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Leeser was active in Mikveh Israel’s Hebrew Society for the Visitation of the Sick and Mutual Assistance. For the Philadelphia minister, religion and charity were inextricably bound together. For all Jews, charity was a mitzvah, a religious command. In tying religion and social welfare into one whole, Leeser was but following biblical and rabbinical mandates. Centuries before the rise of Christianity, Judaism had already emphasized the duty of helping those in need. The Talmud emphasized that every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew (San. 27b). God, said Leeser, was the source, the inspiration impelling men to moral action. The Philadelphian was particularly concerned with making provision for orphans; he himself had been orphaned when young. Kind people had taken him in, nurtured him, and educated him. In an address, which Seixas made in 1798 he said that helping others in distress is loving our neighbor; it is righteous action. We are stewards in the house of God. The individual Jew was thus called upon by tradition and its expositors to be generous, and many were. It was not easy in that generation to find the way to help others; Jewish newcomers had families to support here and dependent parents abroad. Most immigrants—and there were many—found themselves in a constant struggle to secure a foothold economically. Nevertheless some of them made an effort to aid others who were impoverished.1

Individuals did more than give alms; they gave service to the sick, the dying, the dead; they gave of themselves. Some volunteered to investigate the real needs of those seeking help from the synagog or a welfare society. Many left legacies to congregations and to pious associations, especially to the burial collegia whose ministrations they would ultimately require. A substantial number of Charleston wills contained legacies for Jewish institutions; six of them left money to the local burial fraternity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, in the first quarter century of its existence. When the will of the young Solomon Hart was probated in 1805 it was found that he had bequeathed one-half of his estate to the congregation and the other half to the local burial society. He had also enjoined his executor to see that his circumcision instruments were buried with him; he was a mohel (circumciser). (Did he expect to continue his professional activities in the World to Come? If so, he disagreed with a fellow Jew, Jesus, who had once said that “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage”) (Math. 22:30). During the Revolution some of New York’s Jewish exiles who had taken refuge in nearby Connecticut were ravaged by the raids of the Loyalist Governor, William Tryon. This was particularly true of those who had sought shelter in Norwalk. When their distress came to the attention of Aaron Lopez, of Newport, he sent them money and supplies. Throughout the years, many stricken by misfortune appealed to him for aid. Turning to Lopez, the impoverished widow Hannah Louzada addressed him as a father of the poor when she asked him to give her something to pay for the rent and her medical bill. A number of the refugees fleeing from the invading troops found refuge in the hospitable home of Aaron Cardozo of Wilton.2

When the synagog was built in wartime Philadelphia in 1782, over sixty Jews, many of them refugees, made contributions to the building fund. Some of the contributors bought lottery tickets and assigned their hoped-for prizes to Mikveh Israel, and when the synagog was dedicated special blessings were invoked for them. In the late 1780’s Mr. Shimelah (Little Simon), of Montreal—whoever he may have been—decided to leave for London by way of New York. Not having any money, he appealed to the quondam merchant-shipper Moses Myers who helped him raise the necessary funds to purchase passage on a fast packet, the Speed-well. He boarded the vessel and said goodbye. Everyone was happy; Myers had earned a mitzvah which would stand him in good stead on the Day of Judgment. The next morning Shimelah was still in New York. When the captain of the vessel would not let him don his phylacteries at his morning prayers, he left the vessel forthwith. The New Yorkers reclaimed the passage money and shipped Shimelah back to Montreal. Michael Hart, of Easton, fed prisoners whose American captors had put them on a bread-and-water diet; Harmon Hendricks, the Sephardi, gave money to Ashkenazic Anshe Chesed so that it might buy a Scroll of the Law. Dr. Isaac Hays served the Hebrew Society for the Visitation of the Sick, probably gratis. The Touro brothers, Abraham and Judah, were nationally recognized as philanthropists. Judah had even given money to aid persecuted Christians in Jerusalem, missionaries, whose professed aim was to convert Jews! Obviously Judah was obeying the New Testament injunction of loving one’s “enemies” (the psychohistorian might have given this generosity a different interpretation). During the 1832 cholera epidemic, William Warner, a member of Shearith Israel, volunteered to nurse the sick and bury the dead. Theodore Seixas interested himself in seeking out a profligate young Gentile, a drunkard, in order to bring him back to his mother who worked as a nurse in a New York family. Writing to Leeser about this unfortunate young man, Seixas termed it an affair of humanity.3


In the main, it was the congregation, not the individual, which provided for the needs of the poor and the distressed. All the congregations in the United States engaged in good works (obras pias) from the earliest days down into the twentieth century. In this, of course, they were not unique; Christian churches, too, looked after the poor in their respective parishes. Indeed the synagog in the colonies and the early republic was the sole Jewish welfare agency till the early 1780’s. The congregation had no choice but to assume the charitable burden, a time hallowed custom brought over from Europe. All forms of synagogal help in North America were patterned on European prototypes which in turn were rooted in medieval tradition and Middle Eastern practice dating back to pre-Christian times. The close relation between the congregation and its welfare function is startlingly documented by the fact that the general treasury was frequently denominated the sedakah, the common Hebrew term for charity. The congregational charters in Savannah (1791) and New Orleans (1828) state specifically that the synagogs were not only to provide for worship but also to educate the children and relieve the unfortunate. (Similarly the children of the poor were educated at congregational expense). Typical is the entry of the Charleston Minute Book for 1838: Mr. H. Cohen, sick and impoverished, was given two cords of wood to provide him with heat and fuel for his store. Whom did the congregation help? The local poor, itinerants, immigrants, captives, bond servants, imprisoned debtors, those in temporary straits.4

In essence Jews had been taught for centuries through precept, prayers, and example, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, redeem the captives, educate the orphans, bury the dead. Their own were aided first; then came others, the local non-congregational poor as well as American Jewish congregations and institutions in distant towns. A substantial proportion of congregational funds was employed for welfare and humanitarian purposes but congregations when importuned by individuals, institutions, and foreign communities, did not always see fit to make a grant. The depressions limited their means and forced them frequently to say no even to the worthy. When the sedakah was empty, however, the adjunta encouraged generous individuals to give of their private means. The parnas of the congregation was always permitted to make a modest grant without prior consultation; only when larger amounts were sought did the board have to be consulted. The investigatory procedure varied. On the whole, intensive inquiries were not made. Indeed it was practically impossible to check the bona fides of itinerants; the absence of any form of rapid communication made such investigations impossible or impractical. Boards frequently said no, because they were not impressed by the appeal or the cause. Often indeed when approached by an itinerant, they manifested their impatience and speeded the parting guest on his way, but they never questioned the principle that people in need must be helped.5

And the source of funds for congregational alms and grants? The basic source of course was the sedakah, the synagogal treasury, which was fortified by offerings made when men were called to the Torah. Charity boxes were hung in the sanctuary or circulated at funerals, weddings, and circumcision feasts. There were legacies and long-time charitable loans like the ones made by Abraham Touro to Shearith Israel. On special occasions, when there was a disastrous fire or an epidemic or an enemy invasion, the hazzan would make an appeal from the reading desk in the form of a hortatory address. Whenever there was a call for relief, preference was nearly always accorded to middle-class people in reduced circumstances. Help was given in kind, rarely in cash, for it was commonly believed that the poverty stricken could not husband their resources. Only too often there was little sympathy or understanding for the plight of the perennially poor.6

American Jewry was in no hurry to establish institutions to shelter the impoverished, the sick, orphans, helpless widows, invalids, or the aged. European Jewry had been maintaining hospices since the Middle Ages in Spain, since the early modern centuries in Central Europe. There is an intimation that wartime Jewry in Philadelphia did have a hospice but the evidence is not convincing. The sick and itinerant were boarded out, given medicine, and doctored. Frequently, as in Philadelphia, Jewish eleemosynary organizations subscribed to the general hospitals and dispensaries and sent their sick to them for treatment. Throughout this period individuals talked of establishing a poorhouse for Jews that would serve also as a hospital. In 1816 Rachel Pinto of New York, a most generous woman, made an unsuccessful attempt to establish such a haven for the poor and the unfortunate of her people. The Jewish leaders, wisely, felt that there was no need to set up such an institution; it was much cheaper to board the poor and the sick or to provide them with doles. Normally Jews hesitated to send one of their own to the city or county poorhouse, de facto Christian institutions whose clients would have to eat forbidden food and be exposed to the solicitations of ardent Christians eager to save Jewish souls. In a number of instances, however, the Jewish community did nothing to rescue Jews from the poorhouse—particularly if the inmates were men whom the community had rejected for one reason or another.7

Pensions were given to congregational employees, their widows, and to older persons, both men and women, who were in good standing in the community. Each case was examined on its merits. In addition to a monetary allowance, suppliants were given fuel, unleavened bread on Passover, medical care and, God help us, proper burial. A Mrs. Grace Levy of New York who had come on hard times was given £60 a year (1811). Martha Lazarus was supported by the New York congregation for almost seven years at a cost of about $1,500, a very substantial sum. In 1800, the Charleston Jewish community, then at the height of its prosperity, expended over 18 percent of its income for charity. The care of immigrants was always troublesome for most Jews who chose to come here were men and women of little or no means. Making provision for newcomers has been a major problem in this country down to the present day. After a long miserable voyage the immigrants landed sick and impoverished; they needed help. If the season was inclement, they were clothed anew. A woman coming in from Jamaica reported that her husband had been swept into the ocean; she was at once given board and black garments for mourning. Émigrés from France, when that country was shattered by revolution, were succored if in need.8

The care of newcomers became a communal problem in the 1820’s when the trickle of immigrants increased; the trickle had become a stream by 1837 during the post-Jackson depression. The care of newcomers then became a real challenge to congregational leaders, especially in New York City, the chief port of debarkation. In one respect colonial and early republican Jewish America was unique. There were no dowry grant societies nor any organization founded to redeem captives. This is unusual, for organizations dedicated to these purposes were common in Europe and there were dowry groups in Dutch Curaçao. Why then were there no dowry societies in the United States? The reason may well be that women were at a premium in these “frontier” communities. Although there were no groups to ransom prisoners, the Jewish communities stepped into the breach when faced with the problem of helping bondservants. When two Jews, indentured servants, landed in Philadelphia in 1795 as the Day of Atonement was approaching, the community hastened to their rescue: Let them observe the Day of Atonement as free men. A subscription list was passed around and the men were redeemed. A woman was taken out of jail; in all probability she had been in prison for debt since Jews shied away from helping criminals. People who came from abroad soliciting help for the enslaved in their communities were listened to sympathetically. In 1825 the Rev. Judah Corcos, a Turkish subject, came to this country seeking funds to ransom his family from Greek corsairs. Major Noah rose in Shearith Israel during services and made an appeal for the unfortunate family. A relatively large sum was raised and the father then set sail for Charleston where he hoped to secure additional funds.9

A distinction must be made between immigrants and transients. Immigrants came to stay; most transients were moving about and had no intention of settling. Some of them were probably professional beggars. Early America received its share of travelers from Europe, Palestine, South America, and the Islands. Typical, in a way, is the case of Jacob Musqueto who in 1768 had to make a trip of at least 1,000 miles from Saint Eustatius to New York in order to catch a ship for Barbados which was only a few hundred miles from Saint Eustatius. While in town he was of course supported by New York Jewry. There was no regular traffic from his island to Barbados but there were ships that sailed from New York to Barbados; the longest way round is the shortest way home. New York proceeded to dispatch Musqueto to Philadelphia, where Michael Gratz was asked to raise the money to send him back to the West Indies. Jews in the West Indies may have sent him on to New York to get rid of him rather than support him; the New Yorkers and the Philadelphians were equally ready to ship him on to Barbados rather than provide for his needs indefinitely. That was the appropriate social welfare technique in that generation. When Mr. Jacob Abbo made his appearance in New York with a map leading to two of the Lost Ten Tribes, the congregation gave him enough money to get him out of town; obviously it was not impressed by his map or his quest for his brethren who had “disappeared” more than 2,000 years ago. In 1808 an Isaac Levy arrived asking for help. He told his hosts here that he had been captured by a French privateer as he was going from Jamaica to Haiti. He had been imprisoned in Cartagena and later in Cuba, but finally managed to reach New York where the congregation made provision for him. He requested Shearith Israel to send him back to Jamaica. The story may even have been true despite its picaresque details. The congregation’s point of view was simple; all Jews in need must be helped; even men suspected of being imposters were assisted.10



Beginning with the Revolution more and more of the social-welfare work in most towns was taken over by confraternities (hevrot). Such religious associations were not unique, not characteristic of Jews alone; Christian churches leaned heavily on affiliated charity societies. When first established, most hevrot, if not all, were an integral part of a synagog, its welfare arm charged with the care of the poor, the sick, and the burial of the dead. Quite a number of these organizations were mutual-aid agencies concerned with the needs of their members. If there was but one congregation in town, the synagog, the charities, and the community were integrated into one whole. When was the hevrah established? There may have been one in New York in 1758, a sick-care and burial group, but there is no conclusive evidence. The first society established in this country—as far as the records reveal—was the Immigrants’ Aid founded in Philadelphia no later than 1783. The city on the Delaware was then full of Jewish refugees from Newport, New York, Charleston, and Savannah which were occupied by the British. This semi-autonomous organization advanced funds to the exiles and expected them to make repayment. Most of its clients were responsible shopkeepers and merchants. From then on charity societies began to make their appearance in all towns where Jews were found, as far west as the Mississippi. In Columbia, South Carolina, Louisville, Cleveland, and Richmond, the Ashkenazic hevrah preceded the establishment of a formal Jewish synagog-community; each confraternity was, in effect, a proto-congregation.11

By 1800 the Central European Jewish newcomers were beginning to manifest their ethnic disparateness in all the cisallegheny communities. By 1840 American Jewry had increased at least 600 percent; practically all the immigrants were of non-Iberian stock. In 1802 Philadelphia gave birth to the Hebrew German Society (Rodeph Shalom)—notice the emphasis on “German.” Rodeph Shalom, as we have seen, was a sick-care and burial society that served also as a miniature congregation. It was not a mutual-aid organization; it made no monetary grants. By 1812 it had become a full-fledged chartered congregation though it continued to offer sick care and burial privileges. The following year Sephardic Mikveh Israel encouraged the establishment of the Hebrew Society for the Visitation of the Sick and Mutual Assistance (Hevrah shel Bikkur Holim u-Gemilat Hasadim). Its first president was the German-born Jacob I. Cohen, a Revolutionary War veteran, a Richmond and Philadelphia merchant, and an activist in the Jewish community of both towns. The Sephardic mutual-aid society first limited admission to members of Mikveh Israel. Later when its initiates achieved a degree of affluence it helped non-members; the Hevrah tended to become a general Jewish relief society. This was in the 1820’s; in the next decade it came to the aid of those stricken by the cholera.12

Hevrot in the early days of the republic were usually religiously conservative; they were deeply rooted in the old tradition. (The modern “religious” hevrot [havurot] of the late twentieth century are frequently radical in their sympathies, although not all of them to be sure. The left-wingers rejected older practices and were often shockingly innovative; they wanted to be Jews but on their own terms). The 1813 Philadelphia hevrah tolerated no one who had married out or had refused to practice circumcision. Annual religious meetings were held on the eve of Pentecost and Hoshana Rabbah where religious anthologies were read—if not studied—and the fraternity climaxed its religiocultural vigil with a substantial communal dinner; the banquet was something of an agape, a love feast. In order to give the members a chance to socialize and to gossip, meetings of the pious associations usually started after the time fixed for assembly. The society secured hospital privileges in a local dispensary and provided grave watchers to scare away body snatchers. By 1830, facing competition from the local Germans and their hevrah, the Mikveh Israel society opened its roster to newcomers and accepted as members individuals who were not affiliated with the Sephardic congregation. Here we have an aspect of the communalization of the charities. There is an 1829 constitution of a hevrah bearing the same name as the original 1813 society. The president was the well-known Hyman Polock who in 1835 was also president of the original Mikveh Israel fraternity. The two constitutions reflect so many differences that one suspects a secession, with the rival hevrah becoming established and then the two finally reuniting.13

A decade after it was chartered, Rodeph Shalom established a sick-care and burial society of its own, the United Hebrew Beneficent Society. Though sponsored by the “Germans,” it was from its very beginning open to all Jews and was not a mutual-aid organization. The word “United” is important; it hoped to unite, to appeal to all Jews in town; later, it was willing to include any Pennsylvanian. This was indeed a communal society, in intent at least. Members were offered the choice of either the Ashkenazic or the Sephardic ritual in their moments of sorrow. The fraternity talked also of educating the children of the poor and apprenticing them to masters who would permit them to observe the Sabbath and the Holy Days. But these were only pious wishes. By 1837, this hevrah included members from Virginia and Alabama. It is difficult to determine why these out-of-state Jews joined, unless they were motivated solely by the desire to help a Jewish organization financially. One of the Philadelphia members in 1837 was a Michel H. De Young, the father of Michel Harry De Young, the founder and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.,14

The oldest burial and general relief society in the country had been organized in Charleston as early as 1784, just as the city—and its Jews, too—began reaching out commercially and culturally. The prevailing epidemics—usually yellow fever—made it imperative that the Jews fashion a society to cope with the problem. In later years, as the group grew in power, it severed itself formally from the local synagog, employed a staff physician, a Gentile, and in 1838 took the unusual step of inserting an advertisement in the Courier stating that it was ready and willing to aid sick Jews. In 1801, seventeen years after the Hebrew Benevolent Society came into being, the eager Charlestonians established a hevrah to look after orphans. The first Jewish society of this genre in the country, it set out to provide for orphans and their impoverished widowed mothers. There was even talk of offering advanced education to gifted children. The official name of the new organization was the Society for the Relief of Orphans and Children of Indigent Parents. The hevrah’s name, borrowed from Caribbean, London, and Amsterdam forerunners, was Abi Yetomin u-Bne Ebyonin [sic] (“Father to the Orphans and Impoverished Children”). The families of the children were given grants; the youngsters were not housed in an asylum, although there were very brief periods in the antebellum years when the orphans, those without any parents, were given institutional care. The society had acquired a beautiful building by 1833, but still it preferred to board the children; it was cheaper that way. It did run a charity school; one of the teachers was Isaac Harby. In all probability, both Hebrew and secular subjects were taught. There is a tradition that Judah P. Benjamin attended this school; though he was no orphan, his family was certainly poor and might well have availed itself of the opportunity to give its gifted son free schooling. About the year 1810, nine children were supported by this hevrah.15

A year or so after the Hebrew Benevolent Society’s establishment in Charleston—possibly earlier—a similar organization with the same name was created in New York. This was a mutual-aid burial hevrah and may well have been initiated by Shearith Israel’s Ashkenazim, who were reaching out for “community.” In the course of time this hevrah, too, like most confraternities, began to help non-members. It was a successful organization with many subscribers. The initiation fee and the dues were quite substantial; the members were able to hire a physician, own their own hearse and boast of a surplus in the treasury. It is, therefore, very difficult to understand why by 1790 the hevrah had ceased to exist. One suspects that if this was an Ashkenazic organization, Shearith Israel’s elite may have become frightened; it was always apprehensive that the Ashkenazim would attempt to take control of the synagog. For the next few years New York’s congregation seems not to have enjoyed the services of a burial society. The year 1798 was to witness a severe yellow fever epidemic in the city; 2,000 people are said to have been stricken, among them a number of Jews. Many fled from the city to escape the ravages of the plague; Rabbi Seixas remained behind and established a new welfare organization, the Society for Charity and Secret Giving (Kalfe Zedakah u-Mattan ba-Sether). The members dedicated themselves to the care of the sick, the dying, and the helpless. In setting up this pious association, Seixas evidenced leadership at a crucial moment in the life of the community. Maybe this was possible then because the lay leaders had left the city. The Society for Charity was not a burial organization; it was a relief agency which made annual appeals for funds. As its name indicates, it pledged itself not to reveal the identity of its clients. In 1805, in a communication projecting the future of the Kalfe Zedakah, the officers made the statement that a day would come when New York City would shelter the largest Jewish community in the country. This was said when Charleston’s Jewry was still preeminent. The society faded away about the year 1816, just about the time that Seixas died. Was he its mainstay during the eighteen years of its existence?16

The imperative need for a burial organization brought about the rebirth of the old Hebrew Benevolent Society. It was now known as Hased Va-Amet, the Society for Love and Truth—or, more correctly, the Society of True Love—and is still in existence. Why true love? Because true love is evidenced when people confer a kindness upon a dead person, who cannot repay the courtesy! The name was not an uncommon one, for ever since 1726 there was a Curaçao association bearing the same designation. The semi-autonomous New York society was to serve as a communal agency till at least 1825 when its rival, Bnai Jeshurun, appeared on the scene. In 1827, the Society of True Love published its own burial and mourning compendium. Like most other hevrot, Hased Va-Amet, too, did not withhold help when it was desperately needed and sent money to aid yellow fever victims in New Orleans without regard to the religious affiliation of the sufferers. As yet, however, there was no charity society in New York, although one may assume that the slack was taken up by the Society of True Love and by the congregation itself. Something had to be done, inasmuch as new immigrants were constantly landing and often turned for relief to the Jewish community.17

In 1822, the 1785 Hebrew Benevolent Society was again reconstituted, and with the same name. Here again, so it is thought, Shearith Israel members of Ashkenazic ancestry took the initiative in fashioning the new organization. Essentially, it seems to have been a burial society. There is an old tradition—and it may well be true—that when a Revolutionary War veteran, a Jew, was reported to be lying destitute in a local hospital, a group of Jews raised money to provide for his needs and when he died, buried him. With the surplus on hand, the group started the new Hebrew Benevolent Society. The Hebrew name of this congeries was Meshivat Nefesh, “Restoration of the Soul,” again not an uncommon name, which occurs in Savannah and in European cities. It may well be that, while serving as an arm of Shearith Israel, it engaged in general relief; after all, the Society of True Love was always available for burials. When the founders of Bnai Jeshurun seceded, the new Hebrew Benevolent Society allied itself with them and engaged primarily in welfare work. A year later, in 1826, Bnai Jeshurun welcomed into its midst the Hebrew Mutual Beneficent Society, a sick-care and burial organization, New York Jewry’s first mutual-aid association, at first limited to members of Bnai Jeshurun, but subsequently open to all Jews. Less than a century later, there were about 1,000 such organizations in the city, most of them landsmanshaften, “hometown” societies.18

In the late 1820’s, New York’s Spanish-Portuguese congregation established the Society for the Education of Poor Children and the Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Religion. As its name indicates, it was created to provide, primarily, for widows and orphans; the young were to be educated. At the first anniversary meeting, the public was invited to listen to an oration by Myer Moses. A collection was taken up, and a goodly sum raised. The orator of the day was a son of the Myer Moses remembered in Charleston for his good works during the Revolution; Moses, Sr. had stretched forth a helping hand to prisoners and the wounded. Two of his grandsons were to become notable South Carolinians; one was Isaac Harby, the litterateur and religious reformer; the other, Franklin J. Moses, became a chief justice of the state supreme court in postbellum days. Myer Moses, the son, had distinguished himself in Charleston as a militia officer, state legislator, and communal servant before moving north to New York, where he speedily made a place for himself as an orator and politician.19

Shearith Israel’s new relief society seems to have been a prestigious organization, for some of New York’s notables addressed it annually; one of its outstanding members was the banker Joseph L. Joseph. One wonders why it was established in the first place, for after a year’s existence it could boast of but two orphans who were helped and they were dispatched to a Christian Free School where, it would seem, no tuition was charged and where in all probability, they were exposed to Christian doctrine. The conduct of the society aroused the ire of that ardent Jew Solomon H. Jackson and when the trustees published a report of their accomplishments he denounced them publicly for sending two youngsters to a Christian school. Jackson entreated New York Jewry to accept no gifts from Christians. One impoverished family was helped and urged to get out of trade. Leave the marts of commerce and turn to crafts? What good would that do, said Jackson. Jewish boys apprenticed to Gentile artisans would have to work on the Sabbath, and even if they did learn a craft Jews would refuse to patronize them. Jews, Jackson insisted, are all in trade; this new society has no raison d’ĂȘtre; there are no Jewish paupers. If Jackson was right—and surely he was—why then was this charity created by New York’s Jewish elite? It was an age of humanitarian reform; philanthropic activity was in style.20

Anshe Chesed, the Men of Loving Kindness, established in 1828, soon became the town’s predominant German Jewish congregation. By 1841 this synagog had at least two mutual-aid and eleemosynary institutions, possibly as many as four. The immigrants struggling to survive needed organizations that would guarantee them a dole if they ran into trouble; the late 1830’s were grim at best. It was just at this time, 1839–1840, when the depression was wreaking havoc, that Shearith Israel established the Hebrew Assistance Society. This organization had a job to do and apparently did it well. Undoubtedly it set out to compete with its rival at Bnai Jeshurun, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. In 1829 Shearith Israel’s Society for the Education of Poor Children and Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion had not five clients all told; in its first year the new Hebrew Assistance Society had to provide for at least 80 applicants to whom it gave relief; it then spent $660 for clothing, food, and fuel. It was aided by a junior auxiliary, probably young unmarried girls, who, like the Christians around them, were turning to social work. When fund-raising banquets were held in the early 1840’s by the Hebrew Assistance Society, women were present in a gallery curtained off where they could see but not be seen. “Their faces were only partially exposed.” Large sums were raised at the annual dinner where notable Christians spoke and told the Jews what good people they were, especially “the female portion.” Anyone paying $3 annual dues was admitted to the organization. It was very successful financially and in a few years was able to make a large loan to Shearith Israel for synagogal repairs. With all its apparent success this society was not long-lived and seems to have quickly passed out of existence.21

Around the year 1787 Savannah fashioned a sick-care and burial society. It was imperative that there be an organization to help the dying and prepare bodies ritually for burial. Richmond, in Virginia, organized its first hevrah in 1790 shortly after the congregation came into being. Apparently the new confraternity was an immigrants’ aid society, for it called itself Ezrat Orhim, the same name the earlier Philadelphia society had borne. Isaiah Isaacs, a Virginia Jewish pioneer, was the first president of the Richmond society. Richmond’s Immigrant Aid was a general relief society and of course took care of the sick; it was in no sense a burial hevrah though it was ready to help when there was a death in a family. Relief was given first to persons of “gentlemanly character”; others had to wait their turn, especially strangers and those of “doubtful character.” Obviously in this Immigrant Aid organization humble strangers were not preferred clients. By 1839 Central Europeans of recent vintage were numerous enough to create a society of their own. Calling itself Ahavat Israel, the Love of Israel, it was in effect a landsmanshaft that provided relief, religious services, and the comfort that came through sociability.22

German immigrants, always eager to stand on their own two feet, erected self-help societies as speedily as possible; they had their pride. No later than 1833, and possibly a year earlier, Baltimore’s immigrant Jews created a mutual-benefit sick-care and burial society, formally named the United Hebrew Benevolent Society. This organization is probably identified with the “Irishe Hevrah,” the Irish Society. Why Irish? No one seems to know. It was the first relief organization of the new immigrant congregation, the Scattered Israelites. The hevrah offered monetary benefits, hospitalization in a local dispensary, burial, and the prospect of free Hebrew classes for children. Undoubtedly, the new group was influenced by Rodeph Shalom’s United Hebrew Beneficent Society, inasmuch as the Baltimoreans, too, offered mourning families the option of a Sephardic or Ashkenazic ritual. Its constitution was published in both German and English; the newcomers from Central Europe were making their presence felt. Seven years later, a new hevrah made its appearance, another mutual-aid society, one called the German Hebrew Charity Society. The members, it is likely, were very recent immigrant arrivals who were not made welcome in the original German and English United Hebrew Benevolent Society. The latter hevrah, after seven-eight years, was completely acculturated and thus unacceptable to the more recent German newcomers. In 1840, the Baltimore Hebrew and English Academic Association made its bow. The pretentious name notwithstanding, it was just another mutual-aid society. Within the space of three years, this Maryland community had witnessed the founding of three self-help associations. Baltimore Jewry was growing; newcomers needed help. Let it not be forgotten that the 1837 depression continued till 1843.23

In 1828, four years after the Sons of Israel, B’nai Israel, congregation was established in Cincinnati, the members sponsored a mutual-aid and sick-care and burial society. Patterning itself, so it would seem, on its Philadelphia forerunner, it called itself the Hebrew Beneficent Society. In 1838, it had 53 members; in 1860, 200 members. Within a few years it was functioning as the Cincinnati Jewish community’s relief and welfare arm, with its own cemetery and physician; in later years, it even offered loans to members, though it was not a free loan society; a modest rate of interest was charged on all monies borrowed. Like other hevrot, the Hebrew Beneficent Society conducted a bibulous banquet, but finally stopped serving liquor, probably because members under the influence were prompt to tell others what they really thought of them. In 1838, the charter and bylaws were published both in German and English. Provision had to be made for the Central Europeans, if the society was to recruit new members. During this same decade burial confraternities were also established in Louisville and St. Louis (1834–1835). It is not improbable, too, that the Jews of Natchez, on the Mississippi, set up a burial society at this time (1838). In new communities, the burial confraternity was for obvious reasons often the first Jewish organization in town; epidemics of yellow fever and cholera were not uncommon. Hevrot abounded and on the whole prospered because they offered sociability and material benefits to newly arriving immigrants.24

American Jews believed, in principle at least, that every Jew in distress had to be helped. Every Jew meant any Jew anywhere in the world; thus congregations responded to frantic appeals of coreligionists in North Africa, Persia, and of course Palestine. By 1832–1833, relief for Jews in the Holy Land was organized in North America on a continental scale through the Society for the Offerings of the Sanctuary (Hevrat Terumat ha-Kodesh). This was an international organization with headquarters in Amsterdam and a very active group in London; a branch had also been established in New York. In a number of other towns, an outstanding member of the community seems to have been co-opted to raise funds. This was certainly true in Charleston, where substantial sums were collected in the 1830’s to aid the impoverished Jews of the Ottoman-ruled Holy Land. The Hevrat Terumat ha-Kodesh was the forerunner of the twentieth-century United Israel Appeal, which has dispatched hundreds of millions of dollars to the State of Israel for charitable and cultural purposes. In those early days, however, foreign aid was exceptional and minimal; the prime efforts in alms giving were directed at home to transients, immigrants, and the local poor.25


Self-centered Jewish males thought of the hevrot as men’s societies, and most of them were. Yet some of the burden of taking care of the sick and the transients fell to the lot of women in the homes where these people were lodged, fed, and nursed. What is the origin of women’s societies? To a degree, but only to a minor degree, American Jewish women’s associations were influenced by somewhat similar groups in Europe. In the seventeenth century, borrowing a phrase from talmudic literature nashim zadkaniyyot, Righteous Women, the Jews of Europe established female societies to serve as auxiliaries for the male burial organizations. Not improbably these women’s religious guilds had also been influenced by the Christian women about them who had been doing similar religious work. Well organized Jewish female burial associations were found in Amsterdam in the 1700’s. Berlin in the middle years of that century had a women’s society that not only nursed the sick, cared for the dying, and sewed shrouds, but also offered general relief. Women were always needed to provide for the ritual cleansing of the female dead.

An attempt in 1830 to establish a women’s auxiliary for Shearith Israel’s True Love society was unsuccessful. It was not until the 1840’s that such a burial association was brought into being. The first Jewish women’s society in the United States was organized at Philadelphia in 1819. The year 1819 was a bad depression year; people went hungry. There is no indication that the Pennsylvania women were influenced by any similar Jewish association in Europe. One can hardly doubt that they patterned themselves deliberately on the nondenominational Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, a Gentile society which had been established in 1800 and had quite a number of Jewish members, impressed no doubt by its prime goal of helping the poor. Rebecca Gratz was one of the founders of this society and one of its most active and influential members. She raised funds for its soup house, which provided broth for the poor at two cents a quart. She served as its secretary; indeed she was probably the country’s most notable Jewish female social worker and in later years helped organize a women’s sewing society, a charity fuel association, a foster home, and the first Jewish Sunday School. The Jewish Sunday School organization was concerned with educating Philadelphia’s Jewish children, particularly those who came from humble homes.26

The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society was a general charity providing clothes, relief, sick-care, nursing, and access to a hospital. Its goals were communal; it was ready to aid poor Jews without regard to their synagogal affiliation. A doctor was recruited, and an effort made to find employment for seamstresses in need of work. The society was supported by annual dues and gifts from individuals and congregations. Apparently it was popular, for members were enrolled from a number of Southern states and the West Indies. Clients were assured that recipients of help would be guaranteed secrecy—most important since the society preferred to help respectable middle-class people who had come upon hard times. Influenced very much by the standards of contemporary Christian relief associations, these Philadelphia Jewish women sought to aid families of some social standing. Poverty itself did not justify relief; they helped those who were “frugal, industrious, and grateful,” but they did pay lip service to the basic Jewish principle of charity; the poor, the transients, must be helped. In aiding the impoverished the society gave fuel and groceries, but little or no cash. The annual expenditures were small; recipients of aid in the early days could be counted upon the fingers of one hand. The society tried to save money; it expended a mere fraction of the capital it had accumulated. Apparently it was saving its money for a rainy day; it enjoyed having a surplus in the treasury.27

With the 1819 Philadelphia society as a model, the Jewish women in New York established a similar association the following year and gave it the same name. It is worth noting that the New York Jewish female charity was established two years before the male Hebrew Benevolent Society began taking an interest in the slums of the city. In 1830, in an address praising these women for their work, Dr. Daniel L. M. Peixotto lauded the delicate sex: they “do not disdain to tread the filthy alleys of the crowded city to enter the miserable and noisome hovels of the wretched poor.” In 1837, Baltimore’s Jewesses were asked to sew shrouds by the local sick-care and burial hevrah. The economic distress which brought ruin to thousands in the panic year of 1837 impelled Jewish women in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York to establish welfare organizations. By 1838, the women of Cincinnati’s Children of Israel had created the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society whose special interest was assistance to impoverished widows and orphans. Just a few years later, in the early 1840’s, the recently arrived Central European women set up a relief association of their own, the German Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. The newcomers wanted to be with their own; Jewish immigrants always looked askance at acculturated Jews. Here in the United States social disparities quickly developed.28

A Jewish women’s society founded at Philadelphia in the depression year 1838 called itself the Ladies Hebrew Sewing Society. Louisa B. Hart, first Directress, was a well-known social worker, intelligent and benevolent. Her cousin, Confederate Army Major Raphael Jacob Moses, said that, though unattractive and bizarre in her style of dress, she was highly respected for her preeminent qualities as a cultured and charitable leader. Her sewing society was primarily interested in providing warm clothes for the poor; heating facilities were very inadequate in early nineteenth-century America, and fuel was costly. In one year—it was in the early 1840’s—this organization distributed 400 garments to the poor and looked after several dozen children. Some of the funds for their charities came not only from dues and donations, but also from the proceeds of an annual charity ball. It is obvious that, by 1840, Philadelphia Jewry was beginning to build a series of women’s philanthropic organizations.29

One New York women’s society set up in 1838 was quite different from most others. This new body, which came out of Shearith Israel, was patterned on the Jewish Sunday School Society in Philadelphia. It called itself the Association for the Moral and Religious Instruction of Children of the Jewish Faith, but because many of the youngsters were poor, the Association did more than teach them; it provided some of them with clothes. The unmarried girls in the Association formed a group of their own, a Dorcas society, a women’s organization which sewed garments for the poor. The name and goals were taken from Christian tradition; the new Testament records that in the first century the Jewess Dorcas, Tabitha, the gazelle, full of good works and almsdeeds, sewed garments for the poor in Jaffa near present-day Tel Aviv; when she died, St. Peter resurrected her (Acts 9:36–43). Much of the money needed for this New York organization was raised at an annual meeting where prominent Jews were called on to make an appeal for funds. At the Purim assembly in 1840, when Major Noah spoke, the monies collected were used to buy shoes for poor children. The establishment of Jewish women’s societies was prompted by depression needs. Undoubtedly the Jewish women took note of the welfare agencies male Jews had set up and also of the numerous groups Christian women were founding. Unlike Gentile women, however, Jewesses created no societies devoted to social reform in the realms of slavery, temperance, and the like. The need to help Jewish immigrants, who were constantly arriving, compelled the men and the women to take care of their own first. Were the women self-conscious as they set out to build societies? Probably.30


The pious associations had a president, secretary, treasurer, and board, sometimes called managers. The Richmond Jewish Immigrants’ Aid had a parliamentarian, called an advocate. Most hevrot had no paid officers, though a few employed a beadle or messenger, who on occasion served as a dues collector. Committees, too, were appointed to concern themselves with the sick, with burials, with apprenticeships, and with the investigation of prospective clients. The New York Hebrew Assistance Society had women members, but they were not permitted to vote in person, only by proxy. These female associates, acting as an investigating body, checked those who petitioned for aid; the men were too busy in their shops and stores. Small sums were handed out at the discretion of the president; when substantial sums were required, an investigation was first made and then the board as a whole took action. As a rule, boards met weekly; the hevrah as a body usually assembled formally only once a year on the anniversary of its founding or on the seventh day of Adar, the traditional birthday and deathday of Moses, usually a fast-feast day. When a hevrah assembled to celebrate its anniversary, the meeting usually ended with a festive meal. Concerned as most of the societies were with death, they rejoiced when they met together once again and celebrated their reunion by feasting; they were glad to be alive. Hevrot never lost an opportunity to eat.31

Support for the societies came from initiation fees, dues, and annual and life memberships, as well as donations from Jews and from Christians, too. Since most hevrot were affiliated with a synagog, offerings were made during the services for the benefit of the confraternity. Fines were also a source of income, and inasmuch as most of these societies had a surplus in their treasuries, this reserve capital was lent out at interest. Additional help came from the organizations which planned the Purim Ball; substantial sums were then collected for philanthropic purposes. It was not unusual for marginal Jews who did not wish to affiliate with a congregation to make a contribution to a confraternity. Thus, Philip Speyer, later to be recognized as one of New York’s distinguished bankers, became a member of the local Hebrew Assistance Society in the early 1840’s, though he was not interested in Judaism. August Belmont refused to join any of the Jewish societies, but gave liberally when called upon by an organization which he deemed worthy. Unlike Speyer and Belmont, Benjamin Nathan was active both in the charities and in Shearith Israel. This New Yorker, a power on the stock exchange, gave liberally of his time and money to the synagog and the pious associations. He served Shearith Israel as president, helped found Jews’ Hospital in New York, and presided over the destinies of the Hebrew Assistance Society for four years. When he was murdered in 1870, the New York Stock Exchange offered a reward of $10,000; the assassin was never apprehended.32

Clearly, since the Revolution the Jews had been ready to carry on their charities through special agencies. Prior to that time, the congregation itself had acted as a committee of the whole when charitable problems arose. Americans saw the advisability of adopting European social-welfare forms of organization; the names of the new American Jewish agencies were borrowed from London and Amsterdam. Philanthropically, American Jewry was, in a sense, an extension of the older European societies and institutions. This is not to imply that the Jewish communities here were not influenced also by non-Jewish American welfare associations. Private Christian eleemosynary societies had functioned here as early as the seventeenth century. British America’s Gentiles had established charitable congeries on a craft or ethnic or sociocultural basis; individual Jews in colonial days joined these nondenominational groups. Mordecai Noah in 1817 addressed a Fourth of July mass meeting which included a number of craft societies. Though acculturated Jews belonged to some of these fraternal associations, Jewish newcomers, still unfamiliar with English, would be happier with their own; they were not sure what sort of reception would be accorded them in a Gentile organization.33

Colonial American Jews had created no auxiliary societies to handle their burials and charities because they were so few in number that each community served in itself as a pious association. The change occurred during the Revolution when refugees flocked to Philadelphia and some needed help. After the war’s end, newcomers arrived from Europe, and they, too, required assistance. Moreover, this was a day when Gentile societies began to abound. The decade of the 1780’s was difficult for congregations; they were trying to stay afloat, while their leaders were struggling in a postwar decline to make a living. There were five bad years, 1784–1788. By the 1790’s, congregations began establishing welfare associations to provide for the local poor, the new arrivals, and the perennial transients. A committee—that is to say, a mini-society—could do a much better job than a harassed president. It was more efficient.

It is manifest that congregations would want to encourage or tolerate auxiliaries, but what did the individual gain by joining a charitable fraternity? Men of culture, versed in the teachings of the Enlightenment, were prompted by humanitarian considerations to help others. In an enlightened age, said Dr. Peixotto in 1830, associations are founded to relieve distress, prevent crime, redeem the idle, and educate the masses; this is the age of benevolence. Others joined a hevrah because they could give free rein to their personality in a small intimate group. They believed that here, more than in the congregation, there would be democracy, freedom, latitude for the individual. The ego could express itself; there was more togetherness. Jews as individuals resented any authority which restricted their freedom of action. This individualism, this reaching out, was, in fact, a reaction to the frustrations they constantly had to face as Jews in an overwhelmingly Gentile society. Though the auxiliaries were ostensibly pious associations, Jews who were less than ardent in their faith might well join them, because the ultimate goals were philanthropic. In a sense, the synagog was now beginning to lose its former position as the dynamic center of all Jewish life in America. The hevrah offered more social life, more fraternization, more intimacy. Even within Sephardic Shearith Israel, culturally disparate Ashkenazim had begun as early as the 1780’s to forge their own subgroups; finally, in 1825, almost half a century later, fortified by the arrival of immigrants, they seceded successfully. In a way, the new Ashkenazic conventicles were what later waves of East European immigrants would know as landsmanshaften. The synagog was restrictive because of its liturgical and worship customs; charitable societies were less limiting. The immigrants who arrived during these early decades of the nineteenth century had left behind a Metternichean Europe with its coercive and cramping Jewish community; here they found an answer to the need for security, not only in the voluntaristic, independent synagog, but also in the new, receptive, self-governing philanthropic enclaves. Given a plethora of rival organizations, all of them unscientific in approaching social problems, a degree of welfare inefficiency was inevitable, but a whole world of emotional and social satisfaction was available nonetheless.34

Yet beyond these reasons for creating and joining hevrot, the decisive motivation for the individual may have been economic. Dues and other charges levied by congregations were at times too expensive, especially for newcomers. It was more advantageous to belong to one organization, the hevrah. With the rise of multiple synagogs in all the large towns, Jews could afford to ignore the implicit threat of the unitary synagog community which insisted on affiliation. Preferable was belonging to a confraternity which functioned at the same time as a mutual-aid organization. American religious volunteerism permitted the individual to make this choice. If economic self-interest was determinative, the newcomer hastened to join a mutual-aid organization. The individual who held membership in a congregation was never unaware of the fact that if, God forbid, he came upon evil days, the congregation would always make some provision for him. However the mutual-aid society as such was more appealing; the grants which it made were not charity. One paid dues, received benefits when needed, and at the same time retained self-respect. In addition to the religious benefits offered in such an organization—and they are not to be underestimated—the sick received cash grants, a species of unemployment insurance. Death benefits for funeral expenses and cash for the surviving widow and children were very important. Today the sums received seem pitifully small, but in the antebellum decades they were very helpful in tiding the family over a bad period.35


The creation of a hevrah implied abdication of authority by a synagog, a danger congregations quickly realized. At first, some insisted that those who joined an auxiliary organization must also become or remain members of the congregation. Money offerings for the hevrot in synagog services were at times subject to a limitation—in essence a form of restriction and of financial surveillance. The tendency to remove charities from congregational control may have been influenced by the American constitutional concept of separation of church and state. In classical Judaism, to be sure, such a distinction between religion and the secular world is not known; Jewish tradition has invariably insisted on ecclesiastical—i.e., synagogal—control of philanthropy. At best, or at worst, the hevrot were no more than semi-autonomous despite the fact that they had their own corps of officers, funds, and regulations, but synagogal control was gradually relaxed. Beginning in 1822, the Rodeph Shalom charity society reached out to the larger Jewish community and became, in effect, a practically autonomous organization in relation to its founding parent. Inasmuch as religious bias was very much a personal matter, some hevrot did not require their members to affiliate with a synagog, though it would be a mistake to interpret this as hostility to religion.

Was there, before 1840, a charity or a confraternity completely independent of a synagog or devoid of strong religious influence? Probably not a single one. Did reaching out to the Jewish community as a whole indicate a move in the direction of secularism? The answer is still no; there were no secular private charities during this period. Communalization is not tantamount to secularization nor is specialization in welfare work to be confused with secularization. Many individuals were apathetic religionists; some, in essence secularists, were willing to join a Jewish charity, while rejecting synagog membership for themselves, but—and this is important—the newly created fraternities were basically sympathetic to religion. Most of the immigrants, of course, were not educated, and were uninfluenced by the intellectual criteria of the Enlightenment, Deism, skepticism, and the scientific method. Early nineteenth-century Jews, many of them recent arrivals, were too close to the Jewish religious outlook of their Old World homelands to break with the synagog here despite their refusal to affiliate. Their apathy, if it existed, was merely neglect, not rejection of religion as such. Even the few Jewish intellectuals and political liberals were not thoroughgoing secularists; many, if not most, were synagogal members; some were active in the synagog as officers. The charities were dominated by religionists; all of these enterprises, it would seem, enjoyed good relations with the synagogs. To be sure, the degree of a synagog’s closeness to a society varied, but it was never absent. It is true, too, that the congregation gradually ceased to be the sole center of philanthropic activity as some of its work was taken over by special agencies. The point to be borne in mind is that delegating functions—decentralization, one might say—does not constitute secularization or dejudaization. The synagog remained the central Jewish religious institution in every town, and at no time during this period did it divorce itself completely from philanthropic work.36

In some towns, indeed, the first Jewish institution established was the charity society rather than the synagog, but what this indicates is not secularization but the pressing and immediate need for mutual aid in a pioneering community. Before long, this charity society began to assume the character of a congregation. Such associations had from the very first been proto-synagogs and had not failed to conduct religious services for bereaved Jews. It is not improbable that in some of the hevrot, such as the immigrant aid societies, secularism may have been inadvertently furthered, since these organizations were not religious in intent, even though their good works were rooted in religious sanctions. Individuals inclined toward secularism, yet wishing to identify ethnically as Jews could do so more easily in a philanthropic than in a synagogal setting. Still, that would have been on the whole unintentional. Social welfare, divorced from Judaism, would have been revolutionary and would have marked a break with the faith; there is no indication of such a departure at this time. The first overtly secular Jewish philanthropy in the United States made its appearance in New York in 1841, it called itself the New Israelite Sick-Benefit and Burial Society and, after all, how secular could its burial function have been?37

The Jewish agencies engaged in social welfare were the congregations, the confraternities, and the various societies concerned with education and the relief of impoverished children. What did these organizations do for those in need? Isaac M. Wise, who landed in New York in 1846, said that there were two philanthropic agencies and a number of decaying pious associations. He was rather taken aback to discover that there was no Jewish hospital in the country, nor any adequate provision made for widows and orphans. But Wise’s evaluation was unduly harsh. Before the late 1830’s—when the German immigration began in earnest—the Jewish population in the United States had been small. There was no inordinate amount of poverty and people in need were probably helped. The charitable system that had existed since colonial days prevailed; the poor were given food, clothing, fuel, and matzos for Passover. Transients were passed on to the nearest community or shipped to a distant port if the client so desired. There was no hospital and no need for one. The sick and old were subsidized or boarded out. Those unable to help themselves were given nursing care. Small loans, interest-free, had been made in the eighteenth century; in the early nineteenth century, more substantial loans were offered by the hevrot, and interest was charged. Members who borrowed from the charities were no doubt glad to pay the interest; they had little or no collateral, and the banks could be expected to deny them credit.38

Provision seems to have been made for orphans, too. They were not housed in institutions, but were nearly always boarded out in private homes. The care of orphans was tied up with education and apprenticeship. In those days when public schools were little better than pauper schools, the education of Jewish children was a matter of concern for congregations. Children of the poor could not afford the tuition for tutors or for good private schooling. Children were given a Jewish education—such as it was—by the synagog-community or a hevrah; the tuition bill at some humble private school was also picked up. A number of orphans may have been sent to the public schools, inadequate though they were. The aged were given a dole—a pension, as it were. Debtors, on occasion, were helped to leave jail; indentured servants were redeemed, though Jewry did not make a practice of it. Immigrant aid was the prime and constant problem for the congregations and the communities. A great many newcomers needed help, at least temporarily; the problem became acute when there was an economic depression or a sudden upsurge in the number of newcomers. French émigrés had to be taken care of in the 1790’s; refugees from St. Domingo landed in Charleston after the servile revolts.39

Efforts were made to provide work for the unemployed, although here, as in other areas, there were no organized systematic attempts to help the poor help themselves. When the charity societies ran out of money, they refused to go into debt to help people in need; they simply ceased to function as philanthropic organizations. No one can doubt that some claimants for help did take advantage of the competing Jewish agencies—which does not necessarily mean that the men and women who sought aid were malingerers or frauds; they needed all the help they could get. Conceivably an individual in distress might turn to a congregation, to a hevrah, to his own mutual-aid society, and even to a non-sectarian Gentile organization in which he was enrolled. He was often entitled to multiple benefits by virtue of the dues he had paid.40

It happened more than once that a Jew in the poorhouse turned to the community leaders and besought them to provide him with kosher food. The congregation had no choice but to help a man adhering to a Jewish way of life. Typical of these derelicts, and apparently there was a number, was Lyon Jonas, a furrier. Born in Poland, he emigrated to London and then crossed the ocean to New York. During the Revolutionary War period, he remained in the city under the British and continued in the fur business both as a wholesaler and retailer. In 1786, he feuded with the leaders of Shearith Israel; he was a flagrant violator of the Sabbath. Two decades later, he had come down in the world and been reduced to the status of a derelict. The congregation sent him to the local almshouse and paid his way. After a time, he refused to remain there—the food was not kosher—moved on to Philadelphia, where his son lived, and then once again came back to New York. The impatient congregation finally gave him a substantial sum on his promise to settle permanently in Baltimore. In less than two years, he was back in New York, where the congregation continued to support him. Seemingly, he spent his last days in an almshouse and died there in February, 1817; Shearith Israel saw to it that he was given a Jewish burial. How many other Jews in those days ended their lives as paupers?41

In the decades of the early republic, local congregations turned for aid to one another when they built anew. The congregations and the confraternities provided family relief and immigrant aid for the distressed. Transients were helped—particularly if they asked for a grant to leave town. Some of these wanderers were certainly professional beggars living off the bounty of the congregations and the charities in the different towns of their peregrinations. In general, the problems of relief facing American Jewry in those days are similar to those confronting welfare agencies today. The author of the biblical book of Deuteronomy was right: “the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11).

Were Jews satisfied with their charities? In order to answer this query, it is necessary to ask first what were their goals and what did they hope to accomplish. Their prime goal was to help Jews in need. It is true, however, that ambivalence characterized their conduct, a perhaps unconscious conflict in their approach to giving. English law and tradition made poverty almost a crime; the poor were viewed most unsympathetically. This harsh attitude to the impoverished is reflected in some of the congregational and charity society constitutions and in the annual report of the hevrot. By contrast, Judaism has maintained that all the impoverished must be helped and does not condemn them because they are poor. This ambivalence in the Jewry of that day manifested itself in the preferential treatment accorded clients of middle-class provenance; in practice, all Jewish suppliants, even professional beggars, schnorrers, were given aid. In the final analysis, poverty was not deemed a crime. Helping unfortunates strengthened the faith; bestowal of alms fortified the religious loyalties of the donor and the recipient alike. Liturgical differences and disparate European backgrounds may have kept Jews apart, but deeds of lovingkindness, gemilut hasadim, made them one. Communal societies united Jews and overrode congregational particularism. Since most Jews were essentially members of the same extended middle class, those in authority did not hesitate to respond to appeals from suppliants. It was a mitzvah to help a fellow Jew; observance of this divine injunction brought a double reward; “charity (righteousness) delivereth from death” (Proverbs, 10:2) and guarantees the generous a share in the world to come.

The ultimate imperative which prompted Jews to avoid the secular charities and to take care of their own was a very realistic one. Jews like other members of a “church” were not expected to turn to the state for help. In medieval tradition, it was the churches and allied institutions which took care of the poor; the Jews, too, had always done so in Europe. When the first Jews, impoverished, arrived at New Amsterdam in 1654, they appealed for relief, and not in vain, to the Dutch church. Stuyvesant was indignant; he expected the Jews, like other sects, to make provision for their own sick and helpless. In this instance, the governor was clearly unfair; he knew that these newcomers, fleeing from the Portuguese in Brazil, had been despoiled by a privateer and robbed of many of their possessions. Jews in this country have always feared that if they sent their poor to public welfare institutions, the Christians would turn against them despite the fact that Jews, like others, were taxpayers. Jews then were certainly apprehensive lest they incur the ill will of their “hosts.” What was equally true was that Jews had no desire to expose their poor to church indoctrination in any form. They believed also, and with justice, that public charity institutions did not want Jews. Municipal, county, and state eleemosynary agencies were pleased when Jews did not resort to them; this policy of the Jews lessened the financial burden on the general community. Jews were quite willing to submit to what was in effect double taxation. They believed—and rightly—that Jews in a poorhouse could not observe the Sabbath properly; there would be no kosher food. What was worse, they would be constantly exposed to conversionists: the almshouses were still strongly Christian; the Christian evangelical spirit and approach prevailed in those public establishments, and Christians, like Jews, deemed spiritual therapy as effective as medical care. Jesus saves! If a Jew, God forbid, died in an almshouse there would be no Jewish prayers and no proper burial. The Jews knew that they could and would take better care, spiritually and physically, of their needy; there is little doubt that Jewish standards of support and concern were higher than those which characterized the poorhouse.

If Jews did not look after their own, the impoverished in desperation might well turn to a life of crime or to the embrace of Christian missionaries! Making a virtue of necessity, Jews bragged that they provided for their own poor. Speaking at the annual assembly of a New York Jewish charity, Dr. Peixotto said that “the proudest badge of any sect is, and should be that none of its members are dependent on the public eleemosynary institutions.” The next decade found Leeser repeating this boast, and when the Philadelphia minister and communal leader died, a eulogist, Simon Wolf, assured his audience that there were no Jews in the poorhouse, no Jewish beggars in the streets, and exceedingly few of the Chosen People in the jails of the country. To a degree, of course, Wolf’s statement was true in the first half of the nineteenth century. In general, Jews were pleased with what they were doing for the poor. Their chief concern was immediate relief. Personally, emotionally, Jews enjoyed helping the needy; it gave them a good feeling. As far as the known records report, there was little thought of rehabilitating the impoverished. The rational “scientific” approach to the problem of poverty was not to be studied seriously until the decade before the Civil War.42


Comparatively still a miniscule group in 1840, American Jews were too busy solving their own welfare problems to play a role in reforming the larger society around them. Numerous Christian reformers in this generation were set on fighting the evils that threatened the whole of American society. Churches were often dedicated to social amelioration, to the abolition of slavery, capital punishment, prostitution, dueling, gambling, and alcoholism. They pleaded for medical care for the sick, for the establishment of hospitals, and for institutional care for orphans, the old, the insane, and the blind. They were fully aware that juvenile delinquency was a serious problem, and many Gentiles were sympathetic to the demands of women for more rights in almost every sphere of life. Jewry as a body turned away from social reforms; reformers were on the whole unpopular; Jews, both native-born and immigrants, sought low visibility. All Jews lived under the shadow—the memory—of European discriminatory laws, and, in 1840, at least four states of the Union persisted, in law, in looking upon Jews as second-class citizens. Jews were apprehensive and cautious. There were among them many humanitarians who manumitted their “servants,” but even these were not abolitionists. By and large, the hevrot were providing care for Jews comparable to what Gentile reformers envisaged for society as a whole. Jews had no sense of guilt; let the Christians practice Christianity and take care of their own. This suggests a certain detachment from the larger American society, a lack of understanding of the social problems confronting the country as a whole.43

Jewish congregations and communities fought shy of the major social reforms which so engrossed the attention and distinguished the activities of not a few Protestant churches in the early national period. Jews had yet to develop a philosophy—to say nothing of programs—of social justice. It would be another eighty years before a Jewish organization like the Central Conference of American Rabbis, founded in the late 1880’s, would seriously address itself to the problems of America’s new industrial society. But it was not only a diffidence inspired by Jewish historical experience which governed here; in addition, constantly facing the challenge of surviving from one depression to another, Jews could not afford what they considered the luxury of supporting social reforms. Social reformers in this country were spurred on by the suffering induced by the panic of 1837. The depression which began that year happened to coincide with the first perceptible surge of Jewish emigration from the German lands. Three hundred Jews, it is estimated, arrived in New York that year, and some of them were soon out of work. The tiny Jewish congregations and welfare organizations had to cope with a heavy charity load; new relief congeries for men and women were now formed in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Leeser, in this fateful year, made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia. Generosity, he assured his hearers, offered the Jews spiritual dividends; charity blessed the giver as much as the receiver. You can purchase eternal bliss by temporal sacrifice. God loves widows, orphans, and strangers! In New York, a number of Jews thought that the answer to the depression lay in a subsistence agricultural colony in Ulster County and established the utopian village of Sholem or Sholam—which faded away quickly enough when the depression passed and a measure of prosperity returned. Farming? It had been nearly 2,000 years since the Jews as a collectivity had been an agricultural and pastoral people.44

In a way, the panic of 1837 marked a watershed in American Jewish social welfare. In towns where there was more than one charity-dispensing organization, the Jews found it necessary to combine their resources and to think in communal terms. Needs would have to be resolved not by separate societies and institutions, but by the community as a whole. The town or communal approach to the problem of relief was never forgotten by those American Jews whose roots went back to the anterevolutionary days when the concept of a total community was regnant. Charity workers in the 1820’s were constantly reaching out to the community as a whole. When a Jew in Philadelphia deserted his little children, a member of the Ashkenazic United Hebrew Beneficent Society wrote to the Sephardim of Mikveh Israel inviting it and its charity affiliates to join in a common effort to help the children and thus keep them out of the hands of the missionaries.

When the economic impact of the Jackson-Van Buren depression was felt by American Jews, they were fully aware that welfare needs demanded federation not atomization. A joint committee from New York’s Anshe Chesed and Bnai Jeshurun met together in 1837 and proposed that the leaders of the city’s welfare societies conduct a common campaign to secure clothing, food, and cash for the suffering unemployed. One of the committee’s suggestions was that the poor be shipped to other towns. This was the philosophy of “removal,” really an evasion of responsibility and a return to the colonial tradition of shipping the poor to the nearest Jewish community. (“Removal” was an especially popular and recommended approach when the East European Jews began descending upon New York in the years 1880–1920.) The committee urged the newcomers to learn a craft and appealed to the local Jewry to patronize Jewish artisans. The year 1837 also witnessed an unsuccessful effort to unite the synagogs of New York in a common effort to bury impoverished strangers. From the 1830’s on, no decade would pass without an attempt to federate the charities. There were many marked successes.45


In the days of the early republic, as in the preceding colonial decades, the synagog did not fail to take care of its poor. Jews looked askance at public welfare institutions, because they were Christian in spirit and conduct. With the arrival of newcomers in numbers and the developing need to assist them, a desire arose for a more efficient administration of the charities. It is not improbable that a sense of alienation impelled the newcomers to seek more togetherness. Though the congregation as such never ceased to dole out alms, there was now a wish to establish confraternities to provide for the needs of the immigrants. The mutual-aid aspect of these societies attracted the immigrants; this type of insurance was all they could afford, but it was imperative that they secure it. Owing to such factors as liturgical particularism on the part of some, religious apathy on the part of others, a preference for ethnic rather than religious identification, and the inability of many individuals to pay dues to more than one association, these hevrot began to emancipate themselves from congregational control. Still it bears repetition: no truly secular Jewish charities took shape in the United States during this early national period. It is doubtful, too, whether even one hevrah before 1840 did not maintain some ties to a congregation.

Was the actual social service rendered in revolutionary and postrevolutionary days different in nature and intent from what had prevailed in earlier periods? There were no perceptible differences. With the exception of an occasional paid beadle or dues collector, the confraternity welfare workers were all volunteers. The actual social work done was carried on by these businessmen who had a sense of duty, of obligation to the community. Nathan Hart, of Charleston, is typical. This man, one of the city’s prominent citizens, was active in politics during the Nullification controversy. As a Jew, he served Congregation Beth Elohim as president, and when the break came with the Reformers, aligned himself with the Orthodox. A staunch traditionalist, he objected to organ playing not only on the Sabbath but at any religious service. Hart’s firm conviction that money must not be handled on the Sabbath disallowed any collection for a communal Gentile charity on that sacred day, though he did encourage a collection for such a charity when there were no religious services; indeed, he helped raise a very substantial sum. As president of Beth Elohim, he encouraged the giving of charity by the congregation and, though not wealthy, gave liberally of his own funds. He visited the sick and served actively in the local burial confraternity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, whose presidency he held.46

All in all, that generation knew no excessive number of Jewish charity societies, for the communities were small and congregations handled many of the welfare cases. In all likelihood, too, there was no compelling need for new hevrot prior to the late 1830’s, because the number of impoverished families was still relatively small. By 1840, New York with its estimated 7,000 Jews had about 10 such organizations. The new towns west of the tidewater were satisfied with one pious association, or at the most two. Was there anything unique about these groups? Not perceptibly so, though no two were quite alike. Originally, each association was established to meet specific needs—to provide for immigrants or orphans, to care for the sick and to bury the dead, to supply fuel or matzos, to educate and clothe the children of the poor. Ultimately, to be sure, all were similar in that they became multipurpose eleemosynary institutions. Even the mutual-aid societies, which limited their benefits to their own membership, tended to help others in distress. Most of the confraternities were willing on occasion to aid other Jewish institutions in need; they sent money to suffering Jews in other towns, and were generous to Christian organizations which turned to them. Though these confraternities never lost sight of their original purpose, they did extend their philanthropic horizons.

Women now became active in charity work. In some towns they reached out tentatively and began to help the men. More significant is the fact that women’s societies developed in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati. Women may have engaged informally in social service during the colonial period, but the sources are silent on this subject. One of the reasons that the women began to busy themselves with good works in the early nineteenth century was that the men now turned to them and urged them to do the actual footwork. Why now and not in the eighteenth century? Any answer would be a guess, but this much is known: the Gentile women had now began to organize themselves; the Jewesses, members of a comfortable middle class, could do no less. Some Jewish women were not content merely to do housework; a few were active in business. They wanted to occupy and express themselves. Jewish women were living in an age when Gentile women began to unite and find themselves by working in the charities; some of these Christian women—not many—dedicated themselves to social reform, to temperance, to the abolition of slavery, and to the quest for women’s rights. A few Jewish women were “feminists” only in their desire to be somebody, to let their personalities flower; they were generally in no degree assertive except in their humanitarian urge to help others, especially fellow Jews.

At first glance, the hevrot as a phenomenon would seem to be centrifugal in nature, a threat to communal unity. Actually, these societies strengthened a community by helping Jews of disparate tendencies to identify as Jews in an emotionally satisfying fashion. Thus immigrants remained loyal despite the shock of coming to terms with a new land and an overpowering milieu. In the course of time, the hevrot expanded their admission policies and extended their benefactions to the larger Jewish community; they became true communal agencies. In colonial and postrevolutionary days, up to about 1800, a monolithic Sephardic community had controlled worship, education, and philanthropy, but, with the appearance of multiple congregations, the unitary synagog-community ceased to exist. Some of the congregational hevrot which now came into being evolved after decades into communal agencies and thus became instruments of unification. Ultimately, in the late twentieth century, the local federation of charities became the primary institution reconstituting after a fashion the unity which had once prevailed on a religious basis in the eighteenth century. There was this difference of course; the new cement in the twentieth century was no longer religion; it was charity and ethos. Back in the early 1800’s, however, every hevrah was a highly appealing mini-Jewry offering the seeker security, peace, companionship and friendship.47

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