American Judaism

Jewish Humanitarian Organizations in America

It is so interesting to borrow books from the Jewish library in Scottsdale. I learned a lot by reading Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Jews coming to America started many humanitarian organizations.

Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) established a charitable organization for Jewish women, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, in 1819. This was the first Jewish women’s charitable society in the United States. Gratz later borrowed an idea from Christians and initiated the Jewish Sunday School movement, opening up yet another vocational role for Jewish women within their circumscribed religious sphere.[1] Gratz College in Philadelphia was the first of a series of Hebrew teachers’ colleges across the United States that trained women on an equal basis with men.[2]

Other Jewish charitable organizations established in the 19th century were the Benevolent Society (incorporated 1832) and the B’nai B’rith (1843).[3] “B’nai B’rith has taken upon itself the mission of uniting Israelites in the work of promoting their highest interest, and those of humanity; supporting science and art; alleviating the wants of the victims of persecution; providing for, protecting and assisting the widow and orphan on the broadest principles of humanity.”[4]

In New York, a group of Jews unconnected with synagogues formed, in 1841, the New Israelite Sick-Benefit and Burial Society, supposedly the first “overtly secular Jewish philanthropy in the United States.[5]

The Hebrew Ladies Association was founded in 1866 “for the purpose of caring for the graves of the Israelitish soldiers of the Confederate army.”[6]

The Jewish Chautauqua Society, modeled on its Protestant counterpart, organized traveling educators who provided lectures to Jewish audiences across the country on a wide range of subjects. The National Council of Jewish Women was devoted, among other things, to encouraging “the study of the underlying principles of Judaism.”[7]

In 1896 a Federation of Sisterhoods was established in cooperation with the United Hebrew Charities.

Henrietta Szold

Hadassah. In 1912 several cultural and educational societies came together to form Hadassah, the largest and strongest Jewish women’s organization of the 20th century.[8] Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) played a dominant role in establishing Hadassah. In many ways, Hadassah accomplished for Jewish women what foreign missions did for Protestant women, providing them with opportunities to participate in sacred work through social, medical and educational agencies. Women, Szold believed, were interested in practical projects that appealed emotionally to their maternal and religious instincts. She was convinced, therefore, that “we [American Jewish women] need Zionism as much as those Jews do who need a physical home.” By working to strengthen Jewish life in the Land of Israel, she hoped that women’s own Judaism, and American Judaism generally, would be strengthened and renewed.[9] Later Szold became a leader of the Federation of American Zionists.

Rabbi Willowski, in the twentieth century, recalled that hundreds of just-off-the-boat immigrants dined at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s kosher facility at Ellis Island. Thanks to this society, such a wonderful welcome was possible.

Landsmanshaftn. In America, Jews from Europe established small humanitarian societies called Landsmanshaftn. These societies took upon themselves certain good deeds: studying the Talmud, worship, charity, tending the sick, burying the dead, and other community obligations. Landsmanshaftn also generally bore the name of the old-world community from which members hailed, such as the Anshei Timkowitz (The People of Timkowitz), the Bialystoker Young Men’s Association, and the Ekaterinoslaw Ladies’ Charity Society. They emphasized ethnic and Old World community ties, especially mutual aid and support.[10] For a generation in the early 20th century, far more New York Jews belonged to Landsmanshaftn than to synagogues.[11]

The Jewish Endeavor Society was founded in 1899 by seminary students to provide young Jews on the Lower East Side with English-language lectures and classes, social and recreational activities, and “orderly, dignified” religious services “accompanied by congregational singing and an English sermon.” Modeled in part on the Christian Endeavor Society, an interdenominational youth ministry founded in 1881 by the Congregational minister Francis E. Clark to incorporate young people into the life of the church and prepare them for future leadership, the Jewish Endeavor Society even initiated “young people’s synagogues,” a conscious imitation of Christian Endeavor’s “young people’s churches.” The Jewish Endeavor Society also labored energetically to combat the “pernicious” influence of Christian missionaries on young immigrant Jews.[12]

The Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War was organized in 1914. Then the Jewish People’s Relief Committee of America was organized by trade leaders and East European-born Jewish socialists.[13]

The Jewish Publication Society issued several new editions of the Jewish Bible in the 1950s, and the society marketed tens of thousands of copies of its Bible textbook.[14]

The author of this book is saying that renewal in American Judaism has often, or usually, begun when Jews form small agencies for humanitarian or religious purposes.

[1] Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). 49-50

[2] Ibid. 138

[3] Ibid. 60

[4] Ibid. 89

[5] Ibid. 89

[6] Ibid. 123

[7] Ibid. 138

[8] Ibid. 132

[9] Ibid. 143-144

[10] Ibid. 166

[11] Ibid. 169

[12] Ibid. 186-187

[13] Ibid. 211

[14] Ibid. 280