The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in New York*
by Lee K. Frankel, Ph.D.
Manager, United Hebrew Charities, New York City

* - 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."

On April 26, 1655, the board of directors of the Dutch West India Company wrote to Governor Stuyvesant as follows : "After many consultations, we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sell and to trade in New Netherland and to live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company, or to the community, but be supported by their own nation."

The records of the Department of Charities of the city of New York now show that (of a Jewish population approximating 700,000 in Greater New York) in the alms­house on Blackwell's Island there are twenty-six pauper Jews, of whom the majority were blind, idiotic or possessed of some peculiar defect which prevented admission to existing Jewish charitable institutions.

What is true of New York Jews is true of their co­religionists everywhere. The Jew has always cared for his own poor.

In our modern day, under more favorable conditions and auspices, the Jew has, to some extent, reverted to the non-sectarian idea in his philanthropies. Hospitals, as a rule, supported and endowed by Jews, throw open their doors to sufferers irrespective of creed, color or nationality. Other instances could be cited of charities, not medical, organized along similar lines. Jewish agencies, giving material relief, or to use a better term, those which care for the needy in their own homes, in the main confine their work to beneficiaries of their faith, without, however, making any rigid distinction. On the other hand, the trend of Jewish charity has been in the direction of caring for the Jewish poor, solely through Jewish agencies, and without the intervention or cooperation of other sectarian or nonsectarian societies or institutions. Such a condition of affairs is the resultant of the compulsion of the centuries. The task which was at one time assumed of necessity has today become a proud duty. What in Stuyvesant's day was obligatory and mandatory is today accepted as a voluntary responsibility.

If the impoverished Jew requires the interference of his wealthier co-religionist, it is because the latter is better able to understand his needs and has a peculiar, specialized knowledge of a peculiar class of individuals. Were it possible for public charities or for nonsectarian private charities to grasp the fundamentals of Jewish poverty, to obtain that keen insight into the modes of living and thought of a heterogeneous people whose common meeting point is their religion, an insight so necessary to bring the proper forms of relief into play, there is no reason why the poor Jew should not be the recipient of the charitable impulse of the entire community. The Jew's religion per se is not a factor in the solution of his physical needs. It is characteristic of his history that the greater his poverty and distress, the greater has been his religiosity and his steadfastness to his ethical and religious convictions.

The problem of the Jewish charitable societies of the United States today is the problem of the care of the immigrant. As such, it passes beyond merely local lines. In some of its manifestations it is national in character and in a few it has an international significance. The fact that the large bulk of the needy Jews in the United States reside in New York is accidental, and concerns the Jews of Denver and San Francisco equally with those of the Eastern seaboard cities. In so far the problem is a national one. Moreover, to deal intelligently with the question requires a knowledge of the immigrant's antecedents, the impelling motive which brought him to the United States, and an acquaintance with his previous environment. And here the international phase of the question comes in.

Roughly speaking, it may be said that there are no American-born Jewish poor. Of the 10,334 families who applied for assistance to the United Hebrew Charities of New York during its last fiscal year, 2 per cent were born in the United States. And of these the majority of heads of families were of the first generation. Jewish dependents who have an ancestry in the United States of more than two generations are practically unknown. Nor can it be stated that there have ever been enough native born dependent Jews to make an issue, since the Stuyvesant episode. In the report of the president of the above society for the year 1881, the statement is made that during no time since the formation of the society had there been less want than during the first six months of the fiscal year just ended. It must have been gratifying for those present at the meeting to learn that after all the poor in the city had been given adequate relief, there was still in the society's treasury a comfortable balance of over $14,000. During the following year, so large were the receipts of the society and so small the demands of the regular recipients, that the balance in the treasury at the end of the year had swelled to nearly $19,000.

In the year 1881 began that great wave of emigration from eastern Europe, the end of which is not yet. Driven by a relentless persecution, which endangered not only their homes but frequently their lives, thousands of Jews were compelled to flee and to seek new residence on these shores. The Russo-Jewish committee which originally undertook the work of caring for these immigrants turned it over very shortly to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, which came into existence in December, 1881. In one year this society spent $250,000, $50,000 less than had been spent by the United Hebrew Charities of New York in the seven years of its existence. In the first and only annual report of the Emigrant Aid Society, its president outlined as tersely as possible the efforts that had been made to provide homes and occupations for the thousands of fleeing exiles who reached these shores during the momentous summer of 1882. In the month of July the committee spent for board and lodging alone over $11,700. Of the herculean efforts of the members of the committee, of the sacrifices of time and money, the report in its modesty makes but scant mention. The full history of the Emigrant Aid Society is yet to be written.

With the gradual falling off in immigration, the Emigrant Aid Society went out of existence, and the care of the needy emigrants who remained in New York and who became impoverished after residence, reverted to the United Hebrew Charities. In 1885 immigration again began to grow heavier and continued in such numbers that in the following five years over 120,000 immigrants arrived at Castle Garden. In 1890 the immigration reached the figures 32,321, the largest number ever recorded up to that time.

With all that had been done, the real work of the chari­ties was but to begin. In 1891 the religious persecution of the Russian Jews reached a climax. In the year ending September 30, 62,574 immigrants arrived at New York, of whom nearly 40,000 arrived between June and September. The entire charitable effort of the New York Jewish com­munity was for the time directed out of the ordinary channels and applied to the monumental question of caring for the arriving Russian Jews. The Baron de Hirsch Fund, instead of utilizing its income for its educational work, appropriated over $67,000 to the United Hebrew Charities to assist in the work of the immigration bureau. Over $175,000 was spent by the society during this year. In September of 1891 it became apparent that there would be no cessation to the immigration and that much larger funds would be necessary to give anything like adequate assistance to the unfortunates who were arriving at the rate of 2,000 per week. The enthusiasm which was aroused at a banquet tendered to the late Jesse Seligman was utilized in establishing the "Russian Transportation Fund," which added over $90,000 to the revenues of the United Hebrew Charities and which was given by citizens of New York, irrespective of creed. Later in the year, a standing committee of the society, known as the Central Russian Refugees Committee, was organized and was made up of representatives of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the Russian Transportation Fund, the United Hebrew Charities, and the American Committee for Ameliorating the Condition of the Russian Exiles. The last committee was organized to secure the cooperation of relief societies in other cities, in order that the various European societies who were assisting the persecuted Russians to emigrate should thoroughly understand the attitude of the New York organization.

            The year, October, 1891, to September, 1892, will ever be a memorable one in the history of Russian Emigration and of Jewish philanthropy; 52,134 immigrants arrived at the Barge office during that period. The treasurer of the United Hebrew Charities paid out the enormous sum of $321,311.05, of which $145,200 was spent by the Russian Refugees Committee between February and September. Like the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, the history of the Central Russian Refugees Committee is still to be written. At present it is included in the bald statement of a treasurer's report. Should it ever be published, it will tell a tale of devotion, of altruistic effort, of sacrifice, of noble charitable impulse unparalleled in the history of American Judaism.

Since the year 1881, fully 750,000 Jewish immigrants have arrived at the port of New York alone. Of these the bulk comprise refugees from Russian and Roumanian persecution, Austrians, and Galicians. They came from countries in which many of them lived under conditions of appalling poverty. The records of the immigration bureau show that in material wealth, these immigrants are below the average of immigrants from other European countries. Due to their previous condition, a percentage is illiterate. On the other hand, the number of skilled artisans and craftsmen is so large as to be distinctly noticeable. From the standpoint of dependency, it will be of interest to study to what extent this large body of immigrants has added to the dependent and delinquent classes of the communities in the United States. The only figures that are at hand are those of New York, which are higher than would be found in other cities and towns for reasons that are obvious.

In December, 1899, the writer made a study of 1,000 families who had originally applied to the United Hebrew Charities for assistance in October, 1894. Of these 1,000 applicants it was found that 602 had not applied for assistance after December, 1894. Of the remainder, 67 families were dependent on the society to a greater or lesser extent in January, 1899. More detailed investigation disclosed the fact that nearly all of these 67 applicants were made up of families where the wage earner had died, leav­ing a widow with small children, or of respectable aged and infirm couples unable to be fully self-supporting, or of families in which the wage earner had become incapacitated through illness. In other words, after five years over 93 per cent. of the cases studied were independent of charitable interference. In October, 1904, it was found that only 23 of the 1,000 families above mentioned were applying, to the society for assistance.

While the above study was limited in its scope, and while the deduction which can be drawn from it must be accepted with reserve, it is nevertheless typical of Jewish charitable conditions. The marked feature in the care of the Jewish poor in the United States is the almost entire absence of the so-called pauper element. Even the twenty­three families above mentioned cannot be included in this category. Widowhood is the resultant of purely natural conditions, and when it afflicts the poor mother with a family, it frequently produces a condition of dependence which has in it no characteristics of demoralization. The brightest and most hopeful chapter in the history of Jewish charity is the avidity and eagerness with which its beneficiaries, bereft of the main wage earner, become self-supporting and independent as soon as the children are old enough to contribute to the family income.

If there is one cause more than another leading up to this condition, it is the absence of the drink evil among Jews. The instances in which drunkenness lies at the bottom of Jewish dependency are so infrequent that they may be ignored. The matron of the police station in Brownsville, an outlying district of Brooklyn, recently stated that in her 12 years' experience, she could not recall a single instance of a Jewish woman having been arrested for drunkenness. Combined with the absence of this vice, there are other virtues engrafted on the Jew for centuries, all of which tend to the preservation of his self respect and his self esteem. Among these are the love of home, the inherent desire to preserve the purity of the family, and the remarkable eagerness which he shows for education and self improvement. Poverty with the Jew does not spell degeneracy. The history of the Jewish charities in the United States demonstrates nothing more forcibly than that the Jewish immigrant, be he German, Russian, Roumanian, or Galician, readily adapts himself to his American environment, easily assimilates the customs and language of his adopted country, and even though he may temporarily require assistance, rapidly becomes independent of charitable interference. The immigrant Jew is frequently poverty-stricken; he is rarely a pauper, in the sense in which the word is most commonly used. He is not found in the besotted, degenerate, hopeless mass of humanity constituting the flotsam and jetsam of society, the product of generations of vice, crime, and debauchery, which makes up the scum of our present civilization. Given the opportunity and the proper surroundings, the immigrant Jew will become a good addition to the body politic, not a menace.

The work of the United Hebrew Charities of New York is typical of similar Jewish organizations throughout the United States. Its report for the fiscal year ending Sep­tember 30, 1904, shows that 10,334 individuals and families applied for assistance. Of these 5,525 had applied for the first time. The society grants relief in kind, including groceries, clothing, shoes, furniture, etc. There were distributed last year 57,535 garments and pieces of furniture. The annual disbursements for material relief alone amount to over $175,000. Ever since its organization thirty years ago, the society has endeavored to uphold the principles of organized charity. In some instances it has antedated the charity organization societies themselves. We need but mention the giving of relief in amounts adequate to make the recipient independent of further intervention on the part of the relief giving agency, and the establishment of a graded, carefully regulated and supervised system of pensions covering if necessary a long period of years. As a rule, these pensions are given only to families where the wage earner has died, and where, unless such provision were made, no recourse would be left, except the breaking up of the family and the commitment of the children to orphanages and similar institutions. To obviate the necessity of such commitment, the United Hebrew Charities disburses annually over $41,000 in pensions. In the history of the society there is no form of relief which shows such good returns for the investment made. Jewish families so supported do not become pauperized; the subsidy which is granted enables the surviving parent to devote her time to the proper rearing of her children so that they may become useful and intelligent citizens.

A word may be said here on the question of adequate relief. In the revulsion which accompanied the indiscrim­inate almsgiving of earlier decades, the so called organized charities which resulted there from frequently went to the other extreme and withheld material relief in the fear of its baneful effect on the recipient. Nothing is more characteristic of our present day charities than the gradual return to the sound doctrine that material relief is not the end desired, but merely a means to the end, and that it must be used, if necessary, equally with other forms of relief, and must be given adequately if at all. Jewish charity has always upheld this belief.

Of all the problems which confront the average charity organization, possibly the most perplexing is the one of the family in which the mother must be the wage earner. The kindergarten and the day nursery have by no means solved the problem. They are at best but makeshifts in an attempt to help a situation which has its root in economic and industrial conditions. Again, the factory removes the mother from her sphere of influence over her children, and opens opportunity for the growth of incorrigibility and waywardness on the part of the latter. In the hope of partially overcoming this difficulty, the United Hebrew Charities has for some years conducted a workroom for unskilled women in which the latter are taught various needle industries, that they may eventually be sufficiently accomplished to work in their own homes, and in this fashion supplement the family income. The amount of such work that can be found is limited. More and more, daily, the factory is competing with home industry to the exclusion of the latter. A study has shown that work could be obtained for women to do at home in industries such as silk-belt making, men's and women's neckwear, garters and hose supporters, paper boxes, slip covers for the furniture trade, over gaiters and leggings, dressing sacques, hats and caps, flowers and feathers, beaded purses and other beadwork, dress shields, incandescent light mantles, embroidery and art embroidery, passementerie work, bibs, knit goods, etc.

The sisterhoods in various districts cooperate with the United Hebrew Charities. They give material relief, have developed day nurseries, kindergartens, clubs and classes of various kinds, employment bureaus, mothers' meetings; and in fact have become social centres for the poor of their neighborhoods. Since a large percentage of the distress which is met with is occasioned by illness, medical relief of all kinds has been organized. Each district as a rule has its physician and its nurse, and where these are not at hand, cooperation has been effected with other organizations specially equipped for such work. A very recent development has been the inauguration of district or branch offices of the United Hebrew Charities located on the East Side of New York in the very heart of the congested centres. In itself the district office is no novelty. The value, however, of the new plan is due to the fact that the Boards of Directors of these district organizations are made up entirely of residents of the neighborhood and represent the descendants of or the original immigrants who have come from Russia, Roumania, or Galicia since 1881. The value of such cooperation cannot be overestimated. The knowledge possessed by intelligent men and women who are thoroughly in touch with the traditions, customs and ambitions of the immigrants who have been coming here and who still are coming is much more desirable in determining the right kind of assistance to be given than information obtained where there is lack of such knowledge.

In very recent years, the spread of tuberculosis among Jews has merited the earnest attention of the society, and among its other activities it has been a pioneer in developing a systematic plan for caring for such tuberculosis applicants in their own homes, for whom no provision could be made in existing sanatoria. The campaign thus begun has been not only charitable, but social. Not only have these unfortunates been given food, nourishment and medical care to aid them towards recovery, but in addition thereto, instruction has been given them in the rudiments of sanitation, and in the prevention of infection. It is significant that the work of the United Hebrew Charities in this field has been followed to some extent by the recently organized Committee on Tuberculosis of the Charity Organization Society.

The name " United Hebrew Charities " as applied to the New York organization is somewhat of a misnomer, since it does not include all Jewish charitable agencies in the city of New York. It would be more proper to speak of it as the consolidation of all the purely relief societies which existed in New York prior to 1874. Aside from these, there are today hospitals, orphanages, technical schools for boys and girls, trade schools, day nurseries and kindergartens, guilds for crippled children, burial societies, loan societies, societies for maternity relief, and a goodly number of smaller organizations which have been founded by the immigrants of the last twenty years. It is estimated that there are over one thousand Jewish organizations and societies in the city of New York today, whose activities to a greater or lesser extent are directed along philanthropic lines. Practically all of the larger organizations, such as the hospitals, work in cooperation with the United Hebrew Charities.

It is an old but true saying that the " Poor help the poor." Nowhere is this more forcibly illustrated than in the New York Ghetto. It is a truth almost axiomatic among charity workers that the poor man uses the larger charitable institutions at his command only after he has exhausted the kindness and generosity of his neighbors. For this reason, it is difficult to approximate the amount of philanthropic effort that the more prosperous Russian Jew is making for his less fortunate brethren. Of the Jewish congregations at present in New York City the majority are chevras (societies) of Russian origin which bury the dead and, where possible, give other forms of relief. Besides these, there are a number of benefit societies and benevolent societies which endeavor to assist their members in need. Three societies, however, require more extended mention owing to the character of work which they are doing. These are the Gemilath Chasodim Society, the Beth Israel Hospital, and the Chesed Shel Emeth.

The Gemilath Chasodim has been in existence since 1892. Its object is to loan money without interest in sums from $5 to $50 to be paid off in weekly installments to any deserving individual who can find a sponsor, or in other words, who can find a responsible endorser for his note. When the society was organized it had a net capital of eighty dollars. The society has now a capital of $74,184.32, according to its twelfth annual report ending December 31, 1903, and turned over its capital over four times during the year, loaning $320,740 to 13,143 persons. Of the total amount loaned, ninety-seven per cent. was repaid by the borrowers. The value of such a society in the direction of preventive charity can hardly be estimated. In the language of one of the speakers at an annual meeting, the Gemilath Chasodim may be likened to a dispensary and the United Hebrew Charities to a hospital. In the former, mild cases not yet requiring heroic surgical or medical interference may receive attention. Here, however, the simile ends. The dispensary is intended essentially for the poor man who has no other means of receiving medical assistance. The Free Loan Association, by the requirements of its constitution, bars the worthy poor man who cannot find endorsers and compels him to apply to the United Hebrew Charities for the relief which he needs.

The Beth Israel Hospital Association was incorporated in 1890 and at present has thirty beds, all of which are free. The hospital itself is situated on Jefferson Street in the heart of the congested district. It occupies an old mansion which has been remodeled as far as possible to meet the demands of the hospital. So progressive have the officers been that the cornerstone of a new hospital, to cost in the neighborhood of $200,000, has been laid. This institution indicates very strongly the rapid strides that are being made by Russian Jews to provide their poor with proper facilities for relief. The Beth Israel Hospital was organized by the Russian Jewish community and has practically been sustained by it.

The Agudath Achim Chessed Shel Emeth has been in existence for sixteen years. It maintains at present two cemeteries, and is prepared to give free burial whenever the family of the deceased are not in a position to pay therefore. It has buried over twelve thousand persons.

It is not within the province of this paper to discuss in detail the various Jewish charitable institutions which New York possesses. Such organizations as the Mount Sinai Hospital, the Home for the Aged, the orphan asylums, and the various institutions under the De Hirsch foundations, are too well known to require comment here. Nor do they differ in the main from institutions of a similar kind that exist in other large centres. There are at present in the city of New York, exclusive of congregations and the organizations mentioned above, at least seventy five societies which cater to the needs of the dependent poor and which can be classed as philanthropic agencies. Among these organizations must be included day nurseries, kindergartens, employment bureaus, fresh air charities, hospitals, dispensaries, etc., of which only general mention can be made.

The agitation in regard to tenement-house legislation in New York is still too fresh in the minds of students of this subject to require much further mention here. It will be remarked, however, that in the campaign which was made to preserve the vital features of the present tenement­house law, the Jewish residents on the East Side of New York were a unit in demanding that no drastic changes in the law be made. Similarly at a recent municipal election, it was the citizens and voters of this same district who rose en masse and in a campaign that was startling in its uniqueness and originality, purged their neighborhood of the vices and immorality which existed there. And this brings us to the point at issue.

The danger to morals which lies in overcrowding is due primarily to the inability to carry on a natural home life. The unit of society after all is the family, and the preservation of the latter means the preservation of the social fabric. It is not difficult to understand how a people, who through the ages have been heralded as the champions of purity in the home, have through the conditions under which they live, taken on some of the attributes of their surroundings and absorbed some of the deteriorating effects of their environment. The natural concomitants of overcrowding are disease and vice and crime. The Jew's power of assimilation is proverbial. It was but natural therefore that he, along with his Christian neighbor, should be attacked in his moral fibre in the overcrowded tenements in which he lived; that he should contract diseases which were new and strange to him, and to which he had formerly not been liable. In fact his apparent immunity to tuberculosis today, in spite of conditions, is a medical anomaly. The wonder is that a greater percentage of the Jewish population residing in the so-called "Ghetto" of our large cities have not fallen victims to the vices and diseases which breed there. The concern of the thinking Jew lies in the fact that the percentage of Jewish vice and crime and disease as found today in our large cities, small as it may be, is nevertheless distinctly larger than statistics show to have been the case heretofore.

In the House of Refuge on Randall's Island, there were 260 Jewish boys and girls in November, 1904. In the Ju­venile Asylum there are 262 Jewish children under sixteen years of age committed for various misdemeanors. Compared with the entire Jewish population of the city, the number is insignificant, and the ratio will probably be found to be considerably lower than that of the general population. To the Jewish philanthropist and sociologist, there is cause for alarm in these figures, because he sees that the crowded life of the streets, the lack of playgrounds and breathing spots, the absence of proper home surroundings have injurious effects on the Jewish child, to whom the simplest legal misdemeanors were in the past unknown. And what is true of the child is true of the adult. Whatever parasitic poverty may exist among Jews in the United States and in particular in New York, whatever percentage of criminals and vicious persons may have developed, the results are in the main due to the overcrowding and congestion, to which their poverty has subjected them.

The remedy is plain and simple. Those whom poverty and oppression have thrown together in such close proximity and who are compelled to live under such unnatural conditions, must be given the opportunity to settle in localities where ample room will be given for normal, physical, intellectual, and moral growth. In New York, with characteristic insight, many are realizing the impossibility of full development in their present restricted environment and are taking up residence in the less settled outlying section of the city. There is no doubt that the improvement in transportation facilities, resulting from subways and tunnels, will considerably diminish the population of the  East Side. To effect large results, some comprehensive scheme is necessary to relieve the congestion and to prevent the possibility of a recurrence of this congestion.







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