After the Orphanage

Part V of “Poor Man’s Boarding School,” article by Anita Kassof, former Assistant Director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Article originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

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A mother takes her child back. JMM MS 38, Box 2.

Children who behaved well and remained financially or otherwise in need stayed at the HOA until they aged out (girls at around eighteen, boys at around fifteen or sixteen). The trustees, the Ladies Aid Society, and Freudenthal then helped them secure jobs or apprenticeships, or placed them in practical training programs. Boys and girls who went on to high school or normal school might stay at the orphanage until they were done with their studies, or board elsewhere while still wards of the asylum. In keeping with its commitment to preparing its wards educationally, practically, and morally for life in the outside world, the HOA made sure a child’s plans were secure before releasing him or her.

What is striking about Freudenthal’s recommendations regarding the orphans’ post-HOA plans is their wide variety. The monotonous pace and authoritarian nature of life in the orphanage belied the fact that each child was seen as an individual with unique potential. From the day of their arrival, the HOA worked with its wards to prepare them for the future, with an eye toward their ultimate independence.[i] Freudenthal’s August 1896 report, in which he discusses plans for Sam Sykes, Lazarus Schlachte, and Mignon Arnold, recent graduates of the primary school, is typical. He recommended that the boys go to City College, and that “it would be advisable to ascertain what branch of studies they want to pursue.” Mignon wanted to be a teacher, so he recommended she attend Western Female High School to earn a teaching degree.

Together with the trustees and the Ladies Aid Society, Freudenthal helped children who were uninterested in or unsuited for higher education establish themselves in business or trade. Milton Steinhart, for example, went to work as a pharmacist’s apprentice but returned to the HOA because of “ill treatment.” The HOA found him a more suitable position and allowed him to stay at the orphanage for another six months, until he was able to live on his own.

Freudenthal’s attention to Steinhart’s case was typical. His familiarity with the orphans’ needs and situations extended to their families. He recommended, for example, that Louis Goldstrom, age fifteen, be discharged. “His uncle has a Business on Broadway,” wrote Freudenthal. “[P]robably he can employ the boy.”[ii]

Nor did the HOA cease its involvement once children were installed in careers or higher education. Mignon Arnold, for example, received her teaching degree from Western High School but was unable to secure a teaching appointment. The HOA then sent her to Bryants, Stratton Business College, where she learned typing and stenography, and later found her a position at Schloss Brothers.[iii]

A look at a sample group of children who entered the orphanage in the 1880s and were released in their teens shows a range of placements. One girl became a domestic, another remained at the HOA as a seamstress, and a third learned dressmaking at Hutzler’s department store. Others girls attended high school, normal school, or business school. Two boys trained for careers in farming, and one graduated from City College High School, attended Johns Hopkins University, and went to study for the rabbinate in Cincinnati.[iv]

Freudenthal and the trustees were well aware that after a childhood spent in an institution, the orphans might have trouble adjusting to life in the real world—not, ironically, because they were underprepared, but because their expectations were too high. When Michael Aaronsohn moved back home, he was dismayed that his mother, struggling to keep house, raise his younger brother, and labor as a washerwoman, was unable to put dinner on the table on time. Reared in the regimented atmosphere of the orphanage, Aaronsohn saw his mother’s failure as “another sample…of the unsystematic ways of the strange people among whom [I] was now domiciled.”[v] In his February 1900 report to the trustees, Freudenthal suggested altering the HOA’s policy to permit girls aged fourteen or fifteen to work in the homes of private families so they could sample non-institutional life. “Past experiences and communications with other Institutions,” he wrote, “strengthen me in the belief that it would be to the advantage of the child to be made acquainted with the world at that age more so than when they reach the 18th year for them—nothing is good enough and they expect too much of their new surroundings.”

Helping children choose among a multitude of educational and vocational options, tracking their progress and offering practical advice, and moderating their expectations after years in an environment that provided for all their material and educational needs—these concerns seem more the province of an exclusive boarding school than of an orphanage. Under the administration of Rabbi Freudenthal, the HOA succeeded in giving some of the most impoverished young members of Baltimore’s Jewish community opportunities that their own families might not have been able to envision, much less to provide. Each time Freudenthal and the trustees equipped a child with the academic or practical skills to live independently, they helped fulfill William Rayner’s vision of a first class educational institution that prepared its students to become fully engaged citizens.

Freudenthal’s tenure of the HOA might be called its golden age. He oversaw the orphanage at a time when conventional wisdom held that institutions offered the most practical and humane solution to childhood poverty. But perceptions shifted as reformers argued that institutions were insensitive to the needs of individuals and that orphanages were not sufficiently nurturing to children. In addition, Jewish Baltimore’s philanthropic community began to change shape, as its leaders urged the German and Russian communities to consolidate their charitable enterprises.

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, 2010. Photo by Deborah Weiner.

During the annual exams in May 1910, Rabbi Freudenthal collapsed. Diagnosed with a massive stroke, he died several days later. His death came only a year after the 1909 White House Conference on Dependent Children, which gave voice to progressive reformers who urged homecare over institutional care. One of the conference’s most significant outcomes was the establishment of the “mother’s pension,” which provided poor women with the means to keep their young families intact.[vi] Several years later, the Jewish Children’s Bureau was established in Baltimore to coordinate the activities of local Jewish agencies that dealt with children’s welfare. Among the Bureau’s innovations was a foster care program for destitute or orphaned children.

At the same time, care of dependent children in institutions was becoming increasingly professionalized. Whereas Freudenthal and his predecessors cast themselves primarily as spiritual leaders charged with imparting moral education, his successors saw themselves as social work professionals. Michael Sharlitt, who oversaw the HOA from 1918 to 1920, was a teacher, a trained social worker, and a reformer.[vii] During his short tenure, he oversaw the merger of the HOA with the Betsy Levy Home, the orphanage set up by the Russian Jewish community as an alternative to the HOA. In 1923, the consolidated orphanage, renamed the Jewish Children’s Society, moved to a site on Belvedere Avenue.[viii] The children were housed in cottages and an effort was made to integrate them into the local community through school, sports teams, and other activities. Within a few years, in response to prevailing attitudes about the advantages of foster care over institutional care, the Jewish Children’s Society was closed and its wards were placed with foster families. The age of the orphanage was coming to an end.

Continue to Sidebar: An Endangered Landmark

[i] See Hasci, Second Home, 105.

[ii] HOA superintendent’s reports, January 1908 and August 1893.

[iii] HOA admission ledger, vol. 1, 255.

[iv] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 108-109.

[v] Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 38-41.

[vi] Hasci, Second Home, 38.

[vii] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 28.

[viii] MS 138 finding aid.

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