Philanthropy in the United States

by Susan M. Chambre

Jewish law and custom, secular culture, and economic and social roles have shaped Jewish women’s involvement in philanthropic activities. Although the term is often associated with the beneficence of the wealthy, philanthropy refers to a broad range of activities—giving time as well as giving money—that are intended to enhance the quality of life in a community or a society. The concept of philanthropy is broader than charity, which is primarily directed to those in need. Philanthropic activities include charitable actions as well as support for self-help and mutual benefit organizations, and efforts that sustain communal institutions.

Jewish tradition specifies that men and women are expected to perform philanthropic acts of hesed [loving-kindness] and Lit. "righteousness" or "justice." Charityzedakah[social justice]. Both are obligated to visit the sick, prepare the dead for burial, comfort mourners, give to the poor and the needy, support widows and orphans, offer hospitality, provide dowries for brides, and support community institutions. There are, however, qualitative differences in the ways that men and women have fulfilled these requirements at different times and in different contexts. Under strict interpretation of Jewish law, which governed most Jewish communities until this century, Jewish women were not held to the same standards of ritual performance as men or expected to devote significant amounts of time to learning Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah. Consequently, philanthropy has been a principal vehicle for religious expression for Jewish women, in contrast to Jewish men who have also been expected to devote themselves to prayer and study. Involvement in philanthropic endeavors has also provided Jewish women with a separate sphere, an arena in which they can contribute to community life, often serving as a context for exercising influence in the larger community or society, what historian Kathleen D. McCarthy calls a parallel power structure. Philanthropic activities have served yet another purpose. In social settings where Jewish women have been discouraged from active or fulfilling careers in paid jobs, philanthropic work provided them with “invisible careers.”

Over the course of Jewish history, groups and organizations have been created to ensure that charitable purposes are carried out: A great deal of philanthropic activity occurs within voluntary groups rather than being done by individuals in a solo and informal fashion. Jacob R. Marcus’s Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto describes the development of burial and sick-care associations, including the division of labor between men and women, that evolved as more German Jews became city dwellers. For medieval German Jews, the community as a whole or paid beadles were responsible for burial, and communal alms were given to the sick. Burial societies, organized by men but with women participants, were developed in the sixteenth century, and women-only burial societies were organized during the seventeenth century. Caring for the sick represented an expanded function of the burial society. The first women’s organization in Germany that was specifically devoted to caring for the sick was founded in Berlin in 1745. Today, in the United States, burial societies for men and women exist as autonomous entities but are often attached to synagogues. An allied function, ensuring that mourners obtain their first meal after a burial or even all of their meals throughout the period of mourning, is frequently the province of informal groups of women in a community or formal groups within a synagogue.

Histories of Jewish philanthropy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries describe four different organizational patterns: autonomous women’s organizations, women’s organizations that included some men, women’s auxiliaries of male-dominated groups, and male-dominated communitywide organizations with token but increasing participation and influence by women.


In some charitable endeavors, women created autonomous organizations where men were excluded. Often, these were parallel to men’s organizations. In the United States, the most common types were ladies’ benevolent societies, which existed in most communities during the nineteenth century. According to historian Rudolph Glanz, ladies’ benevolent societies were transplanted, but expanded, versions of the female benevolent societies that existed throughout Germany. There, their role was more circumscribed, since they were part of a broader network of communal institutions. In America, they played a major role before large Hebrew charities were formed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In small towns and cities, it was common for the synagogue and the benevolent society to be the only two Jewish communal institutions. Even into the twentieth century, as W. Lloyd Warner’s study of “Yankee City” (Newburyport, Massachusetts) observed, the Jewish Ladies’ Aid Society was the main Jewish charitable organization.

Women have also been the founders and donors of free loan societies. The Ladies’ Hebrew Free Loan Society of Providence lent money only to women, but groups in Seattle and Chicago assisted both men and women. In major centers of Jewish life, another type of free loan society, called gemahim (singular, “gemah,” an acronym for gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness), developed. This is an understudied area: The only systematic discussion is Julia Bernstein’s survey of gemahim in Jerusalem. Bernstein found that most gemahim are started by one person and operate on a small scale, usually out of the founder’s home, sometimes with the assistance of a few friends. They tend to specialize in lending certain types of objects, such as bridal gowns, ritual objects, baby supplies or tables and chairs. One gemah in Jerusalem, Yad Sarah, the first Israeli volunteer organization with advisory status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council, started out in this fashion and has grown into a large charitable organization whose six thousand volunteers in 102 branches provide medical equipment and services to the elderly and disabled throughout Israel. Regrettably, sociological studies of major Jewish communities in the United States such as Borough Park have overlooked gemahim.

Some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish women’s organizations channeled domestic skills into philanthropic activities, for example, sewing societies that supplied immigrants, orphans, and soldiers with clothing and blankets. Today, in Orthodox and Hasidic communities, autonomous women’s bikkur holim societies visit hospitalized patients, attending to their needs for ritual objects and Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).kosher food and ensuring that their relatives have housing and meals, usually for SabbathShabbat but also at other times if patients are hospitalized at great distances from home. One of the most widespread societies is that founded by Feige Teitelbaum, wife of the leader of the Satmar Hasidim, which grew from a one-woman project to a major network of women who provide food, apartments and other services to Jewish patients and their familes.

Starting in the late nineteenth century in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, Jewish women established what eventually became large, autonomous, national, and in several instances international organizations that played a central role in domestic and international philanthropy. They continue to provide health care, education, and social services in Israel. The first large national organization in the United States was the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), founded in 1893 as part of the World Congress of Religions of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. NCJW was shaped by secular and religious forces. Paralleling events in the broader society, where American women established clubs and became involved in settlement houses and social reform movements during the late nineteenth century, NCJW provided an important mechanism for women to exercise public roles at a time when relatively few middle-class women were employed and when women had limited formal political influence since they were unable to vote. NCJW’s members collaborated with other women’s groups in various social reform efforts, including international activities designed to reduce the white slave trade. At the same time, NCJW institutionalized traditional kinds of communal activities of Jewish women: assisting immigrants by meeting them on arrival at Ellis Island, especially young women without families who might fall under the wrong influences; organizing Sabbath schools and Jewish study groups; visiting patients; establishing a kosher kitchen and later a synagogue in public hospitals on New York’s Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island; and, in 1946, founding one of the first senior citizen centers in the United States.

Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States, was founded by Henrietta Szold in 1912 to raise money for health and medical care in Palestine, starting with a nursing service in 1913. By the 1930s, Hadassah was a major provider of health care and social services, including Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah, the resettlement of Jewish children from Europe. With increasing commitment to Zionism and a rise in migration to Palestine, a number of other organizations were established during the 1920s, including American Mizrachi Women (now AMIT, founded in 1925), pioneer women (1925), Women’s American ORT (1927), and the Women’s League for Israel (1928). A different ideology and constellation of functions were evident in the Emma Lazarus clubs. This organization, founded by Clara Lemlich Shavelson, a union activist, included women who were interested in expressing their progressive political ideology on domestic political issues in a Jewish context. Joyce Antler observes that the clubs “developed an agenda for collective action that linked women’s rights and human rights to historical models.”

It is important to recognize that these organizations drew on an expanding population of Jewish women who were more affluent and had more discretionary time than earlier generations. Immigrant women worked in factories, took in boarders, and created home-based businesses. Ewa Morawska’s profile of the Jewish community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, notes that even when families gained an economic foothold, Jewish women continued to work in family-owned businesses and had relatively little leisure time. Yet these women combined paid work and volunteer activities. The rise of large, autonomous Jewish women’s organizations in the early twentieth century occurred at a historical moment when more Jewish women were able to spend time volunteering and when they mainly chose to devote their time to Jewish organizations. This process was amplified and expanded after World War II as Jewish families achieved even greater economic prosperity and moved to the suburbs where numerous groups were created.


A second pattern of organizational arrangements included Jewish women’s groups that included male donors and participants. Isaac Rontch and the Yiddish Writer’s Group surveyed home town societies [landsmanschaftn] during the 1930s in a Work Projects Administration–supported project. Excerpts of this larger work are included in Jewish Hometown Associations and Family Circles in New York. A small number of the twenty-five hundred landsmanschaftn that responded to the survey were “ladies’ societies”: seventy one were founded by women and 287 were women’s auxiliaries. A majority of the women’s landsmanschaftn had male presidents or secretaries. For example, the Proskurover Ladies Benevolent Society was founded in 1909 and incorporated in 1916 by five women and one man. These mutual benefit societies served as an important context for sociability, sponsoring numerous social functions and providing immigrants social and economic capital as well as social welfare benefits. They offered members interest-free loans, burial plots, funeral expenses, and sickness and disability benefits. Like free loan societies, they had an enormous impact on the social and economic mobility of immigrants and were important building blocks in the development of viable Jewish communities in large cities as well as small towns.

Some organizations established by women recruited men as donors and board members, often as a way to sustain an enterprise that needed more money or organizational expertise. The Philadelphia Jewish Foster Home, established in 1855, and the Brooklyn Ladies Hebrew Home for the Aged, founded in Williamsburg in 1907 (and relocated to Brownsville), were established by women but later recruited male donors and board members. Philadelphia’s Ezrath Nashim [Helping Women], founded in 1873, was reorganized as the Jewish Maternity Home and expanded its activities to personal visiting, a sewing circle to produce clothing and other items, a Nurses’ Training School, a seaside Home for Invalid Women and Children, and a temporary nursery. However, the inclusion of men as donors and board members did not inevitably lead to male dominance. Regarding the addition of men to Ezrath Nashim’s board, Evelyn Bodek noted, “The men added to the Board never controlled the society.”


A third type of organizational arrangement is the women’s division of a larger, male-dominated organization. In some cases, these were affiliates of national or international groups, such as B’nai Brith Women’s Organization and the Women’s Divisions of the American Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Appeal. Usually they were auxiliaries, a separate sphere for women within a small local group, often a synagogue, that served as a vehicle where women carried out charitable and communal work without necessarily being included in the organization’s power structure. Frequently, women’s auxiliaries were represented on an organization’s board, but membership did not always lead to authority or influence.

Many women’s auxiliaries were benevolent societies and sisterhoods that were part of synagogues. The Atlanta Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society was established by members of the city’s major Reform congregation. It provided immigrants with food, coal, clothing, and financial assistance as well as cooking lessons, temporary housing, and cash assistance. Over the course of the late nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century, benevolent societies changed their names and altered their functions, becoming sisterhoods. According to Jacob Marcus, the first Jewish women’s group given the title of “sisterhood” was established as the Unabhaegiger Orden Treuer Schwestern [the Independent Order of True Sisters] at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El during the 1840s. By the 1890s, the number of sisterhoods in the United States had expanded. Many were involved in community service, including, in New York City, recruiting volunteers who served as “friendly visitors” for the United Hebrew Charities, offering instruction, guidance, and financial assistance. New York’s Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue’s sisterhood, formed an Oriental Committee to serve the small and impoverished population of Sephardic immigrants moving to the Lower East Side during the early part of this century. Parallel to the immigrants’ own institutions, these women sponsored a synagogue, religious school, and settlement house. Their efforts were severely criticized by Morris Gadol, editor of the Ladino newspaper La America, who indicated that the members of the sisterhood were only pretending to help and suggested that 86 Orchard Street, the building where all of these organizations were located, ought to be excommunicated.

The transition from benevolent society to sisterhood involved a shift in focus. Jenna Joselit points out that sisterhoods became less involved in charitable work because of the expanded role of professional social workers. Instead of concentrating on charitable work, these groups turned their attention toward serving their congregations rather than the community at large. They spent time raising money for congregations, organizing social events, supporting Hebrew schools, and establishing gift shops whose ostensible purpose was to raise money but also encouraged members to use the ritual objects and read the books that were sold.

Women’s auxiliaries also played an important role in many of the Jewish orphanages and children’s institutions that were established during the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to fund-raising, women provided or underwrote the cost of services that enhanced the quality of the children’s lives. In the Rochester Jewish Children’s Home, a Mother’s Club of neighborhood women prepared a Lit. "sanctification." Prayer recited over a cup of wine at the onset of the Sabbath or Festival.Kiddush for each Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah and provided each child with clothing, including new outfits for major Jewish holidays. In 1950, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City founded a Godmother’s Association, which was “a society of clubs led by women who would take on the role of confidante for a small number of children.” They met in their homes to “give the children a taste of family life” and provided visits to concert halls, art galleries, parks, and the theater as well as to the women’s country homes.


A final type of organizational arrangement includes large communitywide organizations dominated by men, where women had token involvement in the past but are currently increasing their participation and influence. Although there have been exceptional women who played key roles in male-dominated institutions, such as Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, who started several important organizations such as the Jewish Orphan Society in 1815 and the Hebrew Sunday School Society in 1838, and Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, president of the Toledo, Ohio, Hebrew Free Loan Society, large Jewish communal institutions have been dominated by men. This situation has been steadily changing in the past two and a half decades as more women have entered professions and challenged gender roles. Rather than accept second-class citizenship or involvement in parallel organizations, Jewish women have been challenging the male dominance of many communal institutions, including synagogues. In 1979, Aviva Cantor charged that volunteering served as a “sheltered workshop” in that women were engaged in tasks providing a sense of participation but had little influence over the direction of communal affairs. These challenges have begun to alter the governance of Jewish communal institutions, particularly Jewish Federations, where the proportion of women on boards and key committees has increased and more women are involved in top leadership roles. In 1975, seventeen percent of Federation board members were women as compared to thirty-two percent in 1993. Interestingly, Jewish women have made greater strides in small communities than in large ones. More women are taking their place in these organizations based on their own talents and track record of giving, and not just on their husbands’.

A great deal more has been written about Jewish philanthropic organizations than about patterns of individual giving and volunteering. A study of wealthy donors done by Francie Ostrower, which included a sizable number of Jews, pointed out that they viewed giving to Jewish causes as a communal tax—obligatory giving expected of all members of the Jewish community. Limited but compelling evidence suggests that men and women carry out their charitable commitments in different ways. Ewa Morawska observes that much of the daily informal and regular giving of Lit. "righteousness" or "justice." Charityzedakah [charity] was the province of women since they had primary responsibility for the pushkes [charity boxes] that were found in the homes of most Jews in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, during the first half of this century. More needs to be learned about gender differences in face-to-face giving within Orthodox communities, some of it at daily The quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.minyan but much of it through house-to-house solicitation by fund-raisers, beggars, and beggars pretending to be fund-raisers. Susan Weidman Schneider’s two-part series in Lilith points out that men and women have different philanthropic styles. Women are more drawn to causes and issues; men are more influenced by the social recognition and prestige they gain from the public announcement of donations that occurs in Jewish fund-raising events featuring “card calling.” When Jewish women support an organization, they tend to give money and time, in contrast to men whose support is more often limited to writing a check.

In contemporary secular societies, involvement in philanthropic endeavors is an important form of Jewish affiliation, a way that people express their Jewish identity and commitment to Jewish continuity. In the past, Jewish philanthropic institutions were successful in relying on a combination of religious motivations, peer pressure, a sense of communal responsibility, support for the State of Israel, and concern for the survival of the Jewish people. Recruiting and fund-raising techniques also account for the fact that American Jews are more generous than their non-Jewish peers. However, a number of trends suggest that this situation is changing. There is considerable evidence that the Jewish civil religion that evolved during this century will not continue in its present form. In response, Jewish organizations and conferences now include opportunities for Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah study and ritual observance. Several cultural and social changes—decreased barriers toward Jews in employment and social relations, decreased religious observance, increased intermarriage, changes in the nature of Israeli society, and the attractiveness of Israel as a focus of giving—are altering the nature of Jewish philanthropy. There are strong signs that Jewish philanthropic and organizational life will not continue in its present form without conscious changes in both the structure of organizations and in the techniques they employ to motivate donors and volunteers. Although Jewish philanthropy has experienced considerable changes over the course of this century, some trends suggest a greater amount of discontinuity. In the past, there were significant generational differences in the types of organizations people chose, but involvement remained almost exclusively focused in the Jewish community. Today, more and more organizational affiliations and donations by each succeeding generation are to organizations outside the Jewish community.

Empirical data from a number of studies indicate that Jews are becoming more integrated into the philanthropic organizations of the general society. They are less exclusively involved in Jewish organizations and direct more of their donations to non-Jewish organizations. Warner’s community study of Newburyport observed that each generation of Jewish women selected a different set of activities from the previous one. Immigrants joined the Jewish Ladies’ Aid Society and their daughters joined Hadassah. To further the analogy, were Warner to revisit, he might find some of their granddaughters in Hadassah but others in the Junior League, an organization once closed to Jewish women. Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population survey, discussed in American Jewish Philanthropy in the ’90’s, revealed that seventy percent of first- and second-generation American Jews contributed to Jewish philanthropies. By the third generation, this declined to fifty percent, and it was reduced further to thirty-six percent in the fourth generation. Results from the National Jewish Population Survey in 2000 indicate that while philanthropic behavior varies with regional location and income, the trend away from Jewish giving has essentially continued, with a higher percentage of Jews donating to non-Jewish causes than to Jewish causes and a greater proportion of older rather than younger Jews contributing to Jewish Federations. Declining social barriers combined with an increase in the number of very wealthy and philanthropic Jewish families has meant that Jews are being courted as donors and board members for mainstream institutions that excluded them in the past, such as non-Jewish hospitals, art museums, orchestras, and public libraries. With so many opportunities for giving now open to Jews, the percentage of contributions going to Jewish causes tends to be directly proportional to the giver’s degree of Jewish affiliation. Alice Goldstein points out that women’s involvement in Jewish and non-Jewish activities should not be assumed to be mutually exclusive, but that organizations need to provide different types of volunteer opportunities to attract better-educated women and those more likely to have careers. Susan Weidman Schneider points out that women are themselves spearheading major changes, since younger Jewish women are supporting alternative funds, like the New Israel Fund and the Shefa Fund, organizations outside the traditional Federation structure that combine their feminism and their commitment to Jewish community life.

Jewish women now also lead some major philanthropic institutions, both Jewish and non-Jewish: in 1998, Ruth Messinger became president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, which assists impoverished non-Jews throughout the world, and Judith Rodin, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, became president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2004. Shoshana Cardin is perhaps the most prominent woman in the world of Jewish philanthropy, having become the first woman to lead such organizations as the Council of Jewish Federations, United Israel Appeal, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). In 1999 Carol Solomon became the first woman to chair the United Jewish Communities’ annual campaign.

Jewish women’s philanthropy, then, represents the nexus of women’s roles in the Jewish community and the societies in which they have lived, and reflects the influence of religious and secular values. Although some critics see philanthropic endeavors as ways to keep women from real work in the form of paid jobs, and keep them subordinate and marginal, providing an illusion of participation but little real influence, other observers have noted the myriad other functions of philanthropy. It is important to recognize that much of the routine philanthropic work of Jewish women has enhanced the quality of their lives, enabled many to find meaningful careers albeit in unpaid work, cemented their relations with other women, provided emotional support and built social capital in Jewish communities, supported institutions, and promoted Jewish continuity.


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How many groups did Hadassah from 1912 and 1925????

A suffragist who encouraged newly enfranchised women to go to the polls together to avoid harassment, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem was the first woman elected to the Toledo Board of Education. Her legacy of social activism can be seen in her granddaughter, Gloria Steinem.

Institution: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH, and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

How to cite this page

Chambre, Susan M.. "Philanthropy in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2021) <>.


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