On June 24, 1912, Julia Richman, a forceful, innovative and influential New York educator, died, at the age of 56.
Legend says that as an 11-year-old, Julia announced to her parents, “I am not pretty ... and I am not going to marry, but before I die, all New York will know my name.” She apparently was correct on all three counts, and even a century after her death, Richman is still remembered in her city — not only as the first Jew and the first woman to be a district schools superintendent, but also for her leadership roles in nearly every significant Jewish charitable or educational organization of the time.
Julia Richman was born in New York City on October 12, 1855 to German-speaking Jews from Prague who immigrated to the United States in the late 1840s. Moses Richman, her father, was a painter and a glazier; her mother was the former Teresa Melis. Upwardly mobile, the Richmans moved around Manhattan frequently. They lived for a time in Huntington, Long Island, where Moses was a silent partner in a liquor store. But the anti-Semitism they encountered there helped drive them back to the city.
As realistic as she was ambitious, Richman understood that education was one of the few fields that was open to her. Even so, she had to fight with her father for permission to continue her schooling beyond the eighth grade. She won that battle, and attended the Female Normal College, the precursor to Hunter College.
By age 17, Richman was teaching at P.S. 59, a public elementary school now called Beekman Hill International School. At the same time, she also began teaching at the Sabbath school of her family’s Reform synagogue, Ahawath Chesed. With time, she also took on leadership roles in the Educational Alliance, helped form the Young Ladies Charitable Union and the Hebrew Free School Association, and was active in the Council for Jewish Women.
At 29, Richman was appointed principal of the girls’ department of P.S. 77, a position she held until 1903, when she was elected to the five-person board of superintendents of New York schools. Given her choice of district, she took what may have been the most challenging assignment, the Lower East Side.
From a contemporary perspective Richman, like many of her fellow Jews of German descent, might be seen as racist, or at least condescending, to the Ostjuden, those Jews from czarist Russia who arrived in New York in waves beginning in the 1880s. With all the good works that she and her uptown peers did for the newcomers, it is clear that they were also afraid that the uncouth, unlearned, unwashed Yiddish speakers could jeopardize the social privileges they had worked to attain for themselves.
Richman wanted to turn the immigrant children into Americans. If they spoke Yiddish in school, her policy was to rinse out their mouths with soap — kosher, if required. The schools and social-assistance organizations she oversaw emphasized vocational education over academic, so that children would grow up to be gainfully employed.
The antipathy was mutual: In a 1986 essay in the American Jewish Archives about Richman, Selma C. Berrol quotes from a petition to the school board at the time seeking to “rid the East Side of this self-constituted censor of our morality and patron saint of the slum dwellers.”
On balance, however, Richman was a powerful force for good: With her tireless involvement in both formal and informal educational frameworks, she was able to provide regular meals to the children in her district, a truancy service to get dropouts back into school, job placement assistance, preventive health care and programs to prevent delinquency and prostitution. She also set up Jewish frameworks for many services, so that children wouldn’t be tempted to attend programs at Christian institutions whose ultimate goal was a missionizing one.
When Julia Richman retired from the public schools in 1912, she planned to continue with her voluntary work. First, she set off on a trip to Europe. A day before her steamship landed in France, however, she took ill, and died four days later, on June 24.