Collection Highlight: Boston YMHA-Hecht House

AJHS-NEA holds the papers of many of the region’s notable Jewish institutions. Among these can be found the story of how two 19th century Jewish organizations came together and created a lasting legacy.

The Young Men’s Hebrew Association (Y.M.H.A.) was founded in Boston’s South End and incorporated in 1882. Its mission was to foster “the moral, physical, intellectual and social improvement” of its members. Several years later the Y.M.H.A. was gifted a converted residence at 39 East Concord Street. In the early 20th century the area’s Jewish population center had shifted from the South End to Roxbury and Dorchester, prompting the Y.M.H.A. to relocate to the former Hetty Green mansion in Roxbury.

Around this time, the ideology of the Y.M.H.A. evolved. Rather than concentrating on its own members, the organization now saw itself as responsible for the Jewish community as a whole.

Membership increased, and the Y.M.H.A. moved again, this time to a building on Seaver Street in Roxbury. In 1920, an executive director was hired to oversee further expansion of programs and facilities. In 1925, the organization built a new gymnasium. Volunteers were replaced with trained staff.

Membership declined as the Jewish population began to move to Brookline, Newton, and Brighton, but the Y.M.H.A. remained at the Roxbury location.

Meanwhile, in the West End of Boston, the Hecht Neighborhood House was in the process of moving to a facility on American Legion Highway in Dorchester.

The Hecht House had been founded in 1889 in Boston’s North End as the Hebrew Industrial School. Lena Hecht started the school to provide young female immigrants with skills, like sewing, that would enable them to find work in America.

By the time the Hecht Neighborhood House had moved to Dorchester, it was functioning as a community center, offering extensive programming for all ages.

The facility on American Legion Highway included a gymnasium, a health club, a science laboratory, a theater, a dark room, a dance hall, a kitchen, a game room, a children’s library, a sewing room, art studios, nursery rooms, and clubrooms. Two bungalows and a 250 square foot playground were also located on the property.

The Hecht House and the Boston Y.M.H.A. merged in 1960, forming the Boston Y.M.H.A.-Hecht House. The newly created organization’s goal was to provide “the development and conducting of a comprehensive program of guided leisure time activities for its members utilizing the skills and methods of group work, informal education and recreation, and aimed at helping individuals achieve an affirmative relationship to their community.”

Today, though the building on American Legion Highway is no longer inhabited by a Jewish institution, it still plays a part in serving the community; from 1970 it has belonged to the Lena Park Housing Development Corporation, which provides affordable housing and human services, and more recently became the home of the Mattapan campus of the Brooke Charter Schools.

The Boston YMHA-Hecht House Collection contains records from 1896 through 1971. These budgets, blueprints, meeting minutes, and photographs are a window into the history of each organization before the merger as well as after. There are darker moments preserved here, such as reports of anti-Semitic incidents, as well as lighter ones, like the activities of a social club for adolescent boys called the “Convicts.” (Others were called “Paul Revere Jr’s” and “Dragonettes.”)

To find out more about the Boston YMHA-Hecht House Collection and all of the collections at AJHS-NEA, visit our website, http://www.ajhsboston.org.

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