Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association

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YOUNG MEN'S AND YOUNG WOMEN'S HEBREW ASSOCIATION. The first Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) was organized in 1854in Baltimore to develop Jewish community life. The facilities of early YMHAs consisted mainly of reading rooms, and the first paid worker was generally the librarian. The YMHAs differed from social clubs in that they were careful to ban card playing, gambling, and drinking. Immediately after the Civil War, YMHAs began to develop rapidly, especially in the South and Midwest. The sponsors of these associations were much impressed with the popularity of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and the YMHAs followed suit when the YMCAs introduced sports, health, and other physical education activities. From their early days, YMHAs included Jews of all shades of opinion and belief. Provision was also made for non-Jews as members. When Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe came to America in unprecedented numbers between 1881 and 1910, the YMHAs offered classes in citizenship and English, and at the same time expanded their Jewish educational and cultural activities. On 2 November 1913, the Council of Young Men's Hebrew and Kindred Associations (YMHKA) formed to coordinate the efforts of the YMHAs. During World War I, the group raised funds to secure rabbis for service at military posts. In 1917, the YMHKA created the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) to develop an infrastructure to support Jewish military personnel.

While many of the YMHAs had auxiliaries to serve the needs of Jewish women, the first independent Young Women's Hebrew Association (YWHA) began in New York City in 1902 under the leadership of Mrs. Israel Unterberg. Like Jewish settlement houses, the YWHA aimed to strengthen the Jewish community by focusing on the religious, mental, and physical lives of immigrant and working-class Jewish women. It offered courses in Hebrew, English, bookkeeping, dressmaking, gymnastics, basketball, tennis, and swimming. The physical education classes proved especially popular. Membership in the YWHA jumped from 30,000 in 1906 to 102,000 in 1913 and the all-female board of directors began opening new branches to meet the additional demand for facilities. By the 1920s, the YWHA had become heavily involved in promoting sporting activities for women. The New York branch hosted many national swimming competitions and, in 1924, the Women's Swimming Association meet became the first athletic event to be officiated entirely by women.

The JWB, which changed its name to Jewish Community Centers Association of North America in 1990, became the national governing body for the associations in 1921 and promoted the merger of YMHAs and YWHAs. After World War II, the YM/YWHAs broadened their character to become Jewish community centers—educational, cultural, and sports centers and places of assembly for the entire Jewish community—serving all ages. However, many retained the YM/YWHA name. By 2000, more than 275 YM/YWHAs, Jewish community centers, and their camps annually served over 1 million American Jews. The Jewish community centers had been so successful in responding to community needs that Jewish communities in Western Europe after World War II "imported" them as a means of rebuilding Jewish life.


Borish, Linda J. "'An Interest in Physical Well-Being Among the Feminine Membership': Sporting Activities for Women at Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations." American Jewish History 87 (1999): 61–93.

Kraft, Louis. A Century of the Jewish Community Center Movement, 1854–1954. New York: Jewish Community Center Centennial Committee, 1953.

Rabinowitz, Benjamin. The Young Men's Hebrew Associations: 1854–1913. New York: National Jewish Welfare Board, 1948.


Caryn E.Neumann

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Young Mens and Young Womens Hebrew Association

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