Julia Richman was the first woman district superintendent of schools in the City of New York. Her innovations, leadership and curriculum brought an entire new dimension to public school education at the beginning of the twentieth century.
She was born on October 12, 1855. in New York City, the third of five children of Theresa and Moses Richman. Her father was a painter and glazier and they lived in Huntington, Long, Island, New York, from 1861 to 1865. They then moved to New York City where Julia finished her education. The idea of her becoming a teacher caused heated discussions in the family. In those days, the idea of a Jewish girl going to work was unthinkable. Despite the objections, Julia stood firm and became a teacher in New York City.
At age seventeen, she began to teach in the Grammar Department of one of the largest schools in New York. Her father coaxed her into teaching part time at the temple Sabbath school. Richman was very active in the Council of Jewish Women. She worked with them all her life to improve the Sabbath school system. When she was twenty-nine, she became the principal of the Girls' Department of Public School 77 and held it for nineteen years. She was the first Jewess and the first Normal College graduate to acquire such a position.
Julia Richman was deeply interested in Jewish religious affairs. She had come from a long line of rabbis in Prague, Czechoslovakia, that dated back to the fifteenth century. She was the director of the Hebrew Free School Association, first president of the Young Women's Hebrew Association (1896-98) and a member of the Jewish Chautauqua Society's education council.
She frequently traveled abroad. In 1903, while traveling in Europe, a vacancy occurred in the Board of Superintendents. She was unanimously selected to fill the vacancy. When she returned from Europe, Richman was given the choice of districts by the other four male superintendents. Much to their surprise, she chose the Lower East Side instead of an easy uptown district. She was now responsible for 23,000 students and 600 teachers.
She wrote books on curriculum and she started school optical programs, special schools for delinquents, chronic absentees and above average pupils. In 1906, she converted her house into a social center for the Teachers of her district. Richman was actively involved in the community by fighting prostitution around 1910. She also was very active in aiding children and established many types of clubs for them to join.
In 1912 she resigned her position so as to give a younger woman an opportunity to take her place. She had plans for many projects and activities during her retirement. She sailed to Europe and the day before the steamer was to land in Cherbourg, France, she was taken ill. Four days later complications set in and she died on June 24, 1912.
She was fifty-six years old when she died and forty years of her life was dedicated to the education of children. In New York City, there stands "The Julia Richman High School" as a tribute to her dedication.
The Talmud says: "It is not our knowledge that God requires; it is our best that He requires." Julia Richman gave her best and she will long be remembered.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.