Lina Frank Hecht (1848-1921)
As one of Boston’s leading women philanthropists of the day, Lina Hecht founded some of the earliest settlement houses in the city to serve the growing Eastern European Jewish community. She also acted as a catalyst, bringing together people within the warmth of her home and encouraging many to further their careers. Lina Hecht helped Mary Antin find a publisher for her first memoir and introduced Louis Brandeis to influential members of Boston’s business community.
Lina Frank was one of eight children born to German Jewish immigrant parents, Simon Frank and Fanny Naumberg, in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1868, a year after her marriage to Jacob Hecht, a German Jewish immigrant himself, the couple settled in a fashionable brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue steps from the Boston Public Garden. Jacob and his brothers had already established themselves as successful businessmen and shoe manufacturers. The couple quickly became active members at Temple Adath Israel in the South End, one of Boston’s earliest synagogues, and became leaders in Boston’s German Jewish community. They also worked together to make Boston’s foremost Jewish charitable organization, United Hebrew Benevolent Association, more professional.
In the 1880s as thousands of Eastern European Jews began arriving into the port of Boston, the Hechts saw the need to help this growing population. Lina had reorganized the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle in the South End. Under her direction, it grew to 500 members and was able to provide clothing, undergarments and blankets for the immigrants.
After Lina Hecht started a Jewish Sunday school in the North End, one of the teachers, Golde Bamber, who was inspired by the opening of Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, encouraged Lina to open a settlement house in Boston for the daughters of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. A Boston Globe article from 1900 quoted Lina’s reasons for opening The Hebrew Industrial School for Girls, (H.I.S.): “The idea was to Americanize and make self-supporting these many strangers from oppressed countries.”
Lina founded the H.I.S. in the North End in 1889 and appointed Golde Bamber as its first director. From the beginning, The school’s mission was: “to maintain a high standard of industry, honesty, and cleanliness.”
Within three years, Lina also opened a settlement house for boys on Allen Street in the West End. Established to supplement the children’s public school education, H.I.S. offered studies in literature, history, government, music, religion, cooking, sewing (both by hand and machine), millinery, and printing. Lina also hoped that the parents of the students would learn from their children. Since there were few existing bathing facilities in the tenements where most of the immigrants lived, a “Soap and Water” club was also created to enable the children to bathe regularly within the building. More than 1200 children attended H. I. S. programs during its first five years.
After Lina’s death in 1921, with expanded Jewish charitable funds, Golde Bamber opened the programs to both boys and girls and to other ethnic groups as well in a new location on Bowdoin Street in the West End. The larger building replaced their previous smaller site and was named the Hecht Neighborhood House in Lina’s memory. In 1936, as the Jewish population began leaving the West End, the program moved to Dorchester. As other forms of social work replaced the settlement house in the ensuing years,the building was repurposed as a community center and known as the Hecht House through 1970.
Lina Hecht played an active role in many other reform and educational organizations during her lifetime; these included the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, Public Bath Department of Boston, Civil Service Reform Association, Consumer’s League, Jewish Publication Society, and the Council of Jewish Women. Together, Lina and Jacob were involved in historic and artistic organizations including the Boston Art Club and The Bostonian Society. Jacob had so much respect and confidence in his wife’s judgment that he named Lina as co-executor of his will. Jacob Hecht died in 1903; his will instructed that Lina receive money for the H.I.S. at her own discretion. This was a very unusual privilege awarded to a widow at the time.
The 1904 edition of the Representative Women of New England edited by Julia Ward Howe, describes Lina thus: “Unselfishness is Mrs. Hecht’s most marked characteristic, and her whole life has been filled with thought and service for others.” Although Lina and Jacob never had children of their own, hundreds of children who passed through the doors of her settlement houses affectionately called her “Aunt Lina.”
– Helaine Davis
- Ehrenfried, Albert. A Chronicle of Boston Jewry. Boston, Mass.: Fredrika Ehrenfried Bernstein and Irving Bernstein, 1963.
- Handlin, Oscar. Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1880: A Study in Acculturation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941/1991.
- Representative Women of New England, Julia Ward Howe, ed. [compiled by Mary Elvira Elliott, Mary A. Stimpson, Martha Seavey Hoyt, and others , assisted by Mary H. Graves]. Boston, Mass.: New England Historical publishing company, 1904.
- Sarna, Jonathan D., Ellen Smith, Scott-Martin Kosofsky. The Jews of Boston, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.
- Smith, Ellen. “Lina Frank Hecht.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive.
- Solomon, Barbara Miller. Pioneers in Service: The History of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Boston, Mass.: 1956.
- Jewish Women’s Archive
- Temple Israel Archives, Boston, Mass.
- YMHA and Hecht House Papers, American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS), Boston, Mass.