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  • Federation Men:The Masculine World of New York Jewish Philanthropy, 1880–1945

Philanthropy, which one early twentieth-century social worker identified as a reflection of the Jewish “group will to live,” has served as a cornerstone of Jewish communal life since its inception.1 At least through the mid-twentieth century, the impetus to care for Jews in need bound the American Jewish community together in ways that nothing else could. Philanthropy did not erase intra-ethnic tensions, but it transcended class and religious divisions to a greater extent than any other communal enterprise. As historian Oscar Handlin once remarked, “philanthropy was important not only for what it actually accomplished,” but for how “it engaged [Jews] in communal endeavors.”2 Because charitable efforts stood at the center of Jewish communal life and because the giving of money reflects a dynamic process of social relations, philanthropy provides a critical vantage point for understanding the changing gendered norms and practices within American Jewish culture.3

From the late-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, far-reaching changes in the scope and function of Jewish philanthropy along with alterations in gendered norms and expectations reconfigured Jewish philanthropic organizations in ways that markedly transformed the roles of men and women. Because the responsibilities and ascribed gender characteristics associated with charity and philanthropy shifted over the course of these years—and then not even so simply or in any sort of linear fashion—it is possible to identify in the arena of philanthropy a space where ideal norms of behavior for Jewish men and Jewish women were in constant flux. This essay focuses primarily on the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York City and traces [End Page 377] its particular evolution as rooted fundamentally in a male-centered and highly masculinized model of charitable distribution that came to characterize organized Jewish philanthropy in the first half of the twentieth century. More broadly, an examination of the changing landscape of Jewish charitable associations reveals the ways that philanthropy enabled Jewish women and men to fulfill the expectations of an ever-changing gendered order in distinct ways. For Jewish women, the increasingly scientific and bureaucratic organization of Jewish philanthropy robbed them of some autonomy and required a renegotiation though not an eradication of their roles as benevolent nurturers in Jewish communal life. For an emerging generation of middle-class Jewish men, philanthropy provided an opportunity to demonstrate social respectability and communal dedication that enhanced their reputation and status in America’s growing business and market economy.

The organization and practice of Jewish philanthropy at the turn of the twentieth century reflected not only the shifting expectations and behaviors of men and women but also the highly gendered modes of rhetoric and power within the Jewish community. Masculinizing Jewish philanthropy extended beyond realignments in the roles of women and men and involved new rationales, structures, and priorities for fund-raising and disbursement of monies that were deeply embedded in the idioms of American manhood. The emerging gendered order of Jewish philanthropy transcended the binaries of public vs. private and men vs. women. In an era that witnessed growing charitable needs and greater revenue requirements as well as the rise of corporate culture, Jews, like other Americans, designed and articulated their philanthropic efforts in increasingly masculine terms.

Jewish charity in the United States has a long history that predates the creation of Jewish federations. Until the mid-nineteenth century, synagogues—and the organizations and benevolent societies associated with them—took responsibility for meeting the charitable needs of the Jewish community. Only as immigration increased in the mid-to-late nineteenth century did congregations realize that they could not handle the demands of the poor by themselves, and began reaching across congregational lines to form everything from Jewish hospitals to orphan asylums to organizations that gave matzah to the poor on Passover.4

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing furiously into the twentieth, American Jewish philanthropy underwent sweeping [End Page 378] changes. Men had always participated in charitable endeavors, and indeed they led many of the most important organizations such as B’nai B’rith. But by the nineteenth century, charity itself had increasingly become identified as the province of women, in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles, because women were considered to possess an innate nurturing character particularly suited to benevolence. Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Societies, Sewing Circles, and scores of other Jewish women’s organizations sprang up across the United States, many of them associated with synagogues, and they set out to help the needy and afflicted. Jewish women often delivered assistance, goods, and funds personally to families in distress.5 This was so common that it is virtually impossible to find a synagogue report or communal address that fails to thank “the ladies” for their good works.

Although benevolence was women’s domain in the nineteenth century, men certainly took part in charitable activities, and were especially visible in most public events. For example, in the late nineteenth century, extravagant Purim Balls signaled the newly attained middle-class status of the Jewish community. New York’s Purim Association, founded by a group of young men, flourished in the late 1800s, and its elaborate balls announced the arrival of Jews into middle-class culture, even as the occasions supported a host of Jewish charities, including many women’s associations.6 These heterosocial events, held in New York in such prestigious venues as the Metropolitan Opera House, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall, often involved women working behind the scenes and in some cities, women themselves sponsored Purim Balls.7

But whether run primarily by men or women, the ball was a single event on the Jewish calendar, not yet a systematic approach to raising funds for charitable giving.

As immigrants came to American shores in ever greater numbers, charitable needs mounted exponentially in the Jewish community. By the late nineteenth century, many Jewish leaders, predominantly men, began to call for consolidation of the various charitable organizations serving Jews in need. These nineteenth-century consolidation attempts, which [End Page 379] have by now been thoroughly documented in existing scholarship, mark the beginning of a key shift in Jewish philanthropy as an endeavor defined increasingly in masculine terms. The phenomenon was hardly unique to the Jewish community. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, explains historian Daniel Walkowitz, “as men reconfigured their social roles in public life as trustees and directors of agencies, they reclaimed the administration of poor relief as their own legitimate province.”8 The process began with a movement to combine disparate charitable endeavors into more efficient, overarching organizations designed to avoid duplication and manage philanthropy more “scientifically” and effectively. In 1860, Chicago’s Jews created a United Hebrew Relief Association, bringing together various charitable associations in the city; Philadelphia did the same with a United Hebrew Charities in 1869, and New York followed suit five years later. Similar efforts sprang up across the country. While each city negotiated its unique needs, there was a common thread: when women’s associations joined these organizations, they almost always lost autonomy and power; they rarely, if ever, held leadership positions in these newly formed community-wide projects.9 Indeed, a few women’s associations consciously declined to join, preferring to maintain control of their own affairs. Some men’s organizations made the same choice. But not only did women’s groups face greater loss of power by joining citywide efforts, they also received the harshest criticism for failing to do so. When New York’s Ladies Bikur Cholim Society (an organization dedicated to caring for the sick) declined to join the United Hebrew Charities, an editorial in the newspaper the Jewish Messenger condemned its decision, and tried to explain that if they participated in the organization, the women would still be able to minister to the sick as part of the new agency and that they “will be welcomed as valued auxiliaries, and will by their native suavity, kindness and generous impulses tend to soften the asperities of a system directed mainly by the gentlemen.”10 In this formulation, women remained uniquely suited to benevolent activities, but a systematized method of Jewish charity was to be run by men. [End Page 380]

By the dawn of the twentieth century, this gendered pattern of Jewish philanthropy prevailed in American Jewish life. Some women’s associations remained, but women themselves were gradually squeezed out of leadership positions in community-wide charitable institutions, even those over which they had once presided because of their supposed nurturing qualities. The changing governance within Philadelphia’s Jewish Foster Home provides a salient example of this emerging trend. Established in 1855, the Foster Home remained one of the last independent efforts guided by the city’s Jewish women. But by 1874, an all-male board of managers replaced the female board of directors. Women did not completely disappear from the organization, but their new role was to act as “Ladies of the Associate Board.”11 The same trends emerged within the burgeoning field of Jewish social service. Boris Bogen, a social worker and leader of the early Jewish federation movement, praised the dedication of Jewish women volunteers who provided aid to needy families. But, he claimed, these “lady visitors,” as they were known, performed their acts of kindness without uniformity or coherent methods. While Bogen appreciated their devotion, he disparaged the way that they “waged war against organized, well-planned effort” and “often seceded from the organization” when their activities became subject to management and regulation. Bogen wanted women volunteers to remain part of Jewish social service, for they “were the only link between the poor and the rich” and “were instrumental in keeping the relief agency from becoming purely a mechanical organization.” Bogen’s approach reflected an emerging model in American Jewish philanthropy and social service in which women were valued for their abilities to soften and tame new male-dominated and more efficient charitable organizations; women’s benevolence remained essential but it required monitoring and supervision by men.12

Like their non-Jewish counterparts throughout the world of philanthropy, Jewish organizations enacted enduring changes in the structure of charitable giving that stressed consolidation and management in ways that altered the roles of men and women. These trends emerged across religious, non-sectarian, and communal charities throughout the United States, and Jews, like other groups, relied upon new scientific approaches as they sought to improve their own communal philanthropy. Faced [End Page 381] with the particular challenge of serving millions of East European Jewish immigrants, American Jews searched for more productive ways of caring for the poor, meeting their employment needs, and searching for the root causes of poverty, delinquency, and an array of social problems. As Jewish philanthropy grew larger, and especially as consolidated communal federations were created in cities across the country, efficiency and scientific methods became the watchwords of the day, and men began to take center-stage in American Jewish philanthropy. It was precisely the conditions of mass migration that sparked the creation of the Jewish Federation movement; the first Federated Jewish Charities emerged in Boston in 1895, followed a year later by Cincinnati, and by the early twentieth century Federations had come to Baltimore, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and a host of other American cities. Only in 1917 did New York finally create a Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies; the size of the community and its many organizations made New York much more difficult to organize.13

To be sure, at the turn of the twentieth century, the leadership of Jewish federations consisted of elite members of the Jewish community, predominantly Jews of Central European origin already established in the middle and, in many cases, the upper class. New immigrants and poorer members of the community did make use of the institutions and services sponsored by federations, but they also relied upon the resources of their own communities. Federations never captured the grassroots power of landsmanshaftn (hometown societies) whose membership far outnumbered theirs in the early twentieth century. Immigrant communities also housed their own charitable services, apart from landsmanshaftn, and these small societies dotted the immigrant landscape. As the twentieth century progressed, more East European Jews joined and were welcomed in Federations, but most remained outside the inner-circles of leadership for years. Although they never represented the majority of Jews and many other organizations outpaced them in membership, federations emerged in this period as the largest, overarching communal institutions in American Jewish life, and their gendered activities reflected changing expectations about men and women’s roles within the Jewish community.

The basic principle of Jewish federations was to create an umbrella structure “to bring together the various agencies engaged in separate fund-raising and to concentrate on a single, annual, combined subscription appeal in their behalf.”14 The goal was to eliminate the practice of each [End Page 382] charitable organization fundraising individually and instead to centralize an annual campaign and dole out the monies raised to constituent organizations. This admittedly much more efficient means of disbursing aid nonetheless tended to move women to the periphery, and to marginalize the kinds of charitable activities they performed in favor of a more masculine model of how Jewish philanthropy ought to operate. Even when not mentioning women specifically, the earliest discussions of the Federation movement hinted, through coded language, at the changing landscape. In 1900, Max Senior of Cincinnati, president of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, asserted that “the loose, benevolent but spasmodic organizations of the past” were no longer sufficient to meet the pressing needs of East European immigrants.15 To be sure, many men’s organizations could be characterized precisely in the same way, but women’s associations were undoubtedly the primary targets of such characterizations. Moreover, because federations wanted to consolidate all fundraising, they often prohibited constituent organizations from sponsoring “any play, bazaar, raffle, theatrical benefit, outing, or other forms of entertainment for which tickets are offered for sale.” All these activities were associated predominantly though not exclusively with women’s charities.16

The very organization of federations themselves put men in the center and relegated women to a separate category of their own. New York’s Jewish Federation attempted to reach different sectors of the community by organizing according to neighborhood or borough (meaning where people lived), by trades (the professions—defined as exclusively male), and with a separate Women’s Division. Women remained part of the framework of Federation, but they were atomized and set apart from many of its central workings. In fundraising efforts, women solicited donations through house to house visits, presumably to meet with other women in a domestic setting, while male volunteers focused their efforts on the workplace where more substantial donations might be garnered from men.17

From the outset, Federation leaders determined that an effective Jewish philanthropic system depended upon the support and allegiance of men. In 1918, following a successful fundraising campaign to support war relief efforts, I. Edwin Goldwasser, Executive Director of the Federation, spearheaded the creation of the Business Men’s Council as [End Page 383] an independent organization designed to raise funds for Federation. The effort to mobilize Jewish businessmen, which notably included a conscious effort to reach out to second-generation East European Jews who were joining the ranks of the new middle class, both reflected and furthered the masculinization of organized Jewish philanthropy. George Medalie, a prominent attorney and active participant in Jewish Federation, remembered that the creation of a Business Men’s Council within the New York Federation occurred “almost informally and spontaneously.” He explained:

The ‘trade approach,’ with which New York Federation’s Business Men’s Council began, meant that if philanthropy was to be given substance and reality in our complex, modern world, it must become an intimate part of the life of office and shop and showroom, and find organized expression in keeping with the pattern of each business and professional grouping.18

In this formulation, the driving force of “modern” philanthropy had clearly shifted away from women’s domain and instead found its primary grounding in the male professional sphere.19

The Business Men’s Council operated as an organization that tied communal fundraising to the larger occupational culture in which these Jewish men grounded their working lives. While members of the organization devoted themselves to raising money to support Federation agencies and believed their business acumen qualified them to do so, they also conceived the Council as a way to engage one another in broader conversations about how to improve their companies and professions as well as how to address sweeping problems of modern business. Goldwasser insisted that the Council would help members grapple with issues of employment, wages, and cost control in their own industries. “The Business Men’s Council,” he claimed, “will mean the adoption of methods whereby employers can study problems affecting the trade, and work out methods of solution, thus becoming more open-minded, broader of vision and greater in their grasp of the problems that confront them.”20 [End Page 384] The list of concerns included everything from slack seasons to strikes and tackled “dollars and cents” issues as well as “problems of human welfare.” While the Business Men’s Council functioned as a vehicle for encouraging charitable giving, it also emerged as an “agency that gives business men the opportunity to come together to talk about these problems as they affect their own industries; to give voice to their suggestions, so that by mutual conference in the highest sense of the term they can arrive at a clarification of their ideas.” By linking Jewish men’s business concerns with their philanthropic commitments, the Council fused professional interests with “the beauty and justice of giving.”21

Joseph Willen, who became Executive Vice President of New York’s Jewish Federation in the early 1940s, and who was active in the organization even earlier, made the case that, “America is essentially a business nation, and modern communal organization has had the insight and good sense to adapt itself to this already developed pattern” (Figure 1). The goal of modern fundraising, he claimed, was to “normalize philanthropy,” by which he meant “make it a part of the everyday life of everyday men,” and not something that occurred during isolated moments devoted to charitable giving. The term “normalize,” as employed by Willen, actually translates as “masculinize,” since it locates a successful and modern approach to communal philanthropy with the physical space occupied by Jewish men in the workplace. Gone are references to home and hearth and family, or even a primary focus on Jewish communal gatherings, replaced instead with a vision of men supporting the community through their roles as providers and professionals.22

Willen issued these statements in a speech titled, “Why Men Give.” In it, he detailed those forces that inspired Jewish men to support Jewish philanthropic concerns. He invoked the American pioneering spirit that “turned a wilderness into a great industrial empire”; he extoled the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, celebrated the ability of all classes to flourish in the American system, and alluded to the religious spirit that infused all charitable giving. Willen speculated that the struggle that enabled men to conquer the American wilderness also forced them “to learn to be kind to man” and to lend “a helping hand to his brother.” The new Jewish philanthropy that he presented had the power to merge, in his estimation, the best of American and Jewish ideals, and it was, in this increasingly prevalent Jewish communal pattern, a masculine enterprise. All Federation fundraising reflected a belief that people were more likely [End Page 385] to give generously when approached by their peers. Relying precisely on that strategy, Willen insisted that “men give to men.” And if this most prosperous segment of the Jewish community could be marshaled, then Jewish philanthropy would stand on solid footing.23

Figure 1. Albert Warner, Joseph Willen, Eugene Zukor and A.C. Blumenthal (pictured left to right) launch $150,000 Jewish charity drive. USC Libraries. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920–1961.
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Figure 1.

Albert Warner, Joseph Willen, Eugene Zukor and A.C. Blumenthal (pictured left to right) launch $150,000 Jewish charity drive. USC Libraries. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920–1961.

At the heart of the Federation’s philanthropic outlook lay a fundamental Progressive-era principle that prescribed that respectable middle-class men, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had a moral obligation to serve the community and help the less fortunate. While the early twentieth century witnessed the expansion of corporations and the growth of big-donor foundations like those created by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, the era also ushered in a spirit of individual social obligation.24 [End Page 386] The “new sort of man” that emerged as an exemplar of the American middle class took his public duties seriously. In the Progressive era, “the Tocquevillian individualist attending diligently to his own business was no longer the ideal citizen. In his place was to be the man devoted to collective responsibility and thoroughly professional in the discharge of his small sphere of the public trust.”25 The Federation’s Business Men’s Council enacted precisely these ideals in its very structure and guiding principles. Group chairmen oversaw twenty-four divisions of businesses and professions, with each chairman determining whether those under his supervision gave appropriately. The fundamental assumption was that all Jewish businessmen should “contribute adequately according to their means.”26 I. Edwin Goldwasser candidly asserted that the structure of the Business Men’s Council ensured that “those who have not been giving their proportionate share shall be in a certain sense taxed so that the burden may be properly shared.”27 While voluntarism resulted in the pool of contributors remaining far below Goldwasser’s lofty expectations, Federation leaders continued to insist that the ideal middle-class Jewish businessman was obliged to be a steward of his community.

At the same time that the Federation emphasized individual civic participation, its changing structure also reflected the need for greater revenue and major fundraising that came to characterize American philanthropy in the early twentieth century. Within the Jewish community, the influx of new immigrants and the proliferation of charitable institutions and agencies had sparked the very creation of the Federation as an umbrella organization that could raise greater funds more efficiently. Indeed, throughout the United States, large philanthropic organizations increasingly mirrored the capital practices of big businesses and corporations. As Joseph Willen candidly declared, the federation movement “had its parallel in the world of business and industry.”28 The need to maximize revenue, the emergence of trained professionals, and the focus on scientific methods created a philanthropic system that valued fund-raisers and experts more than volunteers.29 In this respect, the gendered [End Page 387] alterations taking place within Jewish philanthropy reflected the rising power of finance and the larger corporate and market shifts that defined early twentieth-century American capitalism.30 Like other philanthropic institutions of the era, the New York Federation increasingly resembled big business, and as in corporate culture, men took the lead.

Without exception, the Federation portrayed men as possessing the deft skills required to raise significant funds effectively. Outlining the strategy for reaching a particularly large fundraising goal, one member of the New York Federation’s Business Men’s Council argued that it would be impossible to meet the lofty target merely by “firing off a buckshot.” On the contrary, he declared, “You go out after big game with bigger equipment.”31 While some Jewish leaders employed this sort of hyper-masculine rhetoric grounded in metaphors of guns and hunting, many others, like Joseph Willen, opted for a more clinical, white-collar, middle-management, strategic approach to philanthropic success that relied on preparation and precision. The talented fundraiser, Willen insisted, must have at his disposal the proper “machinery,” meaning “teams and divisions and committees, quotas, and records, the organized use of business relationships.”32 Machinery emerged as one of Willen’s favorite images for describing the workings of a finely tuned philanthropic system, and indeed, it was a term that appeared regularly in discussions about coordinated philanthropy in America. “The metaphor of the machine was well chosen: it captured the identification of the national benevolent societies with economic and technological revolution.” As they marshaled “[h]uge combinations of numbers and resources in pursuit of specialized ends,” charitable institutions modeled effective business strategies as their best practices.33 In 1926, the Business Men’s Council [End Page 388] invited more than one hundred of New York’s leading manufacturers, department store owners, and merchants to a seminar to learn the successful tactics needed to convince the men in their trade divisions to give generously. The accomplished group of Jewish businessmen gathered to watch a model performance of state-of-the-art fundraising techniques: “While the representatives of business and the professions sat at small dinner tables, a spotlight was directed on a table in the center of the room, where ten workers for philanthropy, especially trained in the art of money-raising, enacted the details of a trade committee meeting from beginning to end.” Having already raised thirty-five million dollars for the New York Federation since its inception, the Business Men’s Council had set a goal of just under five million dollars in 1926.34 By this time, fundraising had become both a skill and an “art” honed by professionals who instructed Jewish businessmen in the proper and most efficacious procedures (Figure 2).

Armed with “machinery of organization and planning,” the adept representative of the Federation had been prepared to solicit a gift successfully: “In a word, the right man is seeing the right prospect, and the right man knows the story, has certain essential facts at his command, possibly carries in his inside pocket a worker’s kit [from Federation] from which he has refreshed his memory before he enters the door.”35 The ideal Federation worker portrayed in this example wears a business suit (in which he carries an informational kit inside his jacket pocket); he is a middle-class professional whose knowledge and preparation allows him to be an effective solicitor of funds to support the noble cause of the Jewish Federation.

The archetypical Jewish philanthropist described here, was, of course, male; he had risen at least to middle-class status; he was devoted to the Jewish community, and carried a sense of religious obligation and civic duty to support the many causes of the Federation. His participation in Jewish communal affairs, moreover, enhanced his social status and reflected his professional success. In fact, members of the Business Men’s Council consciously linked participation in Federation with professional advancement. With an eye toward recruiting future leaders, the Council created a younger division, comprised of Jewish men between the ages of twenty-five and forty, designed to ensure that “top-grade young men in industry” would also become “to[p] grade young men in Federation.”36 [End Page 389]

Figure 2. Brooklyn Lawyers Dinner and Concert, 1920. United Jewish Appeal—Federation of New York collection; I-433; OS Box 23; Folder 2; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.
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Figure 2.

Brooklyn Lawyers Dinner and Concert, 1920. United Jewish Appeal—Federation of New York collection; I-433; OS Box 23; Folder 2; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.

The discussions surrounding the younger division make it clear that involvement in Jewish philanthropy, while it might stem from communal allegiance or personal commitment, was also a path toward professional achievement for Jewish men. Explaining how young men were recruited, one of the leaders of the effort explained:

We got those men, in most cases, by going to the grand old man of the industry and asking him who the most prominent men in the industry were, and approaching that person personally to come along and help us.

In addition to that, we told these fellows that when they went and visited these various institutions [Jewish institutions supported by the Federation], that they would meet members of the Boards of Trustees, as well as the institutional directors, and that if everything worked out alright and they were interested in the institution, and the Board of Trustees liked them and the color of their tie, they might be invited to go to the institution as a member of the board.

Actually, this has happened. We have had thirteen of our men already elected to boards and we have five more under consideration.37

The new landscape of Jewish philanthropy thus not only offered new structures of leadership and methods of fundraising but also promised Jewish men the possibility of making business and professional connections that might accelerate their social and occupational advancement. [End Page 390] Scholars of Jewish philanthropy have observed that particularly in the early twentieth century, “a reciprocal relationship [existed] between the development of personal careers and the responsibilities assumed within the Jewish community.” For example, “a young struggling lawyer was helped along in his career at the same time that he became involved and indoctrinated in Jewish community affairs.”38 Civic-mindedness and a desire to help other Jews remained constant in the discourse about Jewish philanthropy, but involvement in philanthropic institutions also impacted social standing even as it signaled a sense of social responsibility that lay at the heart of middle-class Jewish manhood.

Through a method known as “card-calling,” donating to Jewish philanthropic causes became a public event crafted to showcase the individual donor and enhance his status. Beginning in the 1930s, many middle-class Jewish organizations initiated the practice of card-calling, best described through the following anecdote that finds a father explaining to his son what to expect at an upcoming Jewish fundraising dinner (Figure 3):

‘Now at some point during the dinner, they’re going to call your name …

Stand up and say you’ll give one hundred dollars.’

‘What do you mean, they call my name?’ said the son.

‘They call everybody’s name.’

‘I’ll give one hundred dollars anyway, but I don’t want them to call my name.’

‘You have to let them call your name.’


‘Because if you say you’ll give a hundred dollars, the Katz boy will also give a hundred dollars.’

Joseph Willen, who pioneered this practice, likely knew quite well that it contravened Moses Maimonides’ teaching that the anonymous gift represented highest form of charity. But Willen believed that if middle-class Jews could spend conspicuously, they should also give that way, too. A man who stood up to declare his donation announced publicly his status and his devotion to community, all the while cementing his position as a respectable member of the Jewish middle-class.39

To appreciate fully the masculinization of Jewish philanthropy, it is crucial to consider the progress of women’s groups, in this case, particularly the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation. As philanthropy came to rely on financial capital and fundraising more than human capital [End Page 391] and volunteers, women continued to play a vital role as gendered actors within the new corporate construction of Federation. Many male leaders claimed that the new organizational structure of communal philanthropy gave Jewish women greater agency. Looking back, the Federation’s George Medalie reflected, “Many will recall the ‘good old’ pre-1917 days, before there was a Federation in New York, when philanthropy ‘on the distaff side’ represented a small factor, indeed. Women played a minor, auxiliary role.” But, in his estimation, Federation had made women “full partners in giving and responsibility.”40

Figure 3. Testimonial Dinner to Nathan S. Jonas, retiring officer of the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities, 1921. United Jewish Appeal—Federation of New York collection; I–433; OS Box 23; Folder 2; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.
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Figure 3.

Testimonial Dinner to Nathan S. Jonas, retiring officer of the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities, 1921. United Jewish Appeal—Federation of New York collection; I–433; OS Box 23; Folder 2; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.

In fact, similar rhetoric often came from women themselves. A 1920 newspaper column in The American Hebrew underscores the ways that women and men participated in the reconfiguration of gender roles in Jewish philanthropy. Zelda Popkin, a prolific journalist in the early twentieth century, lightheartedly belittled the charitable work that women had performed before the creation of the Federation’s Women’s Division. Her purpose was to extol the accomplishments of early twentieth-century Jewish women, but in doing so, she recalled a time when “The Ladies, God Bless ‘Em, Used to Hold Bazaars.” Popkin explained that “the sweet charity of their grandmothers was shed like an outmoded garment.” According to her, Federation had improved both male and female charitable giving. It had “enlisted the support of busy business men and taught them that philanthropy was a duty and not merely a [End Page 392] hobby,” and for women, it had provided an “opportunity to succeed in the man-made world of business organizations.” She insisted that women and men shared equally in the philanthropic mission, though what she actually outlined was a complimentary not an equal role: “The Women’s task is to bring Federation into the homes of New York Jewry, as the men bring it to factory and office.”41 In some respects, Women’s Division reordered gendered responsibilities in such a way that women took their place within the masculinized structure of Jewish philanthropy.

At the same time, the division of labor was never quite as harmonious as Popkin portrayed it. As late as the mid-1940s, the head of the Women’s Division lamented that women were not taken as seriously as they should be. “There is considerable feeling that there still exists an attitude of tolerance toward the Women’s Division—[an] ‘aren’t the little women nice’ attitude, which Women’s Division could do something to eliminate.”42 Members protested when they were not involved in planning a Federation special gifts dinner. A memo to the Executive Vice President of Federation insisted that, “if these dinners were to continue and women are to be present, leading women should be included in the original planning and programming.”43 The Women’s Division had representatives on the Business Men’s Council, but many of those meetings were “early bird” breakfast gatherings that women reported they found difficult to attend, perhaps (one might assume) because of early morning responsibilities at home.44 Most Women’s Division members were middle-class and without careers, but they nonetheless took note that the very structure of the organization (women seeking to bring Federation to homes and men to offices and businesses) left little room for businesswomen and “women of independent income.”45 In the mid-1930s, as more Jewish women began to enter the workplace and the business world, Federation’s Women Division reported that its fundraising efforts had [End Page 393] yielded increased contributions from Jewish women donors in business. Its leaders posited that these businesswomen ought to be “looked to for advice and help in planning as well as for fundraising,” and suggested some restructuring within the New York Jewish Federation that might allow women to assert greater input in decision-making.46 Almost a decade later, Federation had clearly made little progress in that regard; in 1946, Joseph Willen asked the leadership of the Women’s Division to provide a list of ten women who might be “intellectually and emotionally suited” for membership on the Federation’s Distribution Committee,” presumably as a prerequisite for assuming a role in disbursing funds.47

An undercurrent of discord about gender roles ran as a constant thread in the dialogue surrounding women’s participation in Federation affairs. Members of the Business Men’s Council often debated the value of the Women’s Division to the New York Jewish Federation. At times, they spoke simply about logistical considerations, encouraging greater cooperation among divisions and deliberating about how to handle what they called “split gifts,” when a husband and wife made separate gifts but really meant them to be a single pledge.48 But the most illuminating discussions that took place among the men revealed that they remained uncomfortable with regarding women as anything other than benevolent nurturers. Zelda Popkin’s 1920 article in The American Hebrew had celebrated how far women had come in the sophistication of their charitable efforts, but as late as the mid-1940s, leaders of the Business Men’s Council portrayed them as fundamentally unchanged. Norman Goetz, who led the Federation’s fundraising campaign in the early 1940s, conceded that Women’s Division programs carried expensive overhead costs compared to the revenue raised, but he insisted that fundraising was not women’s primary value to the Federation. “[O]ur success,” Goetz claimed, “is founded upon homes that are Federation-minded, and the home is Federation-minded to the degree that its women have faith in us.” (The undefined “us” in this sentence would certainly seem to be the male leaders of the Federation.)49 Joseph Willen also contended that the [End Page 394] worth of the Women’s Division did not lie in the monies it raised, but rather in the “spirit” that women brought to the organization. Harking back to a previous era of Jewish philanthropy, he repeated a familiar refrain that cast women as the emotional center that grounded the modern, hard-driving world of Jewish communal philanthropy. “When I think of our women’s division,” Willen reminisced, “I am particularly reminded of the techniques we used in the early days of our institutions. All our money raising devices then—the balls, the teas, the parties, the picnics—were costly and inefficient, but they were of enormous value. They built the Jewish community. The day of the great charity ball is past, but its spirit is still important to us.”50 According to this formulation and despite public proclamations about the ways that the Women’s Division brought women to the center of communal efforts, male leaders continued to view women’s contributions as both inefficient and as a living reminder of an imagined simpler time. These were, after all, middle and upper-class men of considerable social status and ambition; those who had not yet attained a secure economic and social position were eager to do so. It was not only in their philanthropic endeavors that these men longed for a system of gender relations where women, through their place in the home and family, softened the harder edges of a male mechanized bureaucracy. Twentieth-century Jewish communal philanthropy became masculinized through the ways that men and women constructed and imagined their gendered positions and relationships, even when their perceptions of gendered behaviors diverged.

Looking beyond the emerging model of communal philanthropy taking shape in Jewish federations where a culture of masculinity became dominant, particularly in areas that involved raising and spending money, the broader arena of Jewish social service reveals a gendered landscape far more difficult to categorize. It is precisely in the first half of the twentieth century when Jewish women—and American women, more generally—flocked to social work as a profession. By the 1930s, women held four out of five social work positions nationwide, and a similar dominance held sway within the Jewish community.51 This means that within many social service agencies supported by federations, Jewish women predominated as caseworkers, a profession increasingly attractive for young, educated Jewish women looking to join the workforce. So, what does that mean for a portrait of a masculinized Jewish philanthropic world? There is no doubt that social work became professionalized beginning [End Page 395] in the early twentieth century, though it does not immediately follow that it became masculinized by virtue of professionalization or that it became feminized simply because women predominated in the rank and file. Jewish women trained in modern methods of social work were, for example, equally as interested as men in the field in limiting the purview of women volunteers and in reducing the role of “lady visitors” who they deemed unqualified.52 Although female social workers consciously distanced themselves from volunteers, the professional Jewish social worker was indeed marked as female in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and the work itself—caring for the needs of families, the poor and the unemployed—was also regarded as an extension of women’s nurturing role. In fact, a close examination of the social work profession, and of Jewish social work in particular, reveals a complex gender negotiation at work. Women who became social workers accrued a certain degree of status and power by attaining the formal education and training necessary to enter a masculinized system predicated on scientific models of efficiency. At the same time, within the field of social service, men continued to retain senior positions in management and to command better salaries. As Daniel Walkowitz has explained, women carved out a numerical and public presence in the arena of social work, “but discovered that men still ruled in it, men whose own masculinity depended on their dominance and higher wage.”53

These gender tensions simmered within the climate of Jewish social work throughout the early twentieth century, precisely at the time when a distinct field of Jewish social work was taking shape. A 1915 exchange of letters between Chicago’s Minnie Low, who at the time had risen to President of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, and David Bressler, President of the National Association of Jewish Social Workers, reveals some of the underlying strains of gender politics. Minnie Low bristled when she saw plans for an upcoming Conference of Jewish Social Workers that contained no women on the program. “I am afraid that women count for very little as social workers in this world, judging by the opinion of you gentlemen in the East,” she chided Bressler. David Bressler expressed shock at her accusation, noting that the committee did not consider gender in its selection of presenters and that further, women were not highly represented in the ranks of its membership. Low fired back that “women not only like to vote, but they like to talk once in a while, and particularly in the presence of a crowd of brilliant co-workers of the other sex.” (Low’s sardonic allusions to voting and to “gentlemen [End Page 396] in the East” referenced the fact that her home state of Illinois had voted in favor of women’s suffrage in 1915 while New York had yet to enact such legislation.) Minnie Low called into question Bressler’s conclusions about the gender discrepancy in the membership, explaining that “if you want to retain the interest of the rank and file, you must give women a chance to be heard.”54 In the rich correspondence between Low and Bressler, it is possible to discern the gender and power dynamics at work within the growing field of Jewish social work. Minnie Low—who was an exception as a high-ranking female leader in Jewish social work—was fighting against the pattern of male dominance that rendered men the managers and chief strategists in Jewish social work, while women, who made up the majority of face-to-face caseworkers, remained cast as nurturers, despite their professional training in social service. Contested forces characterized Jewish social work in the early decades of the twentieth century, as women strove for recognition as professionals, and as Jewish social work adopted a language of masculinity, with an emphasis on efficiency and dispassionate casework. That very language became a tool that men in Jewish social work wielded to maintain their masculine authority in a field in which women predominated in number, but not in power.55

The discourse of scientific management took hold in virtually all arenas of twentieth-century Jewish philanthropy, from fundraising to disbursement of funds to the daily practice of Jewish social service. Women, it might seem, retained the greatest agency in separate women’s organizations, notably in national organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah. Yet, even for women’s organizations, gendered negotiations for power remained a constant struggle. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), founded in 1893, justified its religious and social mission in terms of women’s inherent religiosity and natural mothering instincts. Nevertheless, its public role garnered considerable opposition from male leaders, so much so that one rabbi, a supporter of the organization, described the resistance as emanating from a perceived affront to Jewish masculinity and an implicit assertion of Jewish men’s communal and religious failures.56 Even in the organization’s later years, the language of the NCJW emphasized the particular feminine duties of women in ways that belied the increasingly [End Page 397] sophisticated activities of the organization, often as a means of cordoning off a gendered arena for autonomy.57 Hadassah, by far the largest twentieth-century Jewish women’s organization, successfully navigated its course through the male world of American Zionism, but not without ongoing struggles for power. In the late 1920s, Louis Lipsky, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), argued that Hadassah ought to confine itself to medical work in Palestine, and remain otherwise subordinate to determinations made by the male-run ZOA, including those that regulated how funds that Hadassah had raised should be distributed. Lipsky resented the “demand for equality” issued by Hadassah leaders, which he interpreted as “a desire to dominate and control.” He preferred that Hadassah remain “auxiliary, complementary, aiding and comforting the mainstream of the movement.” For Lipsky, the “mainstream” constituted the male membership and leadership of the ZOA.58 Hadassah’s leaders flatly rejected such an arrangement and called instead for fair voting representation in American delegations to the World Zionist Congress.59 As these sorts of conflicts repeatedly flared, gender tensions within the Zionist movement endured.60

Interestingly, the histories written about these national Jewish women’s organizations and for that matter, also about nineteenth-century American Jewish women’s associations, have focused on the ways that women negotiated for power and asserted the primacy of feminine roles as a means to carve out a new public presence. The now copious scholarship on American Jewish women and their organizations has left matters concerning men and masculinity relatively unexamined, for men are assumed to have possessed a static role, and correctly, a hegemonic one, as women sought avenues for power. But a closer look at the evolution of Jewish philanthropy in America, with both men and women as gendered subjects, reveals that although they often referred to one another in binary terms, to take their rhetoric at face value obscures the more meaningful transformations about the shifting parameters of Jewish masculinity and femininity and the alterations in ascribed gendered behaviors. Both men and women participated in the discourse about Jewish philanthropy, sometimes in conversation and sometimes in conflict. The rhetoric surrounding Jewish fundraising and charity and the [End Page 398] debates about how best to organize services and disburse funds reveal the gendered terms that came to define Jewish philanthropy by the mid-twentieth century. Examining the ways that Jewish philanthropy became identified as a masculine arena turns out to be particularly instructive. It demonstrates the contingencies of gender as a variable in American Jewish history, moves away from more simplistic notions of public and private spheres as the locus of men’s and women’s respective experiences, and more broadly, it lends greater nuance to the subtle and not-so-subtle evolution of the organized Jewish community in America. [End Page 399]

Beth S. Wenger

Beth S. Wenger is the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor at the University of Pennsylvania where she serves as chair of the History Department. Her most recent books are History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage (2010) and the coedited collection Gender in Judaism and Islam: Common Lives, Uncommon Heritage (2014).


*Thanks to the 2013–14 fellows at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies for their helpful comments. I am also grateful for the suggestions provided by Lila Corwin Berman and Deborah Dash Moore.

1. Jonathan S. Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 22–62; Morris D. Waldman, cited in ibid, 37.

2. Oscar Handlin, “Changing Patterns in Group Life in America and their Implications for the American Jewish Community,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service (Summer 1958): 348.

3. Viviana A. Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

4. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840 – 1920 (New York and London: New York University Press, 2012), 45–71.

5. Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 140–41; Polland and Soyer, Emerging Metropolis, 45–46.

6. Philip Goodman, “The Purim Association of the City of New York.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 40 (1950): 135–72.

7. For an example of Purim Balls planned by women’s organizations, see the records of the Jewish Ladies Aid Society, Columbus Georgia. This association, founded in 1874 as the Ladies Purim Association, sponsored an annual Purim Ball. Mss. No. 109, William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.

8. Daniel J. Walkowitz, Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 32.

9. Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery, 140–50; Idana Goldberg, “Gender, Religion and the Jewish Public Sphere in Mid-Nineteenth Century America” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2004).

10. Jewish Messenger, November 20, 1874, cited in Idana Goldberg, “‘Sacrifices Upon the Alter of Charity’: The Masculinization of Jewish Philanthropy in Mid-Nineteenth Century America,” NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 20 (2010): 43. I am grateful for the insights provided by Goldberg in this article.

11. Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery, 141; Evelyn Bodek, “‘Making Do’ Jewish Women in Philanthropy,” in Jewish Life in Philadelphia, ed. Murray Friedman 1830 – 1940 (Philadelphia: ISHI Publications, 1983), 148–51.

12. Boris D. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy: An Exposition of Principles and Methods of Jewish Social Service in the United States (1917; reprint, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969), 319–20.

13. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy, 43–58.

14. Harry L. Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed: The Jewish Federation Movement in America (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961), 38.

15. Proceedings of the First National Conference of Jewish Charities, June 1900, cited in Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed, 38.

16. Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed, 42.

17. “‘Drive Against Drives’ Begins in the Fall,” American Hebrew, August 6, 1920, 303.

18. George Z. Medalie, “New York Federation—After Twenty-Five Years,” 1943, 121; United Jewish Appeal—Federation of New York Collection; I–433; Box 0131; Folder 10: “Federation: Elliot E. Cohen, 1943,” American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA. Hereafter, Federation of New York Collection. Please note that references to this collection comport with those listed at the time of research when the collection was in the midst of being processed.

19. For more on the Business Men’s Council, see Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 153–64.

20. I. Edwin Goldwasser, “A Business Men’s Council,” Jewish Charities 9, no. 12 (April 1919): 258.

21. Ibid., 257–58.

22. Joseph Willen, “Why Men Give,” October 10, 1940, 1; Box 0172; Folder 21: “Personal Correspondence, 1940–42,” Federation of New York Collection.

23. Willen, “Why Men Give,” 3–6, 2. See also a speech that resonates with the same themes: “The Spirit Behind Machinery,” Address given in honor of the Trade and Divisional Chairman of Business Men’s Council of New York and Brooklyn Federations, New York, April 16, 1940; Box 0172; Folder 20: “Willen, Personal Correspondence, 1939,” Federation of New York Collection.

24. On the evolution of American philanthropy, see Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” in Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History, ed. Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 29–48.

25. Lenore T. Ealy and Steven D. Ealy, “Progressivism and Philanthropy,” The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies 15, no. 1 (2006): 38.

26. “‘Drive Against Drives’ Begins in the Fall,” The American Hebrew, August 6, 1920: 303.

27. Goldwasser, “A Business Men’s Council,” 258.

28. Joseph Willen, untitled meeting address, May 24, 1941, 1; Box 0172; Folder 21: “Personal Correspondence, 1940–42,” Federation of New York Collection.

29. Robert Gross explains the ongoing tension that existed between traditional charity and modern philanthropy throughout American history. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” 44–48.

30. My thanks to Lila Corwin Berman for helping me to consider these issues. See for example, Julia C. Ott, When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). In a broader argument about the evolution of risk and American capitalism, Jonathan Levy contends that, “Corporate ownership, not self-ownership, would be the new premise of economic security. But to do so corporations would need to exist prior to, over, and above flesh-and-blood individuals who found a new functional place within a new institutional matrix.” Jonathan Levy, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 266.

31. Milton Weill, Business Men’s Council, Conference Proceedings, 1949, 38; Box 0148; Folder 19: “Business Men’s Council, Conference Proceedings,” 1949, Federation of New York Collection.

32. Willen, “Why Men Give,” 2.

33. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” 46. For examples of Willen’s repeated use of the metaphor of machinery see his, “Why Men Give” and “The Spirit Behind Machinery.”

34. “Seminar on Philanthropy Begins New York Federation’s Drive for $4,720,000,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 8, 1926.

35. Willen, “Why Men Give,” 2–3.

36. Ralph Strauss Jr., Business Men’s Council, Conference Proceedings, 1949, 47; Box 0148; Folder 19: “Business Men’s Council, Conference Proceedings,” 1949, Federation of New York Collection.

37. Ibid., 52–53.

38. Arnold Gurin, “The View from the Top: Dynamics of Volunteer Leadership,” in Understanding American Jewish Philanthropy, ed. Marc Lee Raphael (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1979), 12.

39. Carl Bakal, Charity U.S.A., as cited in Jack Wertheimer, “Current Trends in American Jewish Philanthropy,” American Jewish Year Book (1997): 10–11.

40. Medalie, “New York Federation—After Twenty-Five Years,” 131.

41. Zelda F. Popkin, “Women to ‘Sell’ Philanthropy: The Ladies, God Bless ‘Em, Used to Hold Bazaars, But Not Now,” The American Hebrew & The Jewish Messenger, September 20, 1920, 440.

42. Minutes of Executive Committee of Women’s Division, June 6, 1945, 2; Box 0178; Folder 8: “Women’s Division, Mrs. Newman Levy—Correspondence, 1945,” Federation of New York Collection.

43. Memo from Mrs. Newman Levy to Joseph Willen, October 22, 1946; Box 0174; Folder 6: “Women’s Division, Mrs. Newman Levy—Correspondence, 1946,” Federation of New York Collection.

44. Hortense Hirsch to Joseph Willen, May 8, 1944; Box 0148; Folder 21: “Business Men’s Council, Executive Committee, 1944,” Federation of New York Collection.

45. Minutes of Executive Committee of Women’s Division, June 6, 1945, 1–2; Box 0178; Folder 8: “Women’s Division, Mrs. Newman Levy—Correspondence, 1945,” Federation of New York Collection.

46. “Analysis of Women’s Division Activities for the Year 1937,” March 2, 1938, 6, 2–10; Box 0174; Folder 4: “Women’s Division, 1938,” Federation of New York Collection.

47. Confidential memo from Joseph Willen to Mrs. Newman Levy, September 13, 1946; Box 0174; Folder 6: “Women’s Division, Mrs. Newman Levy—Correspondence, 1946,” Federation of New York Collection.

48. Memo from Joseph Willen, February 8, 1944, 3; Box 0148; Folder 21: “Business Men’s Council, Executive Committee, 1944,” Federation of New York Collection. Memo from Joseph Willen, March 15, 1945, 1–4; Box 0150; Folder 1: “Business Men’s Council Inter-Office Memoranda, 1943–1945,” Federation of New York Collection.

49. Norman S. Goetz to Joseph Willen, May 16, 1947, 3; Box 0149; Folder 11: “Business Men’s Council Executive Committee, Nathan Bennett, 1947,” Federation of New York Collection.

50. Report by Joseph Willen on Federation development, June 26, 1947, 12; Box 0149; Folder 9: “Business Men’s Council Executive Committee Minutes, 1947,” Federation of New York Collection.

51. Walkowitz, Working with Class, 88, 323–24.

52. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy, 320–33.

53. Walkowitz, Working with Class, 12.

54. Minnie Low to David Bressler, February 1, 1915; David Bressler to Minnie Low, February 4, 1915; Minnie Low to David Bressler, February 16, 1915; National Association of Jewish Social Workers records; I–88; Box 2; Folder 42; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.

55. Walkowitz, Working with Class, 88, 110.

56. Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, in Jewish Exponent, April 17, 1896.

57. Faith Rogow, Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893 – 1993 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).

58. Louis Lipsky, “What Will Hadassah Do?” The New Palestine, June 8, 1928, 593.

59. “Hadassah and the Zionist Congress” in The Hadassah Newsletter, May–June 1933, 3–4, accessed February 10, 2014,

60. Erica B. Simmons, Hadassah and the Zionist Project (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006).

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