The Immigrant Jew in America

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


The Russian Jew in Philadelphia*
by Louis E. Levy, President
Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants, Philadelphia

* - 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."

In view of the fact that a much greater number of Russian Jews have congregated in New York than in any other city in the country it would seem that any general study of philanthropic and charitable activity, both as regards what they accomplish among themselves as well as that exerted in their behalf, should properly be made in that centre. There are, however, considerations which weigh in favor of taking a leas congested community as the subject of such an analysis, particularly in view of various circumstances which obviously aftect the conditions in question.

In certain respects, so apparent as to have received general recognition, Philadelphia is the typical American city. It is preeminently the city of homes as distinguished from dwellings on the tenement plan, which are so marked a feature of urban life in Europe and whose American counterpart is found in such extreme development in New York and to a lesser degree in Chicago.

In the less crowded condition of the poorer precincts of Philadelphia as compared with those of the other large cities of the country, with a correspondingly greater latitude to the individual affected by this condition, the assimilative force of American institutions has greater play. Ita processes are carried out with least hindrance both from within and from without; the Ghetto is less constrained by the surrounding pressure and therefore less intensified within itself. In this light, the Russian Jews in Philadelphia may be regarded as affording a fair index of their status and course of development in this country, under comparatively normal conditions.

Our immediate subject, charity, presents indeed but one aspect of that development, but it is a phase more essentially Jewish, perhaps, than any other. For the Jew is nothing if not charitable, and as the Russian Jews are intensely Jewish, their activity in the field of philanthropic endeavor is correspondingly marked. But as Jewish charity compasses every element of the community we must needs, in considering it as regards the Russian Jew, distinguish, as already indicated, between that which has been and is being done for them by the older settled portion of the community and that which is done by them and among themselves.

A proper understanding of the conditions with which we have to deal requires a passing glance at the historical bearings of the subject. The conditions in general may be regarded as dating from 1882, although a considerable number of Russians, or rather of Polish and Hungarian Jews, had reached here before that time. At that period the immigration of Jews from the German states was fast declining. It had gone on in considerable though no very large numbers from 1820 to 1870. With the diminishing needs of the older section of the community, its charitable activities were extended in behalf of the later comers and its various organizations were either merged in those of the latter or were gradually supplanted by them. The project of a Jewish Foster Home, flrst suggested in 1850, was realized in 1855. In 1864, the Jewish Hospital was organized. In 1868, the Familien Waisen Erziehungs Verein, subsequently given its English title, Orphans Guardians, replaced an earlier chevra (soeiety) which supported widows and orphans. In 1869 the sporadic efforts to raise charity funds through banquets and balls, which had gone on from an early date, were concentrated in a Charity Ball Association and in the same year a similar movement resulted in a number of the earlier aid societies being combined in the organization of the United Hebrew Charities. In the seventies all these organizations grew to increased importance and power for good and were reinforced by others, such as the lying-in aid society, Esrath Nashim, in 1873, the Rappaport Benevolent Association in 1874, and others of a more temporary character.

Up to this time the number of East European Jews settled in Philadelphia was probably less than three thousand of a total Jewish population of perhaps twelve thousand. Those who were here had come, a few at a time, as part of the normal throng of emigrants from Europe, much as the majority of the German Jews had come in the previous years almost invariably into circles of relatives or friends who awaited them.

It was in Philadelphia, as it happened, that the first large ship load of Jewish refugees from Russia landed, early in March, 1882. They had a memorable reception. Christians of every denomination joined with the Jewish people of the city in offering these wanderers a welcome to our shores. Special arrangements were made for housing, feeding and distributing them, and the entire number, aggregating some four hundred souls, were gradually placed in a position to help themselves. The belief was at first entertained that the anti-Jewish riots which had driven these people from their native homes were but a passing ebullition of the dregs of the populace. But the manifest connivance of the Russian authorities with the plundering and murderous rabble and the leniency with which the leaders of the mob were treated by the courts of justice opened the way for further outrages in all parts of the empire. Presently, in May, 1882, the work of the rabble was taken up by the government under the provisions of the notorious May laws. Gradually but steadily the severity of these measures was increased until they culminated in the widespread official outrages of 1890, when Moscow and other large cities in the interior of the empire were depopulated of their Jewish citizens and the unfortunates herded in the so-called "Jewish Pale" along the Western frontiers of the empire. Thence they have made their way, those that could find a way, in the only direction possible--westward--with little hope of betterment except across the channel in England or across the Atlantic in America. And so the comparatively small colony of Polish Jews who had previously reached our shores was rapidly and abnormally augmented by refugees from all portions of the Russian Empire.

It was inevitable that under these circumstances the existing machinery of charity, ample as it had been for all previous needs, should become overwhelmed and all its resources should be strained to the extreme. That the older and native born Jewish communities were heavily burdened, and that they rose to the occasion, is traceable in the records of Jewish charities generally, and those of Philadelphia may well serve as an example. The expenditures of the United Hebrew Charities of this city, which had been decreasing for some years previous to 1880, and which, exclusive of costs of administration, had fallen to less than $12,000 in that year, rose to $18,000; in 1882, to over $20,000; in 1883, to over $22,000; in the years from 1885 to 1890, to fully $31,000; in 1891, and under the grievous stress of 1892 to nearly $48,000. In 1893-1894 the expenditures averaged nearly $40,000 yearly, and from then to the present the average has been $26,000, varying with the number and condition of the new arrivals.

Previous to 1882, the Russians, or as they mostly were at that time, the Polish Jews, had formed but a secondary factor in the work of the United Hebrew Charities. By 1884 the proportion of Russian Jews among the applicants had reached 75 per cent, and since 1892 there has been among these scarcely any other element whatever.

The records of the Jewish Foster Home reveal similar conditions. Up to 1882 the proportion of children of Polish or Russian parentage among its inmates was very small. In that year the proportion rose to 75 per cent; in 1891 it rose to 91 per cent--nearly two-thirds of the number having been born in Russia; and in 1892 it was 92 per cent, but only one-third of them of Russian nativity.

The Orphans' Guardian Society, which places its charges in private homes, has found its ef!orts taken up in a manner not essentially different from that experienced at the Foster Home.

In 1881 the proportion of East European Jews among the patients at the Jewish Hospital was 11.5 per cent.; in 1882 it rose to 34 per cent. In the following four years the proportion averaged some 24 per cent; in the next four years about 30 per cent, and in 1891 it rose to 42 per cent.

Another of the older charity societies, the Esrath Nashim, or Helping Women, is to be noted in this regard. This society was organized in 1873 in aid of lying-in women at their homes, and after the year 1882 devoted its efforts chiefiy to the needs of the refugee immigrants from Russia. In 1891 the demands on this charity, as on all others, grew beyond the compass of the organization, and the society found itself impelled to institute a central establishment for the care of its charges. The society was reorganized as the Jewish Maternity Assoeiation in 1892 and established near Sixth and Spruce Streets a hospital known as the Maternity Home, which has since been materially enlarged. In 1893 the patients treated at the hospital numbered 116, and 15 were treated at their homes.

 In 19031 the number of patients was 1,121, of whom 244 were treated at the hospital. A training school for nurses was added in 1901, and at the same time a branch of the work was inaugurated at Atlantic City as the Jewish Seaside Home for invalid mothers and children. This branch has been latterly reorganized as a separate society and its work considerably enlarged.

The continuance and growth of the Russian Jewish immigration after 1882 soon brought the community to realize the necessity of dealing with its difficulties in the preventive as well as palliative sense. In the fall of 1884 a movement to this end, originally started by one of the earlier refugees, Jacob Judelson, was taken up by the "uptown" community and resulted in the formation of the Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants. This society was framed with the idea of its continuance by the Russian Jews themselves, but its work rapidly grew beyond the ability of that disturbed element to cope with it, and it has since been maintained almost exclusively by the efforts of the older section of the community.

The association was organized, as stated in its constitution, "to remove and lessen the distresses of arriving Jewish immigrants and to aid and assist such as, for want of acquaintance with the language and laws of the country, are in danger of being oppressed; to obtain employment for them and in other respects to aid and relieve them."

To this end an agent was engaged to supervise the landing of the Jewish immigrants at this port and to guard and direct them in their course to their proper destinations. At the instance of the association and with the co-operation of the late Mahlon H. Dickinson, president of the State Board of Charities, its agent was clothed with official authority by that body, at that time acting as a commission of immigration on behalf of the federal government. The agent was aided by officers and members of the association acting in rotation, and soon the system gave results that commended it to all who were cognizant of its workings. To further its purposes the association leased a large dwelling at 931 South Fourth Street, and fitted up its 12 rooms with all the requisites of a temporary shelter. An employee placed in charge of the otBee and the shelter. In 1as1 this lodge was discontinued, the wayfarers being housed under contract with responsible Jewish boarding houses. At the same time the functions of the employment bureau were taken over by the Auxiliary Branch of the United Hebrew Charities, which had been specially organized for the purpose. In other directions, however, the work of the association was largely extended, including the tracing of relatives and friends in all sections of the· Union for im· migrants who sought them in this city, and the recovery of baggage waylaid at numerous depots and stopping places, from the Russian frontiers to the various ports on both sides of the Atlantic. This charity is still active and has done much to lessen the miseries of thousands of help. less and hapless wayfarers in their troubled course.

From 1882 to 1904 the number of Jewish ;mmigrants at the port of Philadelphia is estimated at about 60,000. Of this number the records of the Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants contain the names of the greater part. Other data regarding the newcomers, mch as the destination to which they were booked, the points to which they were finally forwarded, their general condition, etc., are also included in these records. The annual influx at Philadelphia has varied from about 1,500 in 1884 and 2,310 in 1886, to 4,984 in 1891 and 5,324 in 1893, fluctuating since then down to 1,649 in 1899, rising to 3,870 in 1900. The renewed proscriptions and more widespread expulsions of Jewish citizens which blackened the history of Russia in 1891 and 1893 are marked by the high figures of the refugee immigration of those years and a similar flood tide of Ronmltuian wickedness and folly is indicated in the figures of 1900. The aftermath of these harvests of misery is visible though not measurable in Russian famines and Roumanian bankruptcy.

Passing reference has already been made to the employment bureau of the United Hebrew Charities. This was instituted in 1886 through a special organization of young men, which took the form of an auxiliary branch of the charities and whose individual members gave their personal efforts to the cause. The office was located in the southem section of the city and eventually in the Hebrew Education Society's Building, Touro Hall, where it is still conducted. The number of applicants at this employment bureau, exc!usive of a large number of temporary sojourners, has averaged over 600 per annum, of whom a considerable proportion have been placed in positions to maintain themselves. Besides this bureau various organizations of women have been formed as auxiliaries to the United Charities, such as the Ladies' Auxiliary Committee, the Ladies' Volunteer Visiting Committee, and the Personal Interest Society, whose activity has aided to a great degree in mitigating the suffering of the needy among the Russian Jews.

The gravity of the conditions which the increasing distress of the Russian Jews entailed upon those of Western Europe and America called forth in 1890 the monumental effort of the late Baron Maurice de Hirsch for their amelioration. Of the munificent endowment which he founded for this purpose on this aide of the Atlantic in the form of the Baron de Hirsch Trust, a proportion of the income is allotted to Philadelphia. Of this allotment, $700 per month was dispensed directly to the needy among the recent arrivals, for support while learning trades, for tools, and for transportation to the interior. This charity continues to be dispensed, in varying amounts, through the Auxiliary Branch of the United Hebrew Charities. Since 1892 a portion of this fund, amounting to $2,400 per year, has been allotted to educational work through the Hebrew Education Society.

One important factor in the charitable work put forth in Philadelphia yet remains to be considered, the central agency of ways and means. This agency is now effected through an organization chartered under the title of the Federation of Jewish Charities, which took up in May, 1901, the work of financing the various charity undertakings. Up to that time this troublesome task was performed largely by the Hebrew Charity Ball Association, which supplemented the sporadic efforts of the individual officers and members of the ditferent societies with the proceeds of their annual entertainments. The Charity Ball Association was long a mainstay of Jewish philanthropic work in Philadelphia. It was organized, coincidently with the United Hebrew Charities in 1869, for the purpose of continuing regularly the charity benefit entertainments which had previously been given at irregular intervals as occasion arose. In time the Hebrew Charity Ball became one of the most notable functions of the winter season in Philadelphia, attended by large and representative gatherings, without distinction of creed. Its proceeds, generally amounting to over $20,000, were distributed among the various charity societies according to their respective needs. These allotments, however, still left the major part of the necessary income to be derived from other sources, from membership dues, and endowment funds, donation day collections, fairs, theatre benefits, and, in large measure from contributions through the synagogues on the high holy days, and finally through specially solicited funds. With the growing demands of recent years these diffuse and often conflicting agencies of :financial support became more and more unsatisfactory as well as inadequate. These conditions led to the adoption of what has come to be known as the "Liverpool Plan" of raising charity funds, the term being derived from the fact that the method was first applied in Liverpool. It was subsequently adopted by the Jewish communities of Cincinnati and Chicago and latterly, as indicated, in Philadelphia, as well as in other cities.

Under this system every member of the community who contributes annually to the Federation a sum at least equal to the total of a members' dues in all the constituent societies has the right of membership in each of them, and if the annual contribution be less than that sum, then to a corresponding extent in such of the several organizations as may be preferred by the contributor. On the other hand the organizations themselves are pledged to refrain from all manner of entertainments and assemblies for pleasure in the name of charity, or to solicit funds from the public otherwise than through the Federation, though of course, voluntary contributions from riends and patrons are not excluded.

The results of this measure during the first years of its operation in Philadelphia have been very gratifying. Where in the preceding year the income of the constituent societies outside of that from endowment funds was not over $95,000 the subscription to the Federation in its first year realized $121,864.07, the second year $127,398.18, and the third year, ending April 30, 1904, $121,650.80. The Federation has sought, and to an encouraging extent has already attained, the great object of unifying the forces of the community in the direction of charity work. The system gives promise not only of rendering the work itself more eftlcient but also of bringing a larger number of individuals to join in it, and of imbuing the latter with due measure of public spirit.

Passing to the consideration of the philanthropic works which the Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia have oganized among themselves, we find much that illustrates, at the same time that it reveals, the intense vitality of the Jewish spirit. It must be remembered that we are dealing with a community of refugees, rather than emigrants. The majority of these people did not leave their native lands of their own free will and desire but were forced to go, often not only without preparation for their journey but frequently after being robbed of most of their belongings through violence at home and of much of the poor remainder through chicanery on the way. The earliest Russian Jewish immigrants, those of the years 1882-85, were almost all of them victims of violence in one form or another. So, too, were the thousands of their countrymen who were driven out of Russia during the renewed outbreaks of barbarism that centred at Moscow in 1890. Scarcely even those who followed their forerunners ith passage prepaid by relatives on this aide could reasonably be regarded as normal immigrants. They were, as the majority of them still are, members of families that had been broken up in the course of the persecutions; wives and children joining some father who had preceded them; sometimes parents with younger children called to join older ones already settled here and frequently other relatives and friends of earlier and more fortunate seekers after freedom and fortune in America.

Like the first association of their Sephardic and German predecessors, the first "Russian" Jewish society was a Chevra Bikur Cholim, or Brotherhood for Visiting the Sick. The small community of Polish Jews who settled about 1870 in the northeastern section of the city, in the Richmond district, organized a number of chevras that gradually merged into a congregation which included the usual mutual aid and eleemosynary features. Another of these earlier associations for mutual aid and charity is the Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth.

Following the example of their German predecessors, the Polish immigrants soon organized national societies for mutual benefit and aid, some of which were established as early as 1860. During the seventies several lodges of this character were established in Philadelphia and continued their activity to the present day. In the course of time, as the immigrants from one or another of the East European lands grew in numbers, new societies were started, composed of individuals drawn together by closer ties of origin. Among the earliest an association composed of Galicians, formed in 1876 the Krakauer Congregation, named after the capital of Galicia, and which in 1879 was merged with a chevra of the same name. Dating also from the decade of the seventies is the Hungarian congregation of the southern part of the city, and the Austro-Hungarian Association in the northern section. Both these institutions, in addition to other purposes, have the usual functions of the mutual aid and charity organizations. There are various other societies of this nature, most of them in the southern section of the city, and all of them active in their mission of charity and good will. In general, the East European Jews of the earlier and voluntary immigration prior to 1882 were of a class of sturdy and self-reliant people, who were mostly quite capable of taking care of themselves and of those dependent on or connected with them. They comprised but few individuals needing charitable aid and these they provided for among themselves.

It was different with the refugees who escaped hither after 1882. These came not only in larger numbers but also in greater need, and inevitably strained the resources of their earlier settled countrymen as well as those of their co-religionists of other origin. The several years following the beginning of this movement comprised a period of marked disorganization among the newcomers. As soon, however, as the first years of stress and struggle were past, reorganization began to become apparent and in the course of the decade one after another of various mutual aid societies were formed, so that in 1892 they had organized 28 mutual aid societies besides 5 lodges and 5 synagogues.

A marked development of communal activity in the Russian Jewish community dates from about 1890. In that year the immigrant shelter, carried on by the .Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants, was taken over by the Hachnosas Orchim, or Wayfarer's Lodge. This society, incorporated in 1891, opened a house for the temporary shelter and maintenance of immigrants waiting to find employment or relatives or friends of whom they had lost trace, and has developed considerable activity in that respect. The society now owns and occupies two adjoing houses at 218 and 220 Lombard Street, at times accomodating over 100 inmates. It has about 500 members and 1,000 contributors paying a total of about $2,500 annually, besides donations of clothing, food, and other supplies. In 1898 this society extended its sphere to include the maintenance of a Moshav Z'kenim or Home for the Aged, where a number of superannuated men and women are permanently sheltered. This feature of the institution is being specially fostered, and will doubtless form the main branch of the society's activity when, as is be hoped, the immigrant shelter will no longer be a necessity.

In 1891 the Maimonides Clinic for the treatment of indigent immigrants by Russian Jewish physicians was established and was succeeded in 1896 by the Franklin Free Dispensary. In 1889 a society of a similar nature was organized under the name of the Beth Israel Hospital, and the following year the dispensary and hospital societies were merged. A fully equipped dispensary was established at 236 Pine Street. At about the same time the Mount Sinai Hospital Assoeiation was organized and in a short time absorbed the dispensary society. It also established an out-patient department. The hospital erected at Fifth and Wilder Streets was opened in the spring of 1905.

In 1892 the Independent Chevra Kadisho was established to afford free burial in cases where the family of the deceased is too poor to bear the expense. Its membership is about 3,000, who pay ten cents per month. The society has purchased properties at 408-10-12 Christian Street, on the site of which there are erected a synagogue, school building, and hall in addition to the rooms used for the society's own purposes. There are three smaller free burial societies with a similar object.

A loan society, the Women's Society, Gemilas Chasodim, was organized in 1896. It makes loans without interest to deserving persons in amounts from $5 to $25, repayable in installments. Pledges of gold or silver are required as security. The capital of the society is $2,378.87 and the amount loaned during the past year was $3,050. There is a smaller organization with a similar purpose.

Among relief societies should be mentioned the Malbish Arumim (Clothing the Naked), which has been active since 1894, with the object of helping the needy children of the Talmud Torah schools with necessary clothing. It has about 200 members. A very worthy charitable effort is represented by the United Relief Association which includes about 200 members and affords aid in cases requiring immediate attention, furnishes matzos (unleavened bread) to the poor, and wine and eggs to the sick. The Roumanian Relief Association, established in 1900, has developed into the Roumanian Educational Society, which carries on a night school at 422 N. Fourth Street. One of the latest and most active of the charitable societies is the Ladies' Hebrew Emergency Society, organized in 1904, which has a membership of 300 and an income of $1,600.

Among the important charities established by Russian Jews is the Home for Hebrew Orphans, which occupies the large building at the southwest corner of Tenth and Bainbridge Streets. It has a membership of about 3,000, who contribute from 10 cents per month to $5.00 per annum. The annual income last year to August 31, 1904, was $12,315.35. The home gives shelter and traming to 61 children.

From what has been here noted, it will be apparent that the process of generating a stable and progressive community out of the disorganized and harried victims of Slavic ignorance and brutality is well under way in Philadelphia. Much yet remains to be done, not only among themselves, but by other elements of the community, to further their progress toward stability and order, but the advances already attained by the Russian Jewish community afford an ample reassurance for the future.

1 The number for this year is given in preference to the figures from the following report, which contains records for sixteen months to conform to the year of the Federation of Jewish charities.







Copyright © 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.