An Introduction to Jewish Philanthropy

Looking back from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the history of Jewish charity and philanthropy seems particularly dynamic, with new institutions and new goals developing in each new environment in which Jews found themselves.

 Detail of United States map (date unknown) perhaps used by Educational Alliance in citizenship classes in the early 20th century. Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Detail of United States map (date unknown) perhaps used by Educational Alliance in citizenship classes in the early 20th century. Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.

[Jewish philanthropy has a long, rich history that goes back to Biblical times. In light of new studies by leading scholars including Debra Kaplan of Yeshiva University and Adam Teller of Brown University, the Center for Jewish History published “An Introduction to Jewish Philanthropy” which is presented in full below, and chronicles charitable giving over the centuries from the old world and the new. Focusing specifically on the history of Jewish philanthropy in America, the Center has organized a traveling exhibition, “Contributors to the Cause,” currently on view at the Center through February 28th. The exhibition, made possible by The David Berg Foundation, explores the ways in which Jewish philanthropists in America contributed to the formation of the United States, organized around charitable causes, established synagogues, built hospitals,improved the daily lives of working Americans, championed Israel, and forged the Soviet Jewry movement and the future of Jewish philanthropy.

Michael S. Glickman, Chief Operating Officer, Center for Jewish History, New York]

1. Maimonides

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), Maimonides, 1950. Watercolor and gouache on paper Collection of Yeshiva University Museum. Gift of Louis Werner.

An Introduction to Jewish Philanthropy
by Debra Kaplan, Yeshiva University
and Adam Teller, Brown University

The Hebrew word for charity, zedakah, has its root in the word for justice, evidence that charity was a social as much as a theological value in Jewish life. The history of Jewish charity is, therefore, to be examined not only in Jewish religious thought, but also in daily life, where it has been practiced for thousands of years over most of the globe. The mechanisms for Jewish giving have differed over time and from place to place, though the desire to create a society of greater justice, which expresses the values each generation of Jews has held dear, has been a guiding principle throughout. The roots of zedakah are found in the Bible, for although the term is not explicitly mentioned there, the obligation to care for the poor, needy and disadvantaged is given heavy emphasis. For Jews and others in the ancient world, poor relief was an essential religious obligation, one that allotted merit in heaven to the donor.

The Talmud gives more detail on the mechanics of charitable giving, outlining specific institutions to be established in Jewish communities: the kuppah, a collection of funds to be distributed to the poor on a weekly basis, and the tamhuy, a daily food distribution for the needy. This ideal was implemented differently in Jewish communities throughout the diaspora. Maimonides, writing in twelfth-century Egypt, famously describes that while he did not know of any community that did not have a kuppah, not all communities had a tamhuy. Indeed, communities across the medieval world had different levels of communally organized public charity. Some northern European communities lacked even the basic apparatus for collecting charity, while others had a kuppah as well as a communal hospice.

Alongside these public forms of charity, private giving by both men and women flourished. In certain European communities, poor relief was primarily provided voluntarily by individual donors, with special fundraising tasked to officially appointed collectors, called gabba’ei tzedakah, who collected money as the need arose. On occasion, female gabba’ot/gabbetes could be appointed to collect among the women.

As Jewish communal organization became more sophisticated, it took on the role of implementing the Jewish value of charitable giving. Public forms of donation became increasingly standardized, and communal charity was often mandated in the same way as taxes. By the seventeenth century, elite members of both Eastern and Western European communities were appointed to run these official funds and institutions, the demands on whose charitable resources grew dramatically. Money was now collected for the local and foreign poor, Jewish captives, the poor of the land of Israel and the incessant waves of refugees fleeing various persecutions.

Alongside the development of communal infrastructure aimed at caring for and regulating the presence of local poor, individual donors increasingly opted to support the causes they espoused through specially formed local institutions – a Europe-wide trend in these years. Benevolent societies for visiting the sick, burying the dead, and dowering poor brides were founded for both men and women. Participation in these societies, and particularly appointment to the role of charity-collector, conferred status and power that was often sought by wealthy Jews.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a new range of supra communal institutions with new demands began to arise, including the Lithuanian Yeshivot and the Hasidic Courts of Eastern Europe, both of which were advanced through the pledges of concerned Jews. Although this was not the first time that scholars and religious leaders were supported by charitable donation, these cases point to a shift from local charity to broader philanthropic donation. Of course, the Hasidic courts often used their incomes to help the needy, but they were never obliged to do so and could also use the funds for conspicuous consumption on the part of their leaders.

In Western Europe, the emancipation of the Jews and granting them citizenship as individuals also changed the face of charitable giving. Since participation in the Jewish community and its institutions became voluntary, poor relief could no longer be mandated as part of communal taxation. Nonetheless, social expectations and norms continued to serve as factors “obligating” donors to help the Jewish poor. The rise of this voluntary philanthropy, in which women played key roles, was also encouraged by the increasing embourgeoisement of Jewish society.

As western Jews became more integrated into the general society of the countries in which they lived, patterns of donation broadened still further, with non-Jewish charities and organizations becoming beneficiaries. Still, much money was donated to institutions aimed at improving the lot of poor Jews by helping them internalize the values of western society. This effort flourished particularly in the international arena, with figures such as Moses Montefiore and newly founded organizations such as the Alliance Israelite Universelle active internationally, providing financial, political and educational support for disadvantaged Jews worldwide.

Workmen’s Circle Camp souvenir book. 1930. Collection of American Jewish Historical Society.

Workmen’s Circle Camp souvenir book. 1930. Collection of American Jewish Historical Society.

In the twentieth century, it was largely Jews in the United States who gave new impetus to Jewish charitable giving. The status afforded to Jews in the Bill of Rights had created voluntary membership in the Jewish community from the colonial period onward. Donations, too, had been voluntary, and organized through the synagogues. This changed toward the end of the nineteenth century, with the influx of a mass of extremely poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants who knew neither English nor anything of American society. Charitable giving shifted to include a wide range of independent institutions aimed at helping immigrants survive and, particularly, integrate. Prominent among these was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and women’s organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women.

The American Jewish community continued to support Jews internationally. Concern for the plight of family and friends in the Old Country led individuals to remit a great deal of money to Eastern Europe. This also led to the creation of charitable institutions and, eventually, the Joint Distribution Committee. A competing force on the international stage was the nascent Zionist movement, which raised increasingly large sums of money to support Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. Here, too, women’s organizations, such as WIZO and Hadassah, played a major role.

 Donations given to the Eldridge Street Synagogue in exchange for the honor of being called to the Torah. 1904. This record is from Passover time and notes the Torah portions assigned to each honoree. Collection of American Jewish Historical Society.

Donations given to the Eldridge Street Synagogue in exchange for the honor of being called to the Torah. 1904. This record is from Passover time and notes the Torah portions assigned to each honoree. Collection of American Jewish Historical Society.

Within the United States, much Jewish philanthropy was directed at specifically Jewish institutions such as hospitals, schools and institutions of higher education, especially in the early part of the twentieth century, when Jewish integration into wider American society was still in question. As Jewish society began to feel more confident about its place in the United States, patterns of philanthropy changed again. With children of immigrant families moving up the socio-economic ladder, less money was needed for directly charitable causes. Jewish institutions, perhaps because they were felt to symbolize a separatist Jewish existence, also became less popular, with more money devoted to causes not specifically Jewish.

On the other hand, giving within the Jewish community continued. The young state of Israel, facing massive problems of creating a western society under conditions of war, attracted huge amounts of money from American Jews, for whom it formed a crucial part of their Jewish identity. The struggle to allow Soviet Jewry freedom to migrate in the 1970s also played a similar role in Jewish identity building. The integration on the home front came with intermarriage and the fear that American Jewish society and culture would cease to exist. To ensure “Jewish continuity” in the American environment, donations to universities and institutions of higher education in the last decades of the twentieth century included the establishment of a whole range of chairs and research institutions devoted to Jewish studies. A new generation of Jews educated in Jewish culture was thus created.

Looking back from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the history of Jewish charity and philanthropy seems particularly dynamic, with new institutions and new goals developing in each new environment in which Jews found themselves. Nonetheless, some continuities can still be seen: Jewish charitable giving always seemed to express the donors’ quest to improve the society in which they lived and to strengthen the values on which they wished to base it. The goals of giving also exhibited much continuity. In addition to helping the poor and needy, Jews throughout the ages also devoted much of their money to strengthening Jewish education, supporting those Jews who chose to live in the land of Israel and rescuing Jews who were under various threats. Finally, though a whole range of charitable and philanthropic institutions developed over the centuries, the responsibility for giving was always felt by individuals across gender lines.

As the changing social and economic climate of the new millennium leads to further changes in the world of Jewish philanthropy, these trends will continue to shape the new forms it takes.

Debra Kaplan and Adam Teller presented on the history of Jewish philanthropy at a special event for philanthropists, professionals and communal leaders hosted by the Center for Jewish History and the Jewish Funders Network. Debra Kaplan was also a co-convener of the Center’s international symposium “History of Jewish Giving: Jews and Charity” in October 2012.

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  1. Steve - NYC says

    There was a major change in American Jewish fundraising post Holocaust and founding of Israel — moving from the pushke to the checkbook, from communal responsibility to individual responsibility. In that setting, where Israel’s survival was at stake, business principles took over, as raising funds was the American responsibility (in particular the wealthiest and best connected American Jews) and spending them was more or less left to the Israelis. Now that the survival mode is no longer, a different dynamic is needed to connect the entire American Jewish community to Israel and Jews at home and the world over.