Lina Frank Hecht

Lina Frank Hecht (1848-1921)

Lina Frank Hecht

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. She 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 both 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 the 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 she 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 the Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Lina was quoted in a Boston Globe article from 1900 about her 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 1889 in the North End and appointed Golde as its first director. The mission of the school from the beginning 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 1920, with expanded Jewish charitable funds, Golde opened the programs to both boys and girls and to other ethnic groups as well in their 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. During an era when the need for settlement houses was lessening, the building was repurposed as a community center and known as the Hecht House through 1970.

Some of the other organizations in which Lina also played an active role during her lifetime 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. After his death in 1903, his will stated that she was to be given money at her own discretion for the H.I.S. This was a very unusual privilege awarded to a widow at the time.

In the 1904 edition of the Representative Women of New England edited by Julia Ward Howe, Lina is described: “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