The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Mrs. Benjamin Davis

* - 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."

We find upon investigation that the Russian Jewish people have accomplished more than they are generally credited with, and that as soon as opportunity is open to them they make good use of it and stand at least on a par with their brethren of other nationalities.

They do not wish to be patronized, they desire to be understood, and not being understood by their German Jewish brethren, who often look down upon them, they choose to dwell among their own kind and to live according to their traditional customs. They are generally industrious and thrifty, and their first interest, after providing for their families, is in the synagogue and the religious school.

They are often charged with being dirty, sometimes filthy; but if we reflect that after arriving on these shores their first residence is generally in a neglected section of the city, and the first object lessons they receive consist of dirty streets and alleys and broken down tenements without sanitary accommodations, we shall be less ready to find fault. Put these immigrants into model houses where bath rooms, pure air, and sunshine are not unknown, where the members of the family can have sleeping rooms apart from the common living rooms, so that privacy is not infringed upon, and then if they do not come up to your expectations, blame them if you will; but not while they are in such dirty, restricted and ill-kept quarters. Blame, first, the city administration that allows such disgraceful conditions to exist; second, the niggardly householder who will not keep his premises in decent condition, but extorts from the poor exorbitant rental; and last, the weary mother of numerous children, whose two hands must keep house and children clean and perform the many duties that devolve upon her. Surely, the maxim of one of our sages, "Judge not thy fellow man until thou heat been put in his place," should be borne in mind when such charges are made.

Surrounded by so many unfavorable conditions, many Russian Jews notwithstanding consider it imperative to belong to a congregation and to provide religious instruction for their children. They know that the public school will attend to their secular education, so out of their scant earnings they pay synagogue and Talmud Torah (religious school) dues. The synagogue plays a very important part in the daily life of the orthodox Russian Jew, for his life and religion are so closely interwoven that public divine worship is to him a duty and a pleasure. The synagogue is the religious and social centre around which the activity of the community revolves and has now become, since the formation of auxiliary loan societies, a distributing agency for its various philanthropies, where "personal service" is not a fad, but has always been recognized in dealing with the unfortunate. Small wonder is it that the orthodox Russian Jew clings to his synagogue. It is open not only "from early morn till dewy eve," but far into the night, and in some cases the doors are never closed. Daily worship begins early, so that the laboring man can attend service and yet be in time for his work. There are morning, afternoon, and evening services--seldom attended by women. Often the peddler's cart can be seen standing near the entrance while the owner is at prayer within. On Sabbaths and holy days services are always well attended by men and women, the latter occupying a gallery set apart for their use.

Expense is not spared in making the exercises interesting to the older people, but little is done to attract the younger generation. The beautiful Hebrew language, which they do not understand, is used exclusively in the service. And when there is a sermon it is in Yiddish, and rather tedious and uninteresting for the young people, who are almost starving for that religious food which would satisfy the heart and mind.

Connected with the synagogue is the beth hamedrash, or house of learning, where students of religious literature are always welcome, and Bible and Talmud are studied and discussed. Many take advantage of the opportunity thus afforded, and form study circles or meet for devotional reading. There is much to attract and hold the older generation, who are continually receiving accessions from abroad and in their lives the synagogue means much, if not all worth striving for.

The beginning of a congregation is generally a minyan or gathering of at least ten men for divine worship. Thisis held in rented quarters. As soon as a sufficient number of members are gained they resolve to form an organization, and when funds are forthcoming a house of worship is bought or built.

The Ohave Sholom Mariampol, the oldest congregation, began in this way in 1872. Its property was destroyed by fire in 1874, after which a hall was again rented. Its membership increased rapidly, smaller congregations joined it, and its present structure was erected in 1888 at a cost of $6,250. Nearly all the charitable organizations of the West Side can trace their origin to this congregation, whose membership is now one hundred and fifty. In 1890 certain members became displeased and seceded, forming the Mishne U'gemoro Congregation, excluding from membership all who were not strict adherents of traditional law. They now have 55 members and own their building.

The largest congregation is the Anshe Kenesseth Israel, which was organized originally as Anshe Russia in 1875. In 1887 it united with Kenesseth Israel and later Anshe Suwalk joined. It now numbers 200 members, possesses a building valued at $35,000, twenty Sepher Torahs (Scrolls of the Law), and a large library for religious study circles.
The synagogues not only serve religious needs but do a large amount of philanthropic work. There are about twenty-five on the West Side, representing an investment of approximately $90,000, and a membership of more than 2,000. These congregations are self-supporting, members contributing annual dues, ranging from $6 to $12. Permanent or life seats are from $100 to $150 each. Yearly rentals are from 50 cents to $5, entitling the holder to a seat for himself and one in the gallery for his wife or other female relative. In addition to synagogue dues there are dues for the Talmud Torah (Hebrew Free School) ; the Hachnosis Orchim (Shelter for Strangers) ; the Beth Moshav Zkeinim (Home for the Aged) ; the Lechem L'rovim (Dread for the Hungry); the Gomley Chesed Shel Emeth (Association for the Free Burial of the Poor); the free loan associations which loan money to those in need and charge no interest; the yeshibahs or strictly orthodox advanced schools of Jewish learning in this city and in Russia; the Palestine chaluka or charity for indigent Jews of the Holy Land. Before Pesach, or Passover, a fund is raised to supply the poor with matzoth (Passover cakes) and other necessaries, and when winter sets in coal is given to poor families. The Mariampol Congregation now gives sick benefits and endowments to members, but how this plan will work as time goes on remains to be seen.

The few well-to-do men of a congregation often distribute many tons of coal among the struggling poor, and with the gift is generally given the friendship of the giver. The poor man is not regarded as a beggar; he is encouraged to tell his troubles and difficulties and receives in return friendly advice and assistance. The free loan associations have proven a great success and deserve special mention because the recipients of aid show a desire not to accept charity except when dire necessity compels.

The dues for all the auxiliary societies are collected by paid agents who receive about six or seven dollars per week. They are furnished with perforated stamp books, in which each stamp is a receipt for five or ten cents. They give these when they make the weekly collections. This way of paying dues is found the most convenient for the people of small income.

We should not be surprised that the Russian Jews have not established large institutions with their own means, as the capital to be drawn upon is limited. It is estimated that out of an income of seven or eight dollars per week an average man gives twelve dollars per year for religious or charitable purposes, that is, three per cent. of his gross income.

The use of the synagogues is given freely for meetings, religious, charitable, or educational. It shows a broad sentiment, when, as was the case one winter, women were allowed to speak from the pulpits of orthodox synagogues and make appeals for the Beth Moshab Zkeinim Bazaar, which was given for the purpose of erecting a home for aged Jews, to be conducted according to orthodox custom. The religious sentiment underlying this movement was strong; it served to enlist orthodox Jews all over the city, with the result that in less than a year's time the B. M. Z. Association had bought a lot of ground in a good location. The bazaar was then undertaken by a band of noble men and women and the gross receipts amounted to over $13,000, the expenditures about $2,000. This large amount came chiefly from the pockets of the middle class and the poor, for the wealthy German co-religionists, with a few noteworthy exceptions, held aloof. A Jewish philanthropist encouraged the movement by a donation of $20,000, on condition that a building valued at $40,000 be erected. On May 3, 1903, the Home, costing in all about $85,000, received its first inmates and it has been successful in upholding religious regulations. A second bazaar for the purpose of paying off a mortgage of $20,000 was recently given and the amount realized was sufficient, leaving the building free of debt.
One excellent result of this movement was the bringing out of the younger people interested in orthodox Judaism and the evidence it gave them of the effective power of organization. Would that these young men and women, reared in this blessed land of liberty, with enthusiasm unbounded, with spiritual yearnings unsatisfied, could find adequate provision made for them in the synagogue. But there is none and they remain away. The only opportunity they have of hearing an English sermon or prayer is in the reform or conservative temples, where changes in the service have been made, of which they cannot approve, but which they are gradually led to condone. The strong attachment they feel for the traditions of their fathers could yet be maintained and developed and directed into desirable channels if the eyes of their elders could be opened and they would insist on having a modern orthodox English preacher in the synagogue and some portion of the service in English.

The young people are gradually drifting away from religious influences. They cannot and will not adapt themselves to the old methods that do not appeal to their spiritual instincts, and their elders cannot be made to realize the necessity of the compromise, but go blindly their own way. The result is that their sons and daughters are becoming ethical culturists, free thinkers, agnostics and atheists. From a strict and to them unintelligent orthodoxy these have gone to the other extreme, because they were not properly instructed in the principles of their religion, which are exemplified by its ceremonies. The Sabbath is desecrated, and indifference in religious matters reigns. A modern orthodox English preacher imbued with the old Jewish spirit could influence the younger generation. A young people's synagogue should be established on the West Side with attractive services and a sermon on Sabbath afternoons and at any other time that might be deemed advisable. The older people do not willingly break their Sabbaths and would be only too glad to see that their children did not, but it seems they cannot take the initiative in providing a religious stimulus for the young people in accordance with modern methods. That must come from those who understand the necessity for immediate action. There are some who realize this necessity but the opposition to any innovation is still great and we can but hope that time and intelligence will solve the serious problem. In the meantime, the young people find satisfaction in forming Zionist societies and literary, social and educational organizations, which furnish them an outlet for their surplus energies, Foremost among these are the Hebrew Literary Association (organized in 1885), the Self Educational Club (organized in 1894), and the Gates of the Order Knights of Zion.

What is being done for the religions needs of the children of the district? For the boys much, for the girls comparatively little. The Moses Montefiore Hebrew Free School, which is the principal religious school on the West Side, has an attendance of 800 boys, ranging from four to thirteen years of age. This is inadequate for the population and the management has built a branch school which accommodates about 600 boys. Chedarim or private classes, are to be found in many blocks of the crowded district. The hours and subjects taught are the same as at the Talmud Torah, but in some instances more modern methods are employed. Many of the classes are held amid unhealthy surroundings in basements and living rooms. They usually number from twenty to forty pupils. About 1,200 boys receive instruction in these classes. The children attend until they become bar mitzvah (formally admitted to the faith at the age of thirteen) or go to high school, when, if the parents can afford, private teachers are employed. Probably 600 children take private lessons, paying from $2 to $5 per month. The hours for those who attend the Talmud Torah are from 9 A. M. to 3:30 P. M. for children not attending public school, and for older children from 4 P. M. to 7:30 P. M. The subjects taught are the Hebrew alphabet, reading, grammar, translation of the Pentateuch, Prophets, Hagiographa, into Yiddish, and portions of the Mishna and Gemara. Sixteen teachers and two janitors are employed. Books are furnished to pupils gratis when they are unable to pay for them.

During a visit to the Hebrew Free School, I found it a rare treat to hear boys of six years of age and upwards translate into Yiddish the Hebrew of the Pentateuch and the Prophets and then repeat in English the substance of what they had been learning. I was surprised to note that many ethical lessons had been imparted by the teacher during the course of his instruction. We are apt to condemn the methods of these teachers because they are not up-to-date. I doubt, however, if all our boasted progress in educational work can produce as successful results. Little boys translating and explaining from the original the stories of Noah, of Joseph, of the Tribe of Benjamin, or a chapter from Isaiah, with the ethical lessons to be derived therefrom, and receiving from the teacher such commentary as no English translation contains. And no breath of higher criticism, so-called, interferes with the implicit belief in the occurrence of the events described, but a deep sense of the omnipotence and mercy of God and an unquestioning faith in divine providence are inculcated.

I almost forgave the uncleanly condition of the building, the lack of ventilation of the rooms, although there were many windows through which fresh air could have entered; the loud tone of the recitations; the pounding on the desk for order, and the untidy appearance of some of the boys,--when I saw before me so many bright faces full of energy and intelligence, and above all, faith. Why need we feel discouraged as to the future of Judaism in this country when we see a rising generation trained in Jewish lore, and in the secular knowledge which the public school offers, that will mold its destinies? For these children of Russian and Polish Jewish parentage have within them all the elements that will give them power when they grow to manhood. The ambition, perseverance and scholarship which is their inheritance and which will find an outlet under the free institutions of this great country, if properly directed by men and women of culture and piety, will serve to hasten the end of what Zangwill terms a "transitional " period in Judaism.
But to direct them aright? Have they the men and the women to do it t Some who could be leaders have deserted their people, have moved to fashionable quarters, and to their shame, be it said, pay no heed to the needs of the district from which they hailed, and rather wish to sever their connection with those they left behind. Others have the ability and the will, but cannot spare the time. Let us hope that the period is not far distant when from their own ranks will arise teachers and leaders, imbued with the modern spirit and the old scholarship and reverence for the law and its traditions, who will instill into the minds of the children such respect for the historical ceremonies of Judaism, by dwelling upon the great ethical principles that underlie them, that they will not fail to observe them, for only by the intelligent practice of these ceremonies can Judaism be preserved and fulfill its mission.

The ethical value of religious observance is great, though not so generally recognized because the mechanical performance of a precept-- although it in itself carries an ethical lesson with it-- has been impressed upon the child's mind to the exclusion of its spiritual meaning. However it may be in Europe, in this country a boy or girl instinctively seeks a reason for everything. When he is not taught the reason for religious observances, they lose their value in his eyes, and he often disregards them as unworthy of the enlightenment of the present day. Where, as is so often the case, home training is insufficient, the religious school should step in and supply the deficiencies. Not only should the meaning of the laws and ceremonies be taught to young and old, but also the difference between an obligatory and an optional precept (din and minhag). The neglect of this branch of instruction brings about serious dangers. The local rabbis in their Yiddish derashas (sermons) are content to expound this or that passage of Holy Writ, ignoring entirely present conditions and dangers; an English speaking rabbi who could influence the young is unknown in the district. Even the sanctity of the Sabbath is being violated to a much greater extent than would be the case were some powerful voice raised against it. While the majority of the older people are strict in their observance of it, especially in the home, where it is greeted by even the poorest with a little special preparation, many of the young men and women are compelled by economic conditions to work on the Sabbath. Are these to be censured as much as the Russian Jews who own large mercantile establishments in the heart of the Jewish district, who are far beyond want, whose employees are Jewish, whose customers are Jewish, and who keep their places of business open on the Sabbath and on Sunday as well? Many realize the insidious danger of such flagrant violations of the Sabbath, but as yet only a feeble effort has been made to check them. If the rich, who are the employers of the poor, could be influenced, some effective work might be accomplished.

The fact that there is no provision made for religious instruction of the girls, except through their home training, led the Chicago Section of the Council of Jewish Women to open a Sabbath school for them. It was successful from the start. Three hundred girls took advantage of the opportunity afforded; many more were turned away for lack of accommodation. Sinai Congregation contributed the greater part of the funds and finally took the school under its supervision. The sessions are held weekly on Sabbath afternoons from 2 to 4 o'clock in the Jewish Manual Training School. There are now over 400 pupils in attendance.

A few of the residents who understand the needs of the district have started a religious school where 200 boys and girls receive instruction in Hebrew, Jewish history and religion; but the school is yet in its infancy and struggling for existence owing to lack of financial backing. Sessions are held twice a week.

Another hopeful sign of an awakening to the needs of the present day was the opening of a religious school by the Chicago Zion Gate, Order Knights of Zion. About 150 boys and girls attend this school, which holds its sessions on Sabbaths and Sundays. Fifty of the older boys have organized a club called Sons of American Zionists, and have bought out of their own treasury a small library of Jewish books in the English language. English is used by the teachers and modern methods prevail in the school. Hebrew songs are included in the course of instruction. There should be many such schools not only for weekly but for daily sessions, and where girls as well as boys are welcome. But help must come from outside the district, for the drain upon the income of the residents is already too great.
The Zionist movement is also one of the causes which has led to a religious awakening, and has resolved itself
largely into an educational revival, chiefly on matters of Jewish interest. Although the older people have not to a great extent joined the movement, their sympathies have been enlisted; the young people, however, grasped its great significance, and many who had drifted away from Judaism have been won back, have begun to take an interest in Jewish subjects, and to study the Jewish situation. The Zion societies study Jewish history and literature and the Hebrew language, and do literary and social work. After the second Basle Congress the success and stability of fraternal orders in America being noted, the order Knights of Zion was organized, and has proven successful. It consists of a number of Gates. The Chicago Zion Gate, besides holding study meetings for its own members, opened the religious school referred to. The Kadimoh Gate, composed of young men, conducts a reading room and gives courses of Friday evening lectures on Jewish topics. The Clara De Hirsch Gate has a Bible class and furnishes a teacher for the religious school. In fact, wherever a Zion organization is formed some kind of religious study is introduced, and the seeds sown will undoubtedly bear fruit in the future, for the Jewish consciousness has been aroused. These Zionist societies and other fraternal orders, in conjunction with the Hebrew Literary Association, the Self Educational Club, the Beaconsfield and sundry social clubs, together with the cooperation of the rabbis of the city, and the Council of Jewish Women, could by united action maintain a young people's synagogue and daily religious schools free from the objections urged against the chedarim. The younger generation would attend in large numbers and the children would be kept from the evil influences of the street and the alley.

The Rabbinical Association has made the experiment of holding Friday evening services in the Jewish Manual Training School, and reports sufficient encouragement to warrant continuance.

The young people are aroused to the importance of action. This is evidenced by their interest in a movement which is now launched by them for a Chicago Hebrew Institute that shall include synagogue, religious schools, classes, clubs, gymnasium, and the various forms of modern culture and entertainment, physical, moral and intellectual, under Jewish auspices, with the doors open for worship, study, and recreation. The time is ripe for such a movement The Russian Jews are overburdened by their obligations. The young people, particularly, need intelligent, unselfish, enthusiastic leadership. Who will become the torch-bearer to this people, singularly gifted with religious enthusiasm and respect for scholarship?







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