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Jews in America: The History of the Philadelphia Jewish Federation

by Kathryn Levy Feldman

As Jacob Gimbel, one of Philadelphia’s leading merchants, walked briskly to Mercantile Hall on Broad Street, south of Jefferson on the morning of Sunday, February 10, 1901, he could see his breath. In spite of the frigid 18 degree temperature, the day was clear and bright and he was glad he had decided to walk to the meeting of the city’s Jewish leaders at which the issue of forming a Federation of Jewish Charities would be discussed. Even though he was not closely involved with any of the city’s Hebrew charities, he felt the issue was important enough for him to attend. As Gimbel maneuvered carefully around ice patches, dodging frisky trotters pulling sporting sleighs through the snow covered streets, he noted with satisfaction that progress was slowly being made on the widening of Chestnut Street. He glanced at the marquee outside the Broad Street Theater advertising its current offering, William Gillette in "Sherlock Holmes", and quickened his pace. When he arrived at Mercantile Hall, he was pleased to find that about 500 of his fellow Israelites had also considered the discussion important enough to brave the elements. They, like Gimbel, were well aware of the burden that the recent influx of Jewish immigrants had placed on the city’s charitable organizations and they were willing to consider any proposal that might make it easier for organizations like the Jewish Hospital, United Hebrew Charities, Jewish Foster Homes, Hebrew Education Society, Orphans’ Guardians, Jewish Maternity Association, Jewish Immigrant Society and the Young Women’s Union and Hebrew Society to do their jobs. Little did Gimbel realize that within days he would be president of the first Federation of Jewish Charities of Philadelphia.

Although the spirit of nonpartisanship in which the Federation was founded was considered very modern, the concepts of tzedakah and gemilut hasadim, on which the organization based its principles were as old as the Torah. Throughout history, Jews have always cared for their own. It has always been considered a mitzvah of the highest priority for fortunate Jews to care for those less fortunate and those who settled in Philadelphia adhered to these traditions. From the earliest burial societies formed under the auspices of the first synagogues, to tzedakah funds and later mutual aid societies, Jews in Philadelphia responded with generosity and often anonymity to the needs of their brethren. By 1813, the members of Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s oldest Sephardic synagogue (established 1740) had instituted the first extra-synogogal Jewish organization in Philadelphia, the Hebra Shel Bikur Holim Ugemilut Hasadim or Society for the Visitation of the Sick and Mutual Assistance and by 1819, two female congregants of Mikveh Israel had formed The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. In 1822, members of congregation Rodeph Shalom established the United Hebrew Beneficent Society, followed in short order by the creation of the the Jewish Foster Home in 1855, the Jewish Hospital in 1864, and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1875.

It is interesting to note that during the time that the earliest Jewish charitable agencies were created in Philadelphia, there were relatively few Jews in need of their services. Edwin Wolf 2nd and Maxwell Whiteman, in their classic 1956 tome, The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson, write, "There did not exist, and did not appear for many years, a body of Jewish poor. They were not as a group habitual drunkards, confirmed beggars or malingerers; apparently no Jews applied for admittance to the city poorhouse." By the late 1800’s, however, the situation would be very different. Violent anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, combined with glowing tales of American streets paved with gold and general European unrest, spurred thousands of European Jews to emigrate to the "new" country.

In 1880, approximately 15,000 Jews lived in Philadelphia. By March of 1890, Moses Dropsie noted in his report to the annual meeting of the Hebrew Education Society that there were between 26,000 and 28,000 Jews in Philadelphia, about 10,000 of whom were born in Slavic and Hungarian countries. It is estimated that 60,000 Jewish immigrants landed at the port of Philadelphia between 1882 and 1904, nearly quadrupling the cities’ Jewish population and dramatically altering its ethnic mix, in twelve years.The immigration pattern in Philadelphia was a microcosm of that in the United States. By 1904, Jewish immigration hit 75,000 and by 1918, it was 200,000. In fifty years, the Jewish population in the United States increased twenty times while the total population more than tripled.

The Eastern European Jews who arrived at the city’s port, at the foot of Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia were, for the most part, poor and unskilled. They settled in the alleys and courtyards of Fourth and Fifth Streets south of Pine in what would become the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side. They became peddlers, rag men, cigar makers, even "horse radish men" calling out their wares in Yiddish, a dialect that was as foreign to the city’s older more established German Jewish population as it was to their gentile neighbors. Nonetheless, the German elite population felt an obligation to care for their "poorer cousins" even though, as Dropsie notes, "yet but very few of them are able to contribute in relieving the necessities and caring for the well being of their countrymen." As Dropsies’ remarks suggest, a large and sustained rift would develop between the two factions of Philadelphia Jews that would continue well into the early years of the Federation.

One of the reasons for this tension was the demand that the large influx of Russian Jews placed on the city’s previously largely symbolic Jewish charities. From the moment a Jewish immigrant arrived on the dock in Philadelphia, his every need was met by some charitable organization. An agent of the Association of Jewish Immigrants directed him; the Sheltering Home offered him a place to stay for a few days; the employment bureau of the Hebrew Charities helped him find a job. Whenever he required their services, the hospital, orphan asylum and burial society were all at his disposal. It is little wonder that there were was never enough money to go around. Up until the immigration act of 1924 curbed the mass influx of European Jews, the fledgling Federation found itself in the position of supporting the economic and welfare needs of an impoverished population that was not able, or willing to repay its debts.

Russian Jews, for the most part, founded and supported their own charitable organizations. They established their own Orthodox synagogues, burial societies, schools and newspapers (in Hebrew and Yiddish) to provide newcomers with information about their community as well as their relatives all over the world. Department store owner Samuel Lit is said to have solicited a well-to do Russian Jew for the Federation-sponsored building of Eagleville Sanitarium for consumptives, by suggesting that since he had prospered, he should contribute to the effort. "You’re right.," was the reply. "so I’ll tell you — You German Jews contribute the money, and we Russian Jews will contribute the tuberculosis."

By 1918, the Federation’s income totaled $289,819 but annual deficits, met by borrowing from endowment funds, had piled up to more than $100,000. World War I had brought inflation and the problem of meeting ongoing needs with less valuable dollars became critical. In the Spring of 1919, the Board of Directors of the Federation decided to regroup and reorganize. They voted to expand their original constituency from 14 to 39 agencies and amend their by-laws to permit directors and officers of constituents to serve on their board, which they enlarged from 12 members to 40. But by far the most significant change they enacted was to include Russian Jews in leadership positions previously occupied by Jews of German descent. By including Russian Jews among their elite, Federation sent a message to their constituency. The time had come to accept and recognize Russian Jews, and their charities, as part of the Philadelphia Jewish community. In 1919, the Federation’s new agencies included some that were founded by Russian Jews, notably the Talmud Torah Association, Mount Sinai Hospital, the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Old Age Home. The board also included representatives from these constituencies including Jacob Gutman, one of the few Russian-born Jews to penetrate into high FJC circles.

The recognition of Russian Jews by the leaders of the Philadelphia Federation mirrored a major change in American Jewry in the early 20th century. Up until the 1920’s, most Jews in the United States were immigrants or children of immigrants. With the passage of the immigration act of 1924, the focus of the Federation, and rightfully its leadership, shifted from Europe and the "old country" to America and the creation of a "new" country — Israel. American Jewry had matured and so, for the first time, had its leaders in America. This new generation recognized Federation as a business and, as such, hired its first full time administrator, Jacob Billikopf, who according to Gutman (as quoted in Murray Friedman’s book, Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830-1940), was "a brilliant man who knew how to unite communities around federated organizations...He also had a strong Lithuanian accent."

The mid-twenties were the years of the great boom and the newly reorganized Federation benefited from the economy. During this time, Federation’s annual campaigns reached $1,500,000 and more. Without needs for Israel and overseas Jewish relief, practically all the funds were directed toward local endeavors and the construction of new buildings. During the presidency of Justin P. Allman, Federation put up new buildings at Jewish and Mt. Sinai Hospitals, Eagleville Sanitorium, Willow Crest Convalescent Home, two schoolhouses for the Associated Talmud Torahs and a new home for its own operation at Ninth and Pine Streets.

The big boom, of course, was followed in short order by the big bust. In 1930 when Lessing J. Rosenwald became president, the Federation was running a $320,000 deficit. Campaign funds evaporated as bread lines lengthened and "Hoovervilles" began sprouting up, even in Philadelphia. In 1931, the leaders of the city’s business, labor, government and philanthropic sectors convened to discuss how to best handle the growing crisis. The meetings included representatives from the Welfare Federation of Protestant and nonsectarian agencies and the Federation of Jewish Charities. After much discussion, they decided to form a joint committee, under the leadership of Horatio Gates Lloyd, for the purpose of conducting a joint campaign for unemployment relief. The United Campaign on behalf of the Welfare Federation and Federation of Jewish Charities (as it was called) set a goal of $9,000,000. It raised $10,000,000. The two "Federations" joined forces again in 1932 and, after separating briefly the following year, formed the permanent partnership which we know today as United Way.

This joint partnership set an example for the rest of the country. While there were fund-raising arrangements of varying degrees between Jewish federations and welfare organizations in other cities, none was as strong and far-reaching as the partnership in Philadelphia. Well after the depression, the two organizations continued to benefit from the knowledge and support of their vast and diverse membership, which reached into practically all sectors of the community. In retrospect, the creation of a united campaign could not have come at a better time. As events in Germany unfolded and the American Jewish community faced a crisis unlike any other in its history, the previous existence of a united campaign effort in Philadelphia enabled the city’s Jewish leaders to raise funds for both domestic as well as overseas relief.

In 1937, Leo Heimerdinger, who was then president of the Federation, and Kurt Peisser, the newly appointed executive director, proposed the creation of "a double barreled Federation," one barrel of which was to discharge local health and welfare responsibilities, while the other would be aimed at the growing overseas rescue needs. The domestic effort would be supported by the Community Chest (now known as United Way). The overseas effort, which they named the Allied Jewish Appeal, would be funded separately. In 1938, Morris Wolf, in his capacity as president, conducted the first AJA campaign in Philadelphia.

From the very start, Federation and Allied were complimentary agencies. Between them, they covered the full range of the community’s humanitarian responsibilities and they were once described by Leon C. Sunstein, Sr., president of Allied from 1939-45 as "two faces of a single coin." Morris Wolf, the first president of Allied, later became president of the Federation of Jewish Charities. During the twenty years that the two agencies existed side by side, the Philadelphia Jewish community not only reaped the rewards of a more focused Federation effort with the creation of such institutions as Albert Einstein Medical Center, (created from a merger of Jewish Hospital, Mt. Sinai and Northern Liberties) Moss Rehabilitation Hospital (originally a division of Jewish Hospital that cared for the chronically ill, which became a separate rehabilitative hospital in 1952), numerous neighborhood recreation centers in the Northeast, and a revitalized Gratz College, it gained a tremendous infusion of new blood into its volunteer pool, courtesy of the nearly year round activity of the Allied Jewish Appeal, which continued after the war, under AJA presidents, Sam Daroff, Bernard G. Segal and Sol Satinsky.

With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the social and philosophical barriers that had once separated German Jews from those of Eastern European lineage and, later, Zionists from non-Zionists, had all but disappeared. The time had come for Jews in the United States to show unified support for the new Jewish state. In 1956, the Federation and Allied Jewish Appeal were consolidated into one central agency, the current Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia.

Each year, the Federation, through its FAJA campaign, raises millions of dollars to help maintain Israel’s education, health and social service programs, support humanitarian services in many other countries and serve the Greater Philadelphia community. Its 26 constituent agencies and 4 affiliated programs, which serve Jews as well as non-Jews, encompass social services, education, health, culture and recreation. The Federation maintains the mutually beneficial partnership with United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania (which had its roots in the 1930’s) and at present, is the single largest recipient of United Way Funds, receiving close to $3 million annually. These funds are distributed to social service and health care agencies that are open to everyone in the Greater Philadelphia area.

Over the years, Federation has launched special campaigns in response to unique and urgent needs. These include those stemming from the 1967 and 1973 wars, Project Renewal, which sought to improve conditions in several disadvantaged Israeli neighborhoods and Operation Moses, a vehicle through which the Philadelphia community could participate in the resettlement of almost the entire population of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Several Philadelphians played key roles in helping more than 700,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union resettle in Israel and locally. More recently, through Partnership 2000, a program that matches Jewish communities in the United States with communities in Israel, the Federation has formed a partnership with the community of Netivot/Azatta that promises to provide Philadelphia volunteers with exciting opportunities for joint educational programs.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society