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  • 'A Scientific Humanitarian and a Humanitarian Scientist' Lee Kaufer Frankel and American Jewish Philanthropy, 1899-1931
  • Michael R. Cohen (bio)

Following the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which 3,000 people were killed and between half and three-quarters of San Francisco's population was left homeless, Lee Kaufer Frankel and Judah Magnes traveled from New York on behalf of the National Conference of Jewish Charities. The section of the city where most immigrant Jews lived had been hit particularly hard by the fire, and Frankel, upon his arrival, met with Jacob Voorsanger, a local rabbi who had been appointed by San Francisco's mayor as chairman of the Food Committee following the disaster. Though Voorsanger had been unable able to ascertain exact statistics, he estimated that approximately 10,000 Jews had been left homeless and that American Jews would need to donate at least $30,000 to a special relief fund for the victims.

Frankel, far more an advocate of statistics than of estimates, visited some of the victims' makeshift camps for himself, where he counted far fewer Jews than expected based on the rabbi's estimate—suggesting to him that such a fund would perhaps not be necessary. He also met with a representative of the American Red Cross who believed that Red Cross relief funds would be doled out "for rehabilitation purposes, along nonsectarian [sic] lines." Believing that the Red Cross allocations would be adequate for the displaced Jews, he concluded that "there was no need of a special fund for the immediate relief of Jewish sufferers."1

On the surface, Frankel's approach seems rather cold, and when we compare his decision to the major accomplishments of his life, it seems particularly out of place. As manager of New York's United Hebrew Charities (UHC) Frankel instituted convalescent care programs as well as programs aimed at reducing instances of marital desertion, and he also created new facilities for treating victims of tuberculosis. Moreover, he revolutionized the life insurance industry by proving to large corporations [End Page 207] that preventative care was profitable and in their best interest—saving, by one estimate, 200,000 lives and $18 million over a sixteen-year period. Furthermore, he risked his life to travel to Eastern Europe amid the devastation of World War I on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint/JDC), helping to implement a more efficient plan to rebuild a destroyed Jewish world. And additionally, he helped to reconcile the often-bitter divide between American Zionists and non-Zionists, helping to create the Jewish Agency, which bettered the lives of Jewish refugees in Palestine. How can we reconcile Frankel's unwillingness to help the San Francisco sufferers with his life-long devotion to humanitarian causes?

The answer lies in Frankel's two-pronged reconceptualization of American Jewish philanthropy. First, Frankel worked to reshape philanthropic priorities from a direct social-service agenda that met immediate needs to one of proactive social change that identified and addressed long-term root causes by offering sustainable solutions.2 For Frankel, the difference between the two approaches could be compared to the difference between a fire fighter and fire prevention education. After an alarm sounded, "the engine was on the way and before long the fire was out . . . The firemen had done their task. It consisted in putting out fires." Yet he believed there was a more effective method. "It was not their concern to know that in the long run to educate people regarding the use of matches is more economical than to pay for heroic acts of rescue."3 By encouraging such a shift in thinking, and by addressing causes of poverty that were rooted within social systems, Frankel hoped to foster systemic change within American Jewish philanthropy.

Second, and closely intertwined with the first approach, Frankel also sought to change how American Jewish philanthropic organizations identified priorities and conducted business. He advocated a transition from an observational, individualized approach to one that relied on trained professionals to scientifically analyze data and suggest the most efficient, economically sustainable solutions. Frankel's approach mirrored the [End Page 208] professionalization of medicine that was occurring in this same...


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