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  • Federation Men:The Masculine World of New York Jewish Philanthropy, 1880–1945
  • Beth S. Wenger (bio)

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...


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pp. 377-399
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