also provided important cultural benefits for their members including money for legal fees, educational services, cultural programming, and newspapers. In this picture, union members are rehearsing for a play in the union hall (their meeting place).

"The Return from Toil," July 1913

"The Return from Toil," July 1913
Full image
"The Return from Toil," drawing by John Sloan, published in The Masses, July 1913.
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

The End of the Work Day

Though workers struggled with harsh conditions and low pay, they had opportunity and independence they couldn’t find in their home countries. Young women especially had more opportunities to work outside the home, to have an education, to have an independent social life, and to earn their own money. In fact, many young women were the main breadwinners in their households. The illustration below comes from the cover of a socialist magazine that was read by many of the workers in New York. It shows six women walking home from work.

Rose Cohen

Rose Cohen

Rose Cohen Recalls Her First Day on the Job in a Piecework Shop (Modified)

Background: At the time described in this excerpt, Rose Cohen was 12 or 13, living with her family and working in a garment factory. In this passage Rose discusses what it is like to work 12–hour days in the shop where she was employed.

The next morning when I came into the shop at 7 am, I saw at once that all the people were there and working steadily…when the boss shouted gruffly, “Look here, girl, if you want to work here you better come in early [before 7 am]…”

From this … point forward, my life become very hard. … He paid me three dollars a week and for this he hurried me from early morning until late at night … I understood that he was taking advantage of me because I was a child…

I said to my father, “But if I did piece work, I would not have to hurry so. And I could go home earlier when the other people go.”

Father explained further, “It pays him better to employ you by the week. Don’t you see if you did piecework he would have to pay you as much as he pays a woman piece worker? But this way he gets almost as much work out of you for half the amount a woman is paid.”

piecework: When workers are paid by each garment or piece of a garment they complete. The quicker and longer they work, the more the money they can earn.

Source: Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side (New York: George H. Doran, 1918), 110–113. Reprinted by Cornell University Press, 1995.

Discussion Questions for Rose Cohen’s Recollections about Her First Day on the Job in a Piecework Shop

  1. What was working in the factory like for Rose Cohen?
  2. How was Rose Cohen’s experience different from the other workers in the factory? Why was her experience different?
  3. Why do you think Rose Cohen continued to work in the factory?
  4. How was her experience different from the experiences of 12- or 13-year-olds living in the United States today?

Louis Borgenicht

Louis Borgenicht

Louis Borgenicht Describes Working Life atthe Turn of the Century

Background: Louis Borgenicht immigrated to the United States in 1889 with experience buying and selling fabric and clothing. Eventually Borgenicht became a leader in the girls’ clothing industry, owning several factories in multiple states. He was also a philanthropist in the New York Jewish community. In 1942 he wrote a memoir about his life called the “Happiest Man” from which these excerpts are taken.

In this excerpt, Louis Borgenicht reflects on his experience establishing his own business soon after arriving to the United States.

In the old days labor did not organize and fight for higher wages and shorter hours. Everybody wanted to work hard, and as long as flesh could endure. They wanted to because through this hard work there was for the humblest employee the chance of a great future.

[…]

This country was not built by labor’s concern for hours or wages, nor by businessmen’s fears for their money. It was built by work and faith. I saw it with my own eyes. And I saw that that work and that faith were based on one single thing—economic opportunity.

Source: Friedman, Harold. The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht As Told to Harold Friedman. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1942. p. 365.

Discussion Questions about Louis Borgenicht’s Description of Working Life at the Turn of the Century

  1. Louis Borgenicht was also a relatively new immigrant. How did his experience differ from that of other immigrants? In what ways was it similar?
  2. What does Louis Borgenicht say about a worker’s opportunity to have a “great future?” Do you agree? Why or why not?
  3. What does Louis Borgenicht mean when he says “labor did not organize?” What is organizing?
  4. Why did some workers organize into unions?
  5. What is Louis Borgenicht’s opinion about labor unions and organizing?

Louis Borgenicht Describes Celebrating an Employee’s Wedding

Background: In this excerpt, Jewish factory owner Louis Borgenicht describes a wedding for one of his employees that was held at the winter home he built for his family in 1913. His family also owned a country estate in the Catskill Mountains that they lived in during the summer.

This last was a proud house, but we were humble. Just before the building was completed, Regina informed me that the daughter of one of the small contractors who handled work for me was being married.

“She can’t afford the kind of a wedding she’d like,” said my wife. She hesitated, then went on firmly. “Couldn’t we have it here, as sort of a housewarming?”

To me it seemed no festive occasion could match that wedding as an expression of joy and gratefulness in our hearts. The ceremony was held in the living room, to the music of fiddlers banked on the gallery above.

Source: Friedman, Harold. The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht As Told to Harold Friedman. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1942. pp.276-277

Discussion Questions about Louis Borgenicht’s Description of an Employee’s Wedding

  1. What does this passage tell you about Louis Borgenicht’s home life? How is his home life different from the lives of most factory workers at this time?
  2. What does this passage tell you about Louis Borgenicht’s relationship to the people he employs?

Handouts

Handout: Observations and Impressions

Reflections: Writing Letters Home, The Immigrant Experience

Compare and Contrast: A Day in the Life of a Teenager, 1909 and 2014

Teacher Resources

About Jewish Time Jump: New York

A project of ConverJent, an organization dedicated to developing games for Jewish learning, the game Jewish Time Jump: New York positions students as journalists for the fictional Jewish Time Jump Gazette. Using GPS coordinates to interact with characters from the early 20th century, students learn about the people and events that shaped US labor history, including Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The accompanying Parent Guide provides troubleshooting tips, background information, and prompts to inspire conversation between game participants.

Get the game and learn more on the ConverJent website.

ConverJent Logo
Covenant Foundation Logo

Jewish Time Jump: New York lesson plans and activities were made possible with generous support from the Covenant Foundation.

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Shelter Us in the Shadow of Your Wings, 1901
Full image
Illustration regarding the Jewish immigrant experience in America: Shelter Us in the Shadow of Your Wings, copyright by Heb. Pub. Co. 1901.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "The Immigrant Experience in NYC, 1880-1920 (Module #1)." (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/Jewishtimejump/the-immigrant-experience>.

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