The obligation to help the poor and the needy and to give them gifts is stated many times in the Bible and was considered by the rabbis of all ages to be one of the cardinal mitzvot, or commandments, of Judaism.
The Bible itself legislates several laws which are in effect a sort of tax for the benefit of the poor. Among these are leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah as well as the special tithe for the poor (see ma'aser ). The institution of the sabbatical year (see Sabbatical Year and Jubilee) was in order "that the poor of the people may eat" (Ex. 23: 11) as well as to cancel debts about which the warning was given: "If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and thine eye be evil against thy needy brother and thou give him nought; and he say unto the Lord against thee and it be sin in thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work…." (Deut. 15:7–10).
The Pentateuch also insists that the needy be remembered when the festivals are celebrated, e.g., "And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow that are in the midst of thee" (16:11, 14). The Bible expects Israel to be aware of the needs of the poor and the stranger (who is considered to be in an inferior economic position) because Israel itself had experienced this situation in Egypt: "Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (10:19) and promises "for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto" (15:10).
Charity is an attribute of God Himself: "For the Lord your God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords.… He doth execute justice for the fatherless and widow and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment" (10:17, 18), a theme which was developed at considerable length by the psalmist (cf. Ps. 145:15, 16; 132:15). Both the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel considered charity as an indispensable requirement for a life of piety. Indeed, Isaiah proclaims that the "acceptable day to the Lord" is not the fast which only consists of afflicting the soul and wearing sackcloth and ashes, but rather the day on which bread is dealt to the hungry, the poor that are cast out are brought into the house, and the naked clothed (Is. 58:5–7); Ezekiel (16:49) attributes the destruction of Sodom to its lack of charity, "neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." "A woman of valor" is one who "stretcheth out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" (Prov. 31:20). Charity to the poor is equated with "lending to the Lord, and his good deed will He repay unto him" (ibid., 19: 17). The virtue of charity and the fact that it deserves reward from God are stressed over and over in the arguments in the book of Job (22:5–9; 29:12, 13). Following the precedent in the Pentateuch, the book of Esther (9:12) makes sending gifts to the poor a part of the new festival it inaugurates (Purim), and when Ezra and Nehemiah taught the people anew the meaning of Rosh Ha-Shanah, they told them, "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared" (Neh. 8:10).
Although the idea of charity and almsgiving is spread throughout the whole of the Bible, there is no special term for it. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, adopted the word צְדָקָה (ẓedakah) for charity, and it is used (but not exclusively so) throughout rabbinic literature in the sense of helping the needy by gifts. It has been suggested that the word ẓedakah in this sense already appears in Daniel (4:24) and in the Apocrypha (Ben Sira 3:30; 7:10 and Tobit 4:7; 12:8–9); in some of the verses the context would seem to bear out such a supposition. All this indicates, however, is that the term had come into use in the post-biblical period; in Talmud times it was entirely accepted to the extent that the rabbis interpreted biblical passages where the word certainly does not mean charity in the sense of their own usage. The word has since passed into popular usage and is almost exclusively used for charity. The term חֶסֶד (ḥesed, "loving-kindness"), which is used widely in the Bible, has taken on the meaning of physical aid, or lending without interest (see gemilut ḥasadim ).
Charity as Tzedakah
The word ẓedakah literally means "righteousness" or "justice"; by their very choice of word the rabbis reveal a great deal of their attitude toward the subject, for they see charity not as a favor to the poor but something to which they have a right, and the donor, an obligation. In this way they teach "The poor man does more for the householder (in accepting alms) than the householder does for the poor man (by giving him the charity)" (Lev. R. 34:8) for he gives the householder the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. This attitude stemmed from the awareness that all men's possessions belong to God and that poverty and riches are in His hand. This view is aptly summed up in Avot (3:8): "Give unto Him of what is His, seeing that thou and what thou hast are His" and is further illustrated in a story told of Rava . A poor man came before Rava who asked him what he usually had for his meal. The man replied, "Fatted chicken and old wine." "But do you not" said Rava "feel worried that you are a burden on the community?" "Do I eat what is theirs?" said the man, "I eat what is God's" (exegesis to Ps. 145:15). At that point Rava's sister brought him a gift of a fatted chicken and some old wine which Rava understood to be an omen and apologized to the poor man (Ket. 67b).
The importance the rabbis attached to the mitzvah of ẓedakah can be understood from R. Assi who stated that
"ẓedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together" (BB 9a) and from R. Eleazar who expounded the verse "To do righteousness (ẓedakah) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21:3) to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices (Suk. 49b). Ẓedakah, to the rabbis, hastens redemption (BB 10a), ensures that the doer will have wise, wealthy, and learned sons (BB 19b), and atones for sins (BB 9a). Giving charity is the way in which man can "walk after the Lord your God" (Deut. 13:5) and be saved from death (Prov. 1:2). Together with Torah and service (i.e., prayer), the practice of charity is one of the pillars on which the world rests (Avot 1:2). Giving charity does not impoverish and not giving is tantamount to idolatry (Ket. 68a). Charity is an act of devotion and a complement to prayer; as such, the wise give charity just before praying as it is written, "and I, in righteousness (ẓedek) will see Thy face" (Ps. 17:15; BB 9a).
Since ẓedakah is considered a biblical commandment the rabbis found it necessary – as in the case of every other mitzvah – to define it in minute detail, e.g., who is obligated to give, who is eligible to receive, how much should be given and in what manner. These laws are scattered throughout the Talmud and were codified by Maimonides in his Yad in Hilkhot Mattenot Aniyyim, the first six chapters of which deal with the laws of leket, shikḥah, and pe'ah, and the last four, with the general laws of charity. In the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh, the laws are codified in Yoreh De'ah 247–59.
Givers & Receivers of Charity
Everybody is obliged to give charity; even one who himself is dependent on charity should give to those less fortunate than himself (Git. 7a). The court can compel one who refuses to give charity – or donates less than his means allow – to give according to the court's assessment. The recalcitrant can even be flogged, and should he still refuse to give, the court may appropriate his property in the assessed sum for charity (Ket. 49b; Maim. Yad., Mattenot Aniyyim 7:10).
For the purposes of charity, a poor man is one who has less than 200 zuz (200 dinar – each of which coins is the equivalent of 96 barley grains – of a mixture of ⅞ bronze and ⅛ silver). This sum is the criterion if it is static capital (i.e., not being used in business); if, however, it is being used, the limit is 50 zuz (ibid., 9:13). A man with more than these sums is not entitled to take leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah, the poor man's tithe or charity – and he who does will be reduced to real poverty (ibid., 10:19). Charity should be dispensed to the non-Jewish poor in order to preserve good relations; however, charity should not be accepted from them unless it is entirely unavoidable. Women take precedence over men in receiving alms, and one's poor relatives come before strangers. The general rule is "the poor of your own town come before the poor of any other town," but this rule is lifted for the poor of Ereẓ Israel who take precedence over all (Sh. Ar., YD 251:3). A traveler in a strange town who is out of funds is considered to be poor and may take charity even though he has money at home. When he returns to his home, he is not obliged to repay the charity he has taken (Pe'ah 5:4). A man is not obliged to sell his household goods to maintain himself but is eligible for charity (Pe'ah 8:8); even if he owns land, houses, or other property, he is not required to sell them at a disadvantage if the prices are lower than usual (BK 7a–b). It is permitted to deceive a poor man who, out of pride, refuses to accept charity, and to allow him to think that it is a loan; but a miser who refuses to use his own means is to be ignored (Ket. 67b).
The Amount of Charity to be Given
To give a tenth of one's wealth to charity is considered to be a "middling" virtue, to give a 20th or less is to be "mean"; but in Usha the rabbis determined that one should not give more than a fifth lest he become impoverished himself and dependent on charity (Ket. 50a; Maim. Yad., loc. cit., 7:5). The psychological needs of the poor should be taken into consideration even though they may appear to be exaggerated. Thus a once wealthy man asked Hillel for a horse and a runner to go before him, which Hillel supplied; on another occasion, when Hillel could not afford to hire a runner for him, Hillel acted as one himself (Ket. 67a). This attitude is based on the interpretation of the verse "thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him … for his need which he wanteth" (Deut. 15:8), the accent being on "his" and "he"; however, on the basis of the same verse, the rabbis taught that "you are required to maintain him but not to enrich him," stressing the word "need" (Ket. 67a). "We must be more careful about charity than all the other positive mitzvot because ẓedakah is the criterion of the righteous (ẓaddik), the seed of Abraham, as it is written 'For I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just [ẓedakah; Gen. 18:19]' … and Israel will only be redeemed by merit of charity, as it is written 'Zion shall be redeemed with justice, And they that return of her with righteousness [ẓedakah'; Isa. 1:17]'" (Maim. Yad, loc. cit. 10:1).
Manner of Dispersing Charity
This appreciation of the importance of charity led the rabbis to be especially concerned about the manner in which alms are to be dispensed. The prime consideration is that nothing be done that might shame the recipient. "R. Jonah said: It is not written 'Happy is he who gives to the poor,' but "Happy is he who considers the poor' (Ps. 41:2): i.e., he who ponders how to fulfill the command to help the poor. How did R. Jonah act? If he met a man of good family who had become impoverished he would say, 'I have heard that a legacy has been left to you in such a place; take this money in advance and pay me back later.' When the man accepted it he then said to him, 'It is a gift'" (TJ, Pe'ah 8:9, 21b). When R. Yannai saw someone giving a zuz to a poor man in public, he said, "It were better not to have given rather than to have given him and shamed him" (Ḥag. 5a). Out of consideration for the sensibilities of the poor, the rabbis considered the best form of almsgiving to be that in which neither the donor nor the recipient knew each other: "Which is the ẓedakah which saves from a strange death? That in which the giver does not know to whom he has given nor the recipient from whom
he has received" (BB 10a), and R. Eliezer saw the "secret" giver as being greater than Moses (BB 9b). Stories are told throughout the Talmud illustrating this principle and relating how the pious devised ingenious methods of giving alms so as to remain anonymous (Ket. 67b.; Ta'an. 21b–22a, et al.). For the same reason, it is important to receive the poor in good humor, and even if one cannot afford to give, one must at least appease the poor with words (Lev. R. 34:15; Maim Yad loc. cit. 10:5).
Maimonides (Yad, loc. cit. 10:7–12) lists eight ways of giving ẓedakah which are progressively more virtuous: to give (1) but sadly; (2) less than is fitting, but in good humor; (3) only after having been asked to; (4) before being asked; (5) in such a manner that the donor does not know who the recipient is; (6) in such a manner that the recipient does not know who the donor is; and (7) in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other. The highest form of charity is not to give alms but to help the poor to rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, employing them, or giving them work, for in this way the end is achieved without any loss of self-respect at all.
"In every town where there are Jews they must appoint 'charity wardens' [gabba'ei ẓedakah], men who are well-known and honest that they should collect money from the people every Sabbath eve and distribute it to the poor.… We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have a charity fund" (Yad, loc. cit. 9:1–3). Because the charity warden was involved in the collection and distribution of public funds, special care was taken to ensure that there should not be even the slightest suspicion of dishonesty. The actual collection had to be made by at least two wardens who were not permitted to leave each other during the course of it. The distribution of the money was to be made by at least three wardens in whose hands lay the decision as to whom to give and how much. Besides money, food and clothing were also distributed. It seems that the poor were registered with the fund and mendicants who went from door to door begging were not to be given any sizable sums (BB 9a); the fund did, however, supply the needs of strangers. Apart from maintaining the poor, the fund was also used for redeeming captives and dowering poor brides, both of which were considered to be among the most virtuous of acts. In addition to the fund (kuppah), there were also communal soup kitchens (tamḥui) at which any person with less than enough for two meals was entitled to eat (Yad, loc. cit. 9:13).
Collecting and distributing charity is to some extent distasteful work and at times even humiliating. In order to encourage men to undertake it, the rabbis interpreted several scriptural verses as extolling the wardens who are considered to be "eternal stars" and greater even than the givers (BB 8a, 9a). R. Yose, however, prayed "May my lot be with those who collect charity rather than with those who distribute it" (Shab. 118b), apparently preferring the risk of humiliation to that of misjudgment.
Charity is a form of vow, and a promise to give must be fulfilled immediately (Yad, loc. cit. 8:1). Generally speaking, the charity money must be used for the purpose for which it was given, and it is forbidden to divert the funds to some other cause. For a more detailed discussion, see Hekdesh .
The Accepting of Charity
When necessary, accepting charity is perfectly legitimate and no shame attaches itself to the poor who are otherwise unable to support themselves. However, one is advised to do everything in one's power to avoid having to take alms: "Make your Sabbath a weekday (by not eating special food or wearing good clothes) rather than be dependent on other people" (Pes. 112a); and, "Even a wise and honored man should do menial work (skinning unclean animals) rather than take charity" (Pes. 113a). The greatest of the sages did physical labor in order to support themselves and remain independent. "A person who is really entitled to take charity but delays doing so and so suffers rather than be a burden to the community will surely be rewarded and not die before he reaches a position in which he will be able to support others. About such a person was it written: 'Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord' (Jer. 17:7)" (Yad, loc. cit. 10:18).
The ideology of charity changed in consonance with contemporary attitudes and socioeconomic developments. The most exacting formulation of the obligations required by charity is that put forward by Ḥasidei Ashkenaz (13th century): "As God gives riches to the wealthy and does not give to the poor, He gives to the one sufficient to sustain a hundred – The poor come and cry to God: you gave to this one sufficient to sustain a thousand and yet he is unwilling to give me charity. [Accordingly] God punishes the rich man as though he had robbed many poor; he [the rich man] is told: I gave you riches so that you could give according to the ability of your riches to the poor, and you did not give. [Thus] I shall punish you as though you had robbed them, and you had repudiated My pledge [pikkadon]; for I gave you riches that you might divide them among the poor and you appropriated them for yourself " (Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. Wistinezki, par. 1345, p. 331). This conception views the precept of charity as enjoining the redistribution of means according to the divine rules of social equality and justice. It underlies many other, much more conservative, conceptions of charity. In Jewish tradition charity begins at home. The broad family circle is the primary and basic unit for giving relief, the community being the second.
Begging was not considered shameful up to the 18th century. Social techniques and institutions for charitable purposes emerged in Jewish communities at a very early period. As Jews became increasingly concentrated in towns, in an environment of fierce rejection and hostility, Jewish feelings of solidarity and readiness to help their needy members correspondingly strengthened and broadened. The instability of the Jewish economic position in many countries throughout generations, and insecurity of property ownership and residence
during the innumerable persecutions, massacres, and expulsions to which Jews were subjected, made the rich Jew of today a likely candidate for charity tomorrow, or the reverse. Much of the Jewish resilience and astonishing capacity for rehabilitation and social regeneration have their basis in the broadening of scope and consistent application of charity among Jews, to comprise all aspects of mutual help and social reconstruction. Nurtured in this tradition, Jews have been, and continue to be, open to compassion for the unfortunate and ready to help needy people and humanitarian and philanthropic causes far beyond their own community.
Regular charitable institutions and forms of social assistance – always in conjunction with individual help and almsgiving – were generally in the form of (1) money through the charity box (kuppah); (2) gifts in kind (tamḥui – soup kitchen); (3) clothing; and (4) burial. The first was the major form of charitable relief. The ancient custom of providing charity through the donation of produce was largely abandoned by the urban communities of the Middle Ages. Relief in kind was limited to the distribution of maẓẓot, sacramental wine, or feasts for the poor at weddings and other celebrations. It was also customary in the late Middle Ages among Ashkenazi Jewry for each householder to deposit a ticket or tickets (pletten) in an urn, to be drawn preferably by the parnas ("elder") or a special almoner (plettenteiler). This served a poor man as a meal ticket in a particular home for a day; often it also entitled him to a night's lodging. Usually, the host brought the guest with him from the synagogue on Friday evening for the Sabbath.
The charity box became the major means of solicitation. R. Moses b. Jacob of Coucy (13th century) states that when he visited Spain, he saw the charity wardens making the rounds daily and then distributing the proceeds on Fridays. Boxes and plates were circulated in homes, in the synagogue on the eve of major holidays, including gifts to the poor on Purim, in the women's section of the house of prayer, in the cemetery, or wherever the populace assembled. It was understood that the legal requirement was that each householder allocate at least a tithe (ma'aser) to charity, but no more than one-fifth of his income. In practice other formulas had to be found in order to shift the burden onto the wealthier residents rather than overtax the less well-to-do. Taxes for poor relief were imposed by the community. In Russia the charities department of the kahal was often called the ẓedakah gedolah ("community chest" or "welfare committee"). The officers in charge of this chest dealt with the collection and administration of all charities. Donations were collected in small amounts at frequent intervals. The sources of income were manifold: taxes, donations, legacies, fines, rental of community property, or interest on foundation funds.
Though charitable associations ( ḥevrah ) are not mentioned in northern France in the 11th and 12th centuries because the communities were small, they proliferated there in subsequent centuries. Before long the larger settlements had a multiplicity of charitable societies. In 1380 the Perpignan community in southern France had five associations: talmud torah, lights for the synagogue, sick care, general charity, and burial. In 1382 in Saragossa, Spain, the Bicurolim (Bikkur Ḥolim – "visiting the sick") society obtained permission to build a synagogue. After 1492 Spanish exiles brought their associations to the countries where they settled. The comparatively small community of Verona Jewry in 1750 had fifteen societies for poor relief, burial, care of the aged, and for religious and educational purposes. Soon every large community had a number of charitable societies, and even associations designed mainly for mutual aid, religious, and other purposes made charity one of their functions. Charitable associations imposed admission fees on new members, weekly dues, fees for burial or other services, fines for infringement of rules, honors auctioned in the house of prayer, charges for listing and reading of the names of deceased relatives at memorial services, special assessments at banquets or family celebrations, payment on conferment of honorary titles such as ḥaver and morenu among Ashkenazi Jews, and many others.
Although women always performed the ritual of preparing deceased women for burial, it seems that the first society consisting exclusively of females, the nashim ẓadkaniyyot ("pious women"), was founded in Berlin in 1745. They cared for sick or bedridden women, gave medical aid, offered prayers for the seriously ill, sewed shrouds, and performed the ritual ablutions before burial. In the 18th century youth societies were also formed in Germany, mainly for the care of the sick, but also for a large variety of other purposes.
Most influential among the associations was the burial society which adopted the generic name of all associations, ḥevra kaddisha ("Holy Society"). While it engaged mainly in supervision of the local cemetery and performed the burial rites for every Jew, it also became a major philanthropic agency, assuming responsibility for burying the poor. In more recent years the general term for the burial society, gomelei ḥesed shel emet ("providers of true loving-kindness"), became the specific name for that branch of the association which was concerned solely with burial of the poor. In addition, as one of the most influential and affluent associations, it found itself dispensing relief for the poor and the distressed. Members of the bikkur ḥolim ("visiting the sick") association visited or made arrangements for others to visit the bedridden poor. Ideally, they provided a physician, medicine, and nursing care as well as spiritual solace and prayers for recovery, and sometimes even a night vigil. However, since all local sick persons were cared for in their own homes, they were mainly dependent on the resources of their immediate family and the transient sick were usually placed in the local hekdesh ("hospital," "hospice," "poor house") along with other transients of both sexes. This created highly unsanitary conditions. Some communities had a hakhnasat oreḥim ("welcoming visitors") society, which owned a hostelry or rented a room or two from a resident family to accommodate respectable and scholarly
travelers who would not stay in the hekdesh. Nor would the local poor stay there. In the Middle Ages and as late as the 18th century the larger communities hired a general practitioner or surgeon who, among his other duties, was responsible for providing medical care to the indigent; the same was true of druggists and barbers (who not only cut hair but also "let" blood and applied leeches). Those who could afford it paid; the poor obtained these services free. The kahal, or a specialized association, usually called the hakhnasat kallah , made provision for brides without dowries. There were also associations that catered to the religious needs of the destitute; a Sandak group arranged for circumcisions and the refreshments that followed; mezuzot and other ritual objects were provided; a talmud torah was maintained to educate the children of the poor; and finally there were associations for loans at little or no interest, called gemilut ḥasadim, halva'at ḥen ("loan of grace"), or mishmeret kodesh ("holy watch"). This service was of great assistance to small businessmen and artisans.
Characteristics of Social Welfare
From the 19th century the attitude toward the beggar hardened, and alms were sometimes even considered socially harmful: the old application of Jewish charity assumed new forms consistent with its ancient spirit. The very term charity was discarded in favor of "social welfare" or "service." Once largely direct and indiscriminate, charity was now delegated to special agencies and supervised by trained and paid professionals. Scientific studies of the facts and causes of distress and thorough investigation and control of the administration of relief replaced haphazard lay activity.
Social welfare became secularized and impersonal; a sense of civic duty largely replaced an awareness of the Divine Commandment. Momentary relief gave way to long-range remedial and preventive methods. Human suffering became the responsibility of society in general, of the political state. National and local legislation provided old-age pensions, medical insurance, and other fringe benefits, while trade unions, associations of small businessmen, fraternal and other groups adopted cooperative methods of mutual aid. Entire societies were built on the idea of equal opportunity or on collectivistic principles.
These general developments together with the movement of large Jewish populations from areas of scarcity to countries of plenty (and later the nearly total destruction of large and impoverished communities by the Nazis) have gone a long way toward reducing poverty among Jews. It took massive programs of relief to achieve this state of affairs. Aid to immigrants, relief of suffering arising from several wars, and the return to the land movement in the Western Hemisphere and in Ereẓ Israel required the concerted effort of the entire Jewish people. The whole structure of charity changed: associations for visiting the sick were supplanted by medical and health services, including spacious, well-equipped hospitals; apprenticing a poor boy to an artisan gave way to vocational guidance and trade schools. At first the old-timers fought the new methods, but they were forced to yield to the standards of a newer generation. New and highly specialized institutions arose to serve the blind, the deaf and the dumb, the tubercular, etc. A profusion of local, national, and international philanthropic enterprises came into being, and before long the Jews surpassed other national, ethnic, or religious groups in the care of their coreligionists and in the extent of their fund raising for charitable causes.
A great many institutions for a large variety of services were set up on a local scale as well as the federation of all or most local causes under one all-embracing organization. The medieval hekdesh gave way to modern alms-houses and hospitals. In London the Spanish and Portuguese congregation founded an almshouse in 1703 and a hospital (Beth Holim) in 1747. In the Ashkenazi community the Jews' Hospital (Neveh Ẓedek) was established in 1807, and the Solomon and Moses Almshouse in 1862. In Paris a general hospital was opened in 1842, another by Baron Rothschild in 1852, and a maternity hospital the following year. In New York Mount Sinai Hospital opened its doors in 1852. Since then virtually all communities in the United States with a Jewish population of over 30,000 have had hospitals under Jewish auspices.
The Montefiore Clinic for Chronic Invalids opened its doors in New York in the early 1880s. Hospitals soon began to develop their own nursing and medical schools. Child care services consisted at first of orphanages in Charleston, S.C. (1801); in London, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Orphan Society (1703) and the Ashkenazi Orphan Asylum (1831); orphanages in Berlin (1833); and orphanages in New York (1860). Gradually, the emphasis shifted to foster home placement, adoption, and small-group institutional care. Practically every large city established a home for the aged: Hamburg in 1796, Berlin in 1839, Frankfurt in 1844, and New York in 1848.
Such institutional care was soon reserved only for persons who were unable to care for themselves, and was supplemented by boarding and foster home placement, homemaker services, sheltered workshops, recreation programs, etc. Facilities were provided for the care of the blind, the deaf and dumb, the insane, the delinquent, the defective, and many other handicapped and anti-social individuals. Vienna had a Jewish home for the blind in 1872, and one for deaf and dumb Jewish children in 1884. The Philadelphia Hebrew Sunday School Society (1838), followed by the Hebrew Education Society (1849), was one of a large number of schools established mainly for the poor. The Neighborhood Settlement Houses in America served to introduce the immigrant to the language, customs, and culture of his new country.
Local Central Agencies
A movement also started to unite several local charities under one administration. First was the Paris Comité de Bienfaisance in 1809, followed by the Hebrew Benevolent Society in New York and the United Hebrew Beneficial Society in Philadelphia, both in 1822, the London Spanish-Portuguese Board of Guardians in 1837, and the Berlin Unterstuetzungsverein in 1838.
In 1859 Ashkenazi Jews launched another Board of Guardians in London. In Chicago
the same year nine groups formed the United Hebrew Relief Association. In New York the Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society originated in 1879. The United Hebrew Charities in New York, established in 1874, later changed its name to the Jewish Family Services. These are only a sample of the prevailing 19th-century trend in welfare groups. Toward the end of the century all local institutions began to band together for fund raising for national and overseas causes. In the course of time most of these central agencies served all causes while retaining their old names.
Boston Jewry established the first Federated Jewish Charities in 1895; Cincinnati conducted the first united campaign in 1896; Chicago launched the Associated Jewish Charities in 1900; and the first Jewish Welfare Fund was started in Oakland, Calif., in 1925. Before long every sizable Jewish community in America conducted only one fund-raising campaign each year, eliminating multiple appeals and persistent solicitations and cutting down campaign costs. This arrangement made possible the development of central functional services, such as bureaus of Jewish education, community councils for overall coordination or for anti-defamation work, vocational, family, and medical services, community centers, and many others. The proceeds from such united campaigns often far exceeded the previous combined collections of the constituent agencies. National and overseas causes now had an address to turn to in each community.
The first half of the 20th century also witnessed the evolution of a host of agencies that operated on a national scale, often coordinating the activities of local units. In Germany the Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund was formed in 1869 to exchange information on philanthropic endeavor in all communities large and small, including villages. The main office in Berlin had provincial branches and was charged with the supervision of hospitals, houses for the aged, the blind, the deaf and dumb, orphanages, and many other institutions.
The communities of Great Britain and other countries also developed national welfare services. For a long time French Jewry had no nationwide organization for social welfare; each community had to fend for itself and poverty was widespread. In 1945 the Comité Juif d'Action Sociale et de Reconstruction was formed. In the United States there were 35 national social welfare agencies in the late 1960s. The Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (1932) provided national and regional services to 220 affiliates in the United States and Canada. The National Jewish Welfare Board coordinated the work of Jewish community centers and Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations, as well as the religious and welfare needs of Jews in the armed services and in veterans' hospitals. B'nai B'rith engaged in educational and philanthropic programs. The Family Location Service, formerly the National Desertion Bureau (1905), gave help in cases of desertion or other forms of marital breakdown. The National Council of Jewish Women (1893) was one of a number of agencies dedicated not only to Jewish causes but also to the general advancement of human welfare and a democratic way of life.
There were a number of national medical societies, such as the Leo N. Levi Memorial National Arthritis Hospital, the American Medical Center at Denver, Colorado, formerly the Jewish Consumptives' Relief Society (1904), the City of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles, California (1913), and others for asthmatic, retarded, and arthritic patients. Most of the services were non-sectarian. Other agencies were dedicated to furthering agriculture among Jews, to helping the blind, conciliating disputes, and coordinating lay and professional endeavors in social service. There was a tendency in the U.S. for Jewish charities to extend their scope to all elements and to receive financial support not only from Jews but also from the government.
Developments from the mid-19th century onward called for unprecedented Jewish philanthropic efforts on a worldwide scale. Almost simultaneously the Board of Delegates of American Israelites (1859) and the French Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860) came into being to defend Jewish rights abroad. The Alliance offered help to needy Jews and maintained schools in many countries. Meanwhile, the London Board of Deputies , established in 1760, began to extend the scope of its international activities, while the Anglo-Jewish Association was established in 1871 with similar objectives to those of the Alliance.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in New York (1884), reorganized in 1954 as United HIAS Service, with affiliates all over the world, offered a variety of services to Jewish immigrants. The Baron de Hirsch Fund (1891) sought to aid immigrants, teach them trades, and help in their education. The Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) tried rather unsuccessfully to establish agricultural colonies in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S. The German Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden (1901) also undertook foreign aid similar to that of the Alliance. The French Fond Social Juif Unifié, patterned on the American United Jewish Appeal, originated in 1949.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC; 1914) has developed a vast network of activities in welfare, medical, and rehabilitation programs. The American ORT Federation (1924) has trained Jewish men and women in the technical trades and agriculture. This organization, as well as OSE, which was engaged in medical and public health programs, originated in Russia. The fund-raising organizations furthering a Jewish National Home have experienced the greatest growth.
Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America (1912), has been supporting Israel's medical and public health system, has transported young newcomers to Ereẓ Israel, maintained and educated them through Youth Aliyah , and engaged in Zionist educational work; Wizo (1920) has fulfilled a similar function in other parts of the world. The Palestine Foundation Fund ( Keren Hayesod , 1921) has been the financial arm of the World Zionist Organization. The largest of the American funds is the United Jewish Appeal (1939) which has raised vast sums for Israel and for worldwide causes. This list of international agencies is far from exhaustive.
It was prophetic Judaism that upheld the cause of the poor by regarding their condition as brought on not by themselves but by the evils of the social order. Ever since then Jews have sought to care for the underprivileged. Throughout history there have always existed large numbers of Jews in need of help. There is still a good deal of Jewish poverty in many countries. In Israel, which aimed at building an egalitarian society, and where the pioneers established collective settlements, the problem of poverty is still far from solved, since Israel is the haven for disadvantaged Jews throughout the world. Yet there is no doubt that Jews have made a most significant contribution to charity and welfare. Their pioneering work in methods of central fund raising and distribution through their federations of charities has been most valuable. Since World War II, when their existence as a people was threatened, the Jews have risen to the challenge by an unprecedented outpouring of generosity and philanthropy.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
IN BIBLE AND TALMUD: C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), chap. 16; EM, 5 (1968), 674 f.; ET, 6 (1954), 149–53. MEDIEVAL AND MODERN TIMES: AJYB; Baron, Community, index; B. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy (1917); I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia (1943); J. Bergman, Ha-Ẓedakah be-Yisrael (1944); J. Marcus, Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (1947); Neuman, Spain, 2 (1948), 161–81; V.D. Lipman, A Century of Social Service: The Jewish Board of Guardians (1959); Chipkin, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (19603), 1043–75; H. Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed: The Jewish Federation Movement (1961); R. Morris and M. Freund (eds.), Trends and Issues in Jewish Social Welfare in the United States, 1899–1952 (1966).