World of our Fathers. Eastern European Jews who Made A New Life in America.

The reader is familiar with Emma Lazarus’ wonderful poem, written for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” An astonishing number of these “wretched refuse” arriving at our shore were Jews, like Emma herself. Forced from their shtetls in Russia and Eastern Europe, tens of thousands of Jews sold their possessions and bought tickets for the voyage to New York City. In America they started over in a world astonishingly different from the one they left behind.[1]  One of these Russian refugees was Irving Berlin. He would one day set Emma Lazarus’ poem to music. You can hear the sons and daughters of the Jewish immigrants sing a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired” here. Let us welcome refugees today as our fathers and mothers did back then. Irving Howe writes:

The prospect of moving to America meant there was somewhere safe to go. In the thirty-three years between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War, approximately one third of all east European Jews left their homelands. A powerful storm-wind ripped us out of our place and carried us to America.[2]

 Blincoe: I am especially interested in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and other Jewish havurot (called voluntary societies or “associations” in the New World). These associations helped arriving Jews make a new life in America. All of these societies are mentioned by Irving Howe in this book.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Met the Immigrating Jews at Ellis Island and Guided Them Through the Bewildering Experience of Applying for Permission to Come Ashore.  Irving Howe writes:

The interviews conducted by US officials on Ellis Island posed a dilemma: Should I be honest, or should I lie? Is it good to have money or not? Can you bribe these fellows, as back home, or is it a mistake to try? The HIAS is one of the few Jewish agencies that over the decades has been praised by almost every segment of the American Jewish world—no small feat in a community that has been notoriously contentious.[3]

Lillian Wald Establishes the Henry Street Settlement. Lillian Wald was a nurse who changed the lives of many immigrants when she organized the Henry Street Settlement. Lillian Wald was born into a well-to-do Jewish family. One day a little girl came up to Miss Wald, asking that she visit someone sick at home. Lillian followed the child to a dismal two apartment that housed a family of seven plus a few boarders. “Within half an hour” she had made the central decision of her life: she would move to the East Side, there to give her life as nurse, settlement-house leader, and companion to the afflicted.[4]

Aid Organizations. By 1903 the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which lent amounts of $5 up to $50,without interest, had a capital of almost $75,000. During that year turned over its money four times, lending out a bit more than $320,00. In 1916 the Russel Sage Foundation put out a fifty-two page booklet in Yiddish describing the principles of credit unions and co-operatives, a guide for investing that enabled a generation to start saving money.

About 1912 Jewish storekeepers of New York  began to form trade associations. The German-Jewish merchants had established their own institutions as far back as 1882, but it was some thirty years before the east European Jews founded the New York Retail Grocers Union. Employers were slower to organize themselves then were workers; the Hebrew Printers Union was started in 1888 but had to wait for nineteen years before a Hebrew Printers League appeared on the scene for industry-wide collective bargaining.[5]

A day nursery on Montgomery Street was established to care for infants of women working in factories. It did not charge a fee, but survived on contributions from unions, Workmen’s Circle branches, charitable groups. Romanian Jews set up their own aid association in 1898 to care for new immigrants. Hungarian Jews had done so a few years earlier. Each year the Ladies Fuel and Aid Society held a banquet to collect funds for hospitals and provide coal for the indigent. Much East Side charity was informal, quite apart from the institutions. “Mother had been collecting for a motherless bride . . . She would come home with a large handkerchief quite heavy with money, a fitting result to her house-to-house canvass in the ghetto.”[6]

The number and variety of voluntary associations is astonishing. To name a few:

  • The Sheltering House for Immigrants and the Hebrew Free Loan Association,
  • The Workmen’s Circle
  • The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
  • The Beth Israel Hospital
  • The Free Burial Society
  • The United Hebrew Charities
  • The Jewish Maternity Hospital
  • The Hebrew Free School Association
  • The Educational Alliance
  • The Provident Loan Society
  • The Baron de Hirsch Fund
  • The Aguilar Free Library
  • The Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls
  • The Lakeview Home for unmarried Jewish mothers
  • The Jewish Prisoners’ Aid Association
  • The Jewish Consumptive Association
  • The East Side Civic Club
  • There was a Young Men’s Hebrew Association.[7]
  • In 1900 the Jewish Agricultural Society began to finance Jewish settlers in Sullivan County, with the hope they would become truck or dairy farmers.
  • In 1899 three agencies merged, the Hebrew Free School Association, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and the Aguilar Free Library Society. This was named the Educational Alliance in 1893.[8] From the moment of its birth the Educational Alliance came under attack. Orthodox Jews were aghast at its devotion to petty reform. In 1900 a group of Yiddish intellectuals, with the playwright Jacob Gordin at their head, set up a rival institution, the Educational League, declaring it was time “the people downtown cut away from the apron strings of the German Jews.”[9]
  • In 1908 a man from Poland named Benjamin Feibenbaum visited New York City and gave a series of lectures for the Tombrezhberger Young Men’s Educational Society. The entry fee was five cents. [10]
  • The Protestant and Catholic communities of New York City organized reform schools for teenagers who committed misdemeanors. Louis Marshall badgered the city on behalf of the Jews. With tax money and donations, the Jewish Protectory Movement built Hawthorne School in 1906, a reformatory in Hawthorne, New York.[11]

More numerous were the trade unionsThe Iron and Bronze Workers Union organized in 1913 under the United Hebrew Trades, reported a membership of 2000 in 1918. The Bakers Union numbered 2500 the same year. The United Hebrews Trades also sponsored a Bed Spring Makers Union of 150 members, a Chandelier and Brass Workers Union of 275, a Milk Wagon Drivers Union of 1,000, as well as small locals of shoe fitters, bag makers, metal workers, umbrella makers—even an East Side Newspaper Deliverers Union.[12]

More numerous still were the Landsmanshaftn (Benevolent Societies). Many of the landsmanshaftn formed during the last few decades of the nineteenth century were also anshe, congregations established according to place of origin or by occupation. But by about 1900 the majority of the landsmanshaftn were secular in character, some even adorning themselves with English names like the First Kalisher Benevolent Association.[13]

Someone asked the president of the Ponevesher Society about its ultimate purpose:

To die but not to die off . . . everybody in is place tires not to die off, but to prolong his memory . . . Our khevra kadisha [burial group], besides taking care of the grave in accordance with the law of Israel, immortalize the name of each member by reciting it as yizkor. It is to be wished that our young members will join us to that this important institution will exist forever. Because we are mortal.[14]

In the years shortly after 1900, the Forsyth Street synagogue:

has a khevra kadisha consisting of over twenty members who perform all the rites connected with the burial of the members: the khevra is social, for it gives banquets very often; on certain Sabbaths its members are accorded privileges of reading the law. The same synagogue has organized a khevra schas or mishnayoth. This society has forty or fifty members, and there are no dues; the members study the Talmud every evening in the vestry rooms of the synagogues. The Ladies Benevolent Society consists of over 150 members; the dues are paid monthly, and are devoted to charity.[15]

The relationship between synagogues and Jewish voluntary societies was respectful. No rabbi said, “If only the synagogue were organized we would not need the Jewish voluntary societies.” There was not a feeling of “synagogue and para-synagogue.” Synagogues were established as a sacred place for the faithful to worship Yahweh. Voluntary societies were organized to do good works. The Jews have established “two structures of Yahweh’s mission.”

[1] Irving Howe, Kenneth Libo, and Rouben Mamoulian Collection (Library of Congress), World of Our Fathers, 1st ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976). 5

[2] Ibid. 63

[3] Read more about Lillian Wald here. Her organization is still active. See

[4] Howe, Libo, and Rouben Mamoulian Collection (Library of Congress), World of Our Fathers. 99

[5] Ibid. 129-130

[6] Ibid. 129

[7] Ibid. 211

[8] Ibid. 230

[9] Ibid. 233

[10] Ibid. 244

[11] Ibid. 264

[12] Ibid. 162

[13] Ibid. 184

[14] Ibid. 190

[15] Ibid. 191