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Creation of New York Female Hebrew Benevolent Society

March 15, 1820

On March 15, 1820, just a year after women belonging to Congregation Mikveh Israel created the country's first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in Philadelphia, Richa Levy led a group of women in establishing a Female Hebrew Benevolent Society at New York's Shearith Israel congregation. At that time, Shearith Israel was the only synagogue in New York City.

Although women had long been involved in individual acts of generosity toward their neighbors in need, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society hoped to work collectively as an organized body "for relief of indigent females and their families." As Richa Levy, the first director of the Society, wrote to synagogue trustees, the Society's primary focus was on helping impoverished women, but they hoped also to "occasionally give assistance to families whose situation may render them objects of charity."

In order to raise funds for their charity, the women of Shearith Israel gained permission to receive "offerings" at synagogue services. In addition, they augmented their funds by holding dinner-dances at which men spoke of the Society's goals between a dinner and festive dancing. One such ball, on December 2, 1847, raised $1,350 for the Society.

The Society was formally incorporated in 1854, at which time its purpose was defined as "to afford the aged and indigent female members of said congregation a comfortable residence, support, employment, medical and other necessary care." In 1870, the Society merged with the formally all-male Hebrew Relief Society, and ceased to exist as an independent organization.

See also: Rebecca Gratz in Women of Valor and Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

Source: David and Tamar de Sola Pool, An Old Faith in the New World: Portrait of Shearith Israel, 1654-1954 (New York, 1955).

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Creation of New York Female Hebrew Benevolent Society." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/15/1820/female-hebrew-benevolent-society>.