In 1854, the first Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association opened its doors in Baltimore to serve Jewish immigrants. Other branches soon opened in additional cities, serving as libraries, cultural centers, settlement houses, and social hubs. Amidst heavy Jewish immigration around the end of the century, the HYMLAs became important in acculturating new arrivals, teaching them English, and coaching them in American civic responsibilities.
When World War I broke out, the group raised money, established rules, and recruited rabbis to serve Jewish soldiers. Contributions of more than $6 million from Jewish philanthropists like Jacob Schiff and many others allowed distribution of prayer shawls, mezuzahs, calendars, and scrolls. The group had to work to overcome divisions among Judaism’s orthodox, conservative, and reform factions, and even produced a prayer book that could be shared by soldiers from different branches.
Credibility earned in this process allowed the association to absorb other Jewish fraternal organizations and take responsibility for building community centers, children’s camps, and other communal facilities for Jews across the country. Jewish community centers became rallying points for Hebrew education, cultural and sports events, and Jewish celebrations. Today, the JCC Association is the successor organization, with responsibility for more than 350 community centers and camps.