The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Minnie F. Low
Superintendent Bureau of Personal Service, Chicago

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

During the Russian Jewish immigration of 1881-82, about two thousand persons found refuge in the city of Chicago. A special committee, known as the Russian Refugee Aid Committee, had full charge of the immigrants and of the many problems incident to their care. The committee, which was composed of representative citizens, was independent of the Hebrew Relief Association. It succeeded in handling the difficulties of providing for the immigrants in a satisfactory manner. About $14,000 was contributed as a special fund to defray the expense incurred.

Families were separated in groups of ten, each group being installed in a temporary home, with one family at the head. The privileges of such a home were ordinarily granted for three weeks. At the end of that time a family was expected to be in a position to take quarters on its own responsibility. Most of the people settled in a district now known as the Ghetto, which even at that early time contained a large Jewish population.

Every possible effort was made by the committee to procure employment for the heads of families, and so responsive did the general public in the city prove that it was only during the last few months of the year that it was necessary to send the immigrants into the country towns throughout the state. The majority of the men were either merchants or peddlers; some were laborers, and a very small number mechanics. A member of the committee recently stated that most of the immigrants succeeded fairly well in their various lines of employment, and very few were afterwards forced upon the care of the Hebrew Relief Association.

During the past twenty years or more, the many Jewish relief-giving societies had been working independently, without due co-operation, or a spirit of mutual helpfulness. Each society had its own method of raising annually the necessary funds for the year's work. The public was, therefore, continually annoyed by the receipt of benefit tickets, through the mail, or otherwise, for balls, festivals, theatrical performances, concerts, card parties, and other forms of entertainment. In order to bring the various philanthropic forces of the city, especially the relief agencies, into closer and more sympathetic relation and to establish a plan of raising money in a manner more acceptable to contributors to charity, the Associated Jewish Charities of Chicago was organized.

The new organization received its charter in April, 1900. "The particular business and objects for which it is formed are to provide a permanent, efficient and practical mode of collecting, administering and distributing the contributions of the Jews and others of Chicago for private charitable purposes; to put into practical and efficient operation the best systems for relieving and preventing want, and checking pauperism among the Jewish poor of said city; to aid the sick, the aged, the poor, the unfortunate, the widows and orphans." This new association proved a financial success in the first year if its existence.

One of the most desirable results has been the consolidation of all relief-giving agencies. Relief, such as donations of cash, fuel and clothing, is distributed through one central body, the Relief Department of the United Hebrew Charities. The women's organizations formerly contributing relief have practically given up work of this nature, and are devoting their energies to specific charities designated by the United Hebrew Charities.

The institutions and societies receiving support from the Associated Jewish Charities are: The United Hebrew Charities, for running expense of the Michael Reese Hospital; Dispensary and Relief Department, with its branches; Home for Aged Jews; Chicago Home for Jewish Orphans; Jewish Manual Training School; Maxwell Street Settlement; Bureau of Personal Service; Home for Jewish Friendless and Working Girls; the Woman's Loan Association; Chicago Lying-in Dispensary and Hospital, for Dispensary Department. Donations are also sent to the Cleveland Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the National Home for Consumptives at Denver.

Although the institutions supported by the Associated Jewish Charities are managed by their special boards of directors, they are visited by sub-committees from the central organization and are subject to that organization.
In October, 1859, the several societies dispensing charity to the Jewish poor of Chicago organized for the purpose of working jointly under the name of the United Hebrew Relief Association. The object was to aid distressed coreligionists by providing medical assistance and material relief. For the twenty years succeeding the formation of this union of societies about $120,000 was expended in the relief department proper. The subscriptions to this general relief fund increased steadily from year to year, $389,500 having been received from 1879 to 1899, inclusive, the expenditures keeping pace with the receipts. During the greater part of its existence, the Relief Department has conducted under its auspices the Michael Reese Hospital, the West Side Free Dispensary, and a labor bureau. The organization is now known as the United Hebrew Charities. It is located on the South Side at 223 Twenty sixth Street, somewhat distant from the congested districts. The Relief Department confers the ordinary benefits of such a department, distributing mainly cash, clothing and fuel. Transportation is an item of considerable expense to the association. Since the organization of the Associated Jewish Charities, the scope of the work of the United Hebrew Charities has been materially enlarged.

The Michael Reese Hospital (established in 1881) contains fully 65 per cent. of Russian Jews among its patients annually, according to its superintendent. The number of patients, about 2,000, shows how large is the work of this institution. An additional equipment is needed and the sum of $400,000 has recently been raised for a new hospital on the old grounds.

A dispensary for poor Jews was founded and located in the Ghetto district during 1893. This dispensary is a part of the United Hebrew Charities and is in charge of a special board. The spacious quarters and excellent equipment of a new building erected a few years ago have delighted physician and patient alike and made it possible to do much more effective work.

In February, 1884, an employment bureau was opened in connection with the United Hebrew Charities in its office on Twenty-sixth Street. The object of this bureau is to make families self-supporting by securing employment for the wage workers. The majority of the applicants are laborers, mechanics, and factory workers. The stock yards, iron yards, tanneries, various other factories, and department stores co-operate with this bureau. Merchants, hucksters and peddlers are helped by the loan societies, which thus materially supplement the work of the Employment Bureau.
The Chicago Woman's Aid, an organization for literary and philanthropic purposes, for three seasons supported a work-room for women. The work-room was in charge of a paid superintendent, and members of the society took an active part in the executive and personal service departments. Work was provided for about five months each year during the winter. Since the union of all relief-giving forces, the work-room became part of and supported by the United Hebrew Charities. The members of the Chicago Woman's Aid, however, superintended the management of the work-room and were active in the same manner as heretofore. The rooms were on the West Side, within walking distance of Hull House, thus being convenient for women who wish to leave their young children at the Hull House Day Nursery. The hours were from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and from 1 to 4 p.m. The superintendent was assisted by one permanently employed cutter and several who work part of the time. In extreme cases, work was supplied at home, but it was preferred to have women come to the work room. The garments made were baby outfits, including skirts, nightgowns, sheets, etc. Other articles made were ladies' underwear, calico wrappers, children's dresses, boys' blouses, overalls, physicians' coats, and linens, such as towels, pillow cases and sheets. The beneficiaries of the work room were such women as would ordinarily be entitled to the benefits of relief societies, especially the United Hebrew Charities. Abandoned wives, widows, and women with invalid husbands were employed. They received seventy-five cents a day. The daily earnings were formerly fifty cents. When payment was made at this rate, it was still necessary, in most cases, for the United Hebrew Charities to advance the rent for the women employed. It was, therefore, considered advisable to let the women earn the extra amount, instead of having them apply to the Relief Department for it. A warm lunch was furnished.

The employment of these women, requiring them to give at least a partial equivalent for what they get, is a most creditable way of helping them. It is far superior to the old-time method of unconditional giving. It tends to keep
them away from the relief agencies, fosters self-respect, and is, in many ways, a most wholesome substitute for alms. It gives those who ordinarily spend their days in dingy, unclean tenements an opportunity to leave the crowded quarters for seven hours a day, to breathe purer air, to learn the value of cleanliness, and to live in an atmosphere of cheerfulness and refinement.

The Home for Jewish Orphans was founded in March, 1893. In the fall of the following year a private residence was rented in the southern portion of the city, where orphans were sheltered until 1899, when the present permanent Home was ready for occupancy. It is located opposite the Home for Aged Jews, corner Drexel Avenue and Sixty-second Street. It is for the benefit of orphans, residents of Cook County, where the death of the parent or parents occurs within the boundaries of the county. Children of an insane parent are also eligible. The number of inmates is 172, of whom 90 per cent. are of Russian or Polish Jewish origin.

The Home for Aged Jews was opened for occupancy in 1893. Of the 71 inmates in the Home, 12 are Russian and Polish Jewish. Ordinarily, the aged Russian and Polish Jews cannot be prevailed upon to enter this Home. It is impossible to convince them that all the laws pertaining to a strictly kosher plan (that is with food served according to the Mosaic law) are enforced. For this reason, the Russian Jews of Chicago have made strenuous efforts to establish their own home for the aged, which they maintain in a manner to suit the orthodox.

The Home for Jewish Friendless and Working Girls is a recent addition. There are 120 occupants of its building.
Early in the winter of 1900, a number of Russian Jews on the West Side held local meetings for the purpose of enlisting the sympathies of the people in behalf of a home for aged orthodox Jews. The idea was conceived by residents of the Russian district, where many of the aged live in privation and want. Appeals for contributions were sent to local societies, to the social and beneficial organizations, and to the Russian Jews at large. The project was enthusiastically received. Ground valued at $5,600 was purchased opposite one of the large parks of the city, far removed from the haunts of poverty. For an entire week during December, 1900, a bazaar was held for the benefit of the Home fund. The Russian Jewish population worked arduously to make this affair a success, and their efforts were rewarded by a $11,000 cash account to be added to the fund already in hand. The Home received its first inmates May 3, 1903. There are 48 inmates (1904).

The Bureau of Personal Service was organized in November, 1897. The Bureau is administrative in its policy, its object being to bring into closer co-operation the philanthropic forces of the neighborhood, to establish a thorough system of investigation and registration, and to promote social service. It is non-sectarian, but is located in the Russian Jewish settlement and fully ninety-five per cent. of the applicants are of the Jewish faith.

The school census of 1898 showed that in the Seventh, Eighth and Nineteenth Wards, immediately adjoining each other, there were 15,339 foreign born Russian Jews, and 13,678 American born, making a total of 29,017. The greatest number of these are located in the immediate vicinity of the Bureau, which is in the heart of the Ghetto.

The Bureau gives relief only in emergency cases, referring applicants to the proper organizations for permanent help. The giving of alms is not advocated, nor is a single person recommended for such, unless no substitute can be found. Despite the fact that the office is in the midst of the greatest poverty in the city, it is not looked upon as a relief agency. In all other matters pertaining to the family life, or the needs of the poor apart from material relief, the good offices of the Bureau are sought. Throughout the neighborhood the bureau workers are called "the mothers of the poor." This expression shows clearly the sentiment of the people toward the Bureau and its relation to them. As the mother aims to meet the needs of her children, caring for their minor grievances and complaints, as well as for their grave necessities and troubles, so the Bureau endeavors to serve the poor of the vicinity. It stands as a friendly service society, stopping only at the repeated bestowal of alms.

The Bureau is in active co-operation with all the relief societies of the city; with the courts, inasmuch as they are concerned with ordinary problems of justice affecting the poor; with the loan organizations; with other societies engaged in preventive charity; and with all medical, housing, and correctional institutions or societies.

Both the superintendent and the assistant superintendent are probation officers of the juvenile court. The question of caring for dependent children, not orphans, and for delinquent Jewish children had not heretofore been considered by philanthropic workers among the Jews of Chicago. The great need of doing preventive work with and for the children, particularly of the West Side, was so strongly forced upon the attention of the Bureau, that it appeared an unpardonable neglect of duty to overlook it any longer. The system of paroling a child not only gives to the probation officer access to the home and authority over the child, but brings her into close and sympathetic relations with the entire family. It has been astonishing to the Chicago public to learn that many of the children of the Ghetto are on the road to delinquency. The success of working in a friendly way with children and parents has been most gratifying.
Fully one half of the entire time of the employees of the Bureau is spent in personal service and friendly intercourse with the neighborhood people.

A work-room for women was conducted in connection with the Bureau, upon its premises. Payment was in kind at the rate of fifty cents per day; cash was given only in the most urgent cases and then not regularly. The payment in kind was on a very liberal scale. Besides food, fuel and second-hand clothing, women had the privilege of purchasing household goods, shoes, new wearing apparel, or any necessary merchandise to the amount of their earnings. From two to five days' work per week was allowed applicants, according to their needs it is very evident, especially during the winter season, that the names of many families appear on the records of relief societies merely for clothing and fuel. Opportunity for purchasing these necessities by a certain amount of labor was afforded through the work-room. The reports for the winter months show that nearly all the work was paid in coal, shoes, and clothes. Second-hand clothing was solicited by the Work-room Committee. In this way women could earn dresses and wraps of fine, serviceable materials, which they could not possibly have gotten otherwise.

The two work-rooms to which reference has been made have gone out of existence, but a description of them has nevertheless been thought desirable.

The Russian Jew of Chicago occupies a unique position in his idea of regenerative philanthropy. No actual relief
distributing agency has been established through this population. The need of such an agency has probably not been felt, owing to the existence of the United Hebrew Charities. Nevertheless, the Russian Jew loves to give; to give freely in his own peculiar way, and never seems quite so happy as when contributing his mite towards a charitable cause. The demands upon him often become burdensome, for it is the poor man, he who earns just enough to meet his own meagre demands, who takes pleasure in giving to others. His idea of method, or a discriminate bestowing of alms, is indeed vague. In fact, he thinks very little about it. If his neighbor is in distress, he considers himself responsible, in a measure, for the welfare of that neighbor. If necessary, all his friends and acquaintances are called upon to share the responsibility. As he has established no relief agency to which he may apply for aid, he works on the theory that he is his brother's keeper. What is contributed annually, in a quiet way, by private donations, for special cases of distress, to individuals or to families, cannot well be estimated, but the amount would without doubt be surprising.

The liberal attitude that the Ghetto resident assumes toward his neighbor in distress, the sacrifices he makes, the inconveniences he suffers, the privations he endures,--his generous bestowal of time and self--are worthy of emulation; the charity of the poor for the poor puts our own to shame. The poor Russian Jew teaches us the highest type of charity. There is always room in the smallest tenement--though there be but two beds with seven occupants-- for the neighboring family that is temporarily homeless; there is always a crust of bread, dry though it be, for the hungry one who needs it. A little coal can be cheerfully spared--though there be but a bucketful--if the children nearby are suffering from the cold. How gladly the proud possessor of a bonnet ties the precious object upon the head of her less fortunate sister when the latter finds it necessary to leave the neighborhood for some special purpose. Not the bonnet alone, but very often dress and wrap are loaned with equal readiness. How many a woman, the mother of a large family of little ones, goes into another home where sickness has entered, and nurses the suffering one back to health. How earnestly she goes about the work, preparing the necessary articles of diet, ministering to the needs of the little ones, doing in that strange home what she does in her own, even to the wielding of the scrub brush for the Sabbath cleaning! It is this beautiful spirit of sharing himself and what belongs to him that constitutes the greatest charm of the Russian Jew.
Among the local Russian Jewish organizations, there are a few of minor importance, purely charitable in purpose, each having a distinct object, so that none interferes with or duplicates the work of the other. The most important local society working in the Ghetto and deriving the greater part of its support from the residents of the district is the Society for the Free Burial of the Dead. About $5,000 is raised annually, most of the money being subscribed in weekly contributions of five, ten, or fifteen cents. Two collectors are employed for gathering these small amounts from hundreds of patrons. The society owns its own burial ground and a hearse, and employs an undertaker at a salary of $50 a month.

The Chicago Young Men's Hebrew Charity Association, composed of young men, Russians or of Russian parentage, does more or less relief work in the winter months, expending about $500 during the season. The Bread for the Hungry Society distributes bread and meat once a week to deserving poor. The Woman's Society, conducted in connection with the Montefiore Free School, furnishes clothing for poor boys of the school. A Sheltering Home, a small institution, is for the benefit of strangers. Transients and newcomers are given temporary lodging free of charge.

Most of the subscriptions to these various local charities are raised in small amounts, five or ten cents weekly being the usual contribution from each subscriber. In fact, this is the method in vogue throughout the district for the collection of monies for charitable purposes.

As has been indicated, the charities of the Russian Jews do not show evidence of method or union of forces. In fact, relief work, and all branches of philanthropy usually classed under this head, are considered of secondary importance to the provision of some wholesome substitute for alms. Within the Ghetto proper, including an area of about a dozen square blocks, twelve societies, each independent, are engaged in loaning money to the poorest classes. All but one, the Woman's Loan, are managed in connection with congregations. Loans, however, are not restricted to members of congregations. Any poor Jew, regardless of belief or nationality, may become eligible to its good offices, by complying with the conditions of the society . This plan of offering a substitute for alms to the self-respecting poor is one which, in its essentials did not originate in this country. It is a custom that the Russian Jews brought with them from their native homes.

In all our large cities and even in many of the smaller ones we find hospitals for the sick, institutions for the afflicted and dependent, societies and relief agencies for the benefit of periodically recurrent or emergency cases of distress. Yet we do not make adequate provision or offer proper relief to the respectable poor, temporarily in want, or handicapped through lack of employment, nor do we reach those who might be able to help themselves by entering into some legitimate occupation on their own responsibility and thus be spared the humiliation of receiving alms. The particular phase of philanthropy which furnishes a wholesome substitute for alms in the case of the independent, self-respecting poor, seems to have been strangely overlooked by the Jewish people engaged in caring for the needs of their Russian brethren.

We find many among our poor Russian and Polish Jews, though utterly unskilled in the trades, or incompetent, through lack of proper physical development, to serve as laborers, who are still able to deal in certain wares, or conduct small business concerns, on their own account. The amount required to give them a start and an occasional lift is considerably less than would be the cost of pensioning them by a relief society. However opposed a man may be to accepting gifts unconditionally,--when he becomes through force of circumstances initiated in the pangs of hunger, when his family are suffering for want of bread, and no employment is open to him, he is naturally forced to accept aid either outright or conditionally. The "outright" policy is most dangerous, for it opens invitingly the doors to pauperism. The man who with reluctance and aversion tastes the first bitterness of alms gradually, with ambition and manhood stunted, looks upon charity as a necessity, and finally as a natural right.

The Russian Jew, the Jew of the Ghetto, has taught us the lesson of preventing such demoralization, by offering to the poor not alms but a wise substitute. Give the honest poor but half a chance and they will surprise the skeptical.
Loan a small amount to a man struggling for existence, let him invest it in a legitimate occupation, let him by thrift manage to keep body and soul together; let him at the same time repay the loan in small installments, without flinching, and without shirking his responsibility, and what greater proof do we require that undaunted courage, ambition, honor, and manliness are virtues of the poor ? Not to annihilate but rather to preserve these sterling qualities is the mission of the loan organizations. Not only are these societies educational, not only do they stand for preventive relief, fostering self respect, but hundreds are annually spared the necessity of becoming the victims of chattel mortgage companies, pawn brokers and money lenders. What the contact of the poor with the latter agencies means needs no explanation; their unscrupulous methods, and the hardships endured through them are patent facts.
The Russian Jews are a thrifty people, thoroughly appreciating the benefits accruing to them as beneficiaries of loan societies. The borrower soon realizes that the loan organization is to him no more nor less than a savings bank, where the original amount is loaned to him with the privilege of borrowing it again when it has been repaid. Thus, each time he pays his small weekly installment, he is saving so much out of his earnings for his particular use at some future day. It is this advantage that accounts for the prompt returns on money loaned and the fact that fully 95 per cent. of all money so loaned is promptly repaid.

In the Chicago Ghetto, along the Jefferson Street markets, as well as throughout the entire district, there are comparatively few of the peddlers, vendors, and keepers of small stands and shops, who have not been given a start in life or helped over rugged places by loans from local organizations. Many confess that it is this opportunity of periodically borrowing money that has saved them from absolute need. It is marvelous that the poorest of the poor, physically weakened from suffering and privation, herded together like animals, seemingly without the necessities of life, with homes barren of the most ordinary comforts, can have the courage to borrow money and return it as they do dollar for dollar. It is gratifying to see many slowly, very slowly, creeping up from urgent distress to comparative comfort without the loss of self respect and with the ennobling conviction that they are meeting their obligations honestly.
The business method in vogue in all the loan societies is more or less uniform. Loans are made in purely a business way. Each borrower gives his note, indorsed by a reliable guarantor. He borrows the money with the knowledge that he must repay it. All loans are returned in weekly payments. The work in connection with the societies is voluntary, no paid officers being employed. The reliability of guarantors is always inquired into, and most of the societies investigate the needs of the borrowers. This is necessary in order to prevent fraud and the borrowing of money as a subterfuge for obtaining alms, or for purposes not consistent with the objects of the organizations.

The capital of these societies is altogether about $15,000: The entire amount is reloaned about three times annually, the sum of about $45,000 being actually placed at the disposal of borrowers during a year's time. In most societies loans are returnable in ten installments. The Woman's Loan Association allows twenty weeks. About fifteen weeks is the average time for repayment in full. It can therefore be readily seen that the original capital of $15,000 is loaned at least three times during a year. The loans are usually for amounts of $10, $15, or $20, and up to $100 or more. Probably not less than one thousand persons avail themselves of the offices of these societies.

The financial standing of the guarantor is not so grave a consideration as might be inferred from the fact that his signature to a note makes him liable for payment, in case the borrower fails to meet his obligation. An honest borrower is more desirable than the wealthiest guarantor. In cases where a man has made his payments promptly, so that his integrity and sense of honor have been established, a second signature becomes a matter of form. There are many instances where both borrower and guarantor are equally poor, yet equally honest. Ordinarily, it is not the well-to-do that act as guarantors. The shopkeeper with an established trade, or the owner of a small tenement, regardless of encumbrances, are the ones who stand ready to confer a favor upon the needy. The risk is small. The poor realize fully that the guarantor is a friend in the hour of need and that it is necessary to keep faith with him.

The Woman's Loan Association, composed of about fifty prominent Russian Jewish women, claims to be the only organization of its kind managed entirely by women. Only women are accepted as active members, and all business is transacted by them. Records of its work are kept and a thorough investigation is made of all applicants for loans, and of the financial standing of the guarantors. The Bureau of Personal service furnishes the investigators. The loan committee meets at its office every Monday evening from 7:30 to 10:30 for the transaction of business. Not a single loan was lost in the first three years that the association was at work.

In the fall of 1893, the first steps were taken in the Chicago ghetto to introduce this most creditable form of philanthropy.

While at times alms are absolutely necessary, through lack of forethought or failure to make adequate provision, a relief organization is often responsible for implanting habits that only too frequently become a menace to self respect. Many applicants for relief could be educated to a higher standard of accepting help. Where the question of relief alone is considered, those who have become hardened to asking aid and those who, on the contrary, are painfully conscious of being forced to apply for alms, are compelled to knock alike at the same door and pass through the same ordeal. Under such circumstances, even the sensitively inclined cannot be spared certain humiliating experiences in their relations with relief societies.







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