Life at the Orphanage

Part IV 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.

Miss part I? Start at the beginning.


Gym class at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, c. 1911. JMM 1990.179.1.

Rabbi Freudenthal and his wife Adelaide oversaw all aspects of the orphans’ care. While Mrs. Freudenthal  supervised the girls, Freudenthal ran the HOA’s day-to-day operations, served as the institution’s spiritual leader and taught in its Hebrew school, and supervised each child’s secular education. Freudenthal cast himself as the children’s “father” and his wife as their mother. Despite his strict and sometimes unforgiving demeanor, he inspired devotion in many of the orphans. Michael Aaronsohn eulogized him as a beloved and “revered master” who infused “every nook and corner of the institution” with warmth.  It was not unusual for “graduates” of the HOA to send donations in honor of the rabbi’s birthday.[i]

Freudenthal’s monthly reports to the trustees, meticulously inscribed in oversized ledgers, paint a vivid picture of life among the orphans. From the ledgers, we learn that the orphanage operated a small farm with cows and other livestock. The grounds included a fenced yard with play equipment, a small ball field, and several secluded spots. Donors provided the orphanage with volleyballs, baseballs, bats, and other sporting goods. Freudenthal encouraged play as vital to good health. In one report he wrote to the trustees, “Thank God during the hot spell of the Summer all our Wards enjoyed the best of health, not one case of sickness during the trying Weather, I attribute this blessed condition to the Out-Door living of our children.” In 1903, a benefactor sponsored the construction of a gymnasium on the HOA grounds. Thereafter, the HOA employed a gym instructor during the fall, winter, and spring months.[ii]

The HOA had a library that included fiction, religious books, and reference volumes, which were regularly supplemented by donations from the community. Michael Aaronsohn recalls that Freudenthal was very particular about what the children read; when he caught the boy reading a “dime novel,” he rewarded him with a lashing and an admonition that no future rabbi should pollute his mind with inferior literature (he had high hopes for Aaronsohn, who ultimately fulfilled them).[iii] In the popular workshop, boys learned practical skills. The March 1908 minutes of the Ladies Aid Society reported that the children so enjoyed their sessions with their manual training teacher they wished he “would teach every day, instead of twice a week.”[iv] At the suggestion of Mrs. Freudenthal, the Ladies Aid Society arranged for a sewing teacher to visit once a week to give the girls lessons in drafting and fitting. Other teachers came from time to time to instruct children in music. The HOA had a piano for lessons, performances, and to accompany exercises in the gymnasium.[v]

Although the diet at the HOA could be monotonous—Aaronsohn recalls a dinner of “cornstarch”—Freudenthal’s reports list frequent donations of treats for the children.[vi] Entries ranged from cottage cheese to cake, and included fruit, vegetables, and poultry. Like many orphanages of the day, the HOA’s fare, though lacking in variety, was superior to what most children would have been offered at home.[vii] Freudenthal and his staff strictly monitored the children’s diets, in part by forbidding parents to bring food to their offspring. His accounts allude to the seriousness of the offense: “Mrs. Eisenstein, being married since December last, visiting her children on our last Visiting Day Sept 1st and infringing upon the Rules of our Institution by feeding her children with not very wholesome fruit, candy & cakes and being reprimanded for the same, became very impudent in presence of all the children & strangers, she should be requested to take her children before the next Visiting Sunday.”[viii]

The draconian response to contraband food might have had to do with the imperative to keep illness and contagious disease at bay. Parents might bring unclean or unwholesome treats into the orphanage, so like all threats to the children’s health, their gifts were closely monitored. The HOA employed a house doctor as well as a consulting physician. Children who could not be treated at the orphanage were taken to the Hebrew Hospital, sometimes by the superintendent himself.[ix] In his monthly reports to the trustees, Freudenthal discussed the fear of contagion. In October 1899, for example, he wrote that the orphanage was in quarantine after two children came down with diphtheria. When an orphan was afflicted with scarlet fever, Freudenthal curtailed all family visits and outings.[x]

Gym class at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, c. 1911. JMM 1990.179.2.

Children whose ailments proved incurable might be released. Nine-year-old Rachel Kaplan was returned to her widowed mother by direction of the Board Committee on Indentures and Discharges “on account of incurable eczema.”[xi] Even bedwetting appears to have been a disorder punishable by discharge. “Some disposition should be taken with two of our Children Elva Sharf and Charlie Dubinsky whom I have reported over a year ago as being incurable of a disease (wetting their beds every night),” wrote Freudenthal. “[T]hey have been under medical treatment; are detrimental to the health of our other children; our ‘Home’ would benefit by returning them to their respective Parents and pay a nominal fee for their maintenance.”[xii]

On the rare occasions when Freudenthal had to report a death, he did so dispassionately. “On May 22 our Physician Dr. Adler, ordered Rosa Friedman a girl 8 years old to the Hebrew Hospital for treatment of  Ludwigs Angina, or Blood-poisoning, caused by an ulcerated tooth, where she died on May 26,” he wrote to the trustees. In addition to such heartbreaking stories, there were successes, like that of eleven-year old Samuel Konigsberg. “[He] has been down with Pneumonia since January 26, it was a severe case and a trained Nurse had to be employed,” Freudenthal reported. “[W]ith the help of our Heavenly Father, the untiring attention of our Physician Dr. Harry Adler and constant care and nursing the boy recovered so that by Jan 31 the Nurse could be discharged.”[xiii] Undoubtedly, children received better medical care at the orphanage—where professionals were on hand twenty-four hours a day—than they would have at home. One can only imagine a widowed mother of several children trying simultaneously to earn enough money to feed her hungry brood and to nurse a critically ill child back to health. She certainly would not have been able to afford the round-the-clock nurse who helped young Samuel Konigsberg recover.

Children at the orphanage were also likely to receive more thorough and consistent educations than they might have if they stayed with a parent, simply because they attended school regularly through eighth grade. Whereas other children of poverty might be pulled from school to help earn money for the family or to care for younger siblings or a sick relative, the wards of the HOA had no such conflicts. They attended school daily, returned to the orphanage for additional lessons in Hebrew and German, and were expected to complete their homework. In fact, the HOA children were among the most regular attendees of the local primary school, where they made up, on average, about 20 percent of the student body of 300.[xiv]

Freudenthal kept tabs on their progress, meeting with teachers if necessary to advocate for the children or to address discipline issues.[xv] The HOA employed a kindergarten teacher to instruct its preschool children. Boys and girls who graduated from PS 65 and showed aptitude were sent on to high school. High schoolers received a better breakfast (two eggs and bread spread with butter instead of molasses) than the younger children and had the privilege of riding the streetcar downtown.[xvi] The students rewarded their caretakers by doing well in school. In the HOA’s 1903 annual report, President, M.J. Oppenheimer, noted, “Our wards attend the public schools and from reports presented to us they are doing remarkably well and show very gratifying results.”[xvii]

Continue to Part V: After the Orphanage


[i] Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 28; HOA superintendent’s report, December 1908: “I herewith enclose $25.00 from Charles Rathkopf (a former inmate) also $10.00 which a former ward, who don’t want his name mentioned donates annually in honor of my Birthday.”

[ii] HOA superintendent’s report, July 1907.

[iii] Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 22-23. Aaronsohn went on to receive his rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College.

[iv] Hebrew Ladies Orphan Aid Society minutes, March 24, 1908, MS 138, Box 2, Folder 14.

[v] HOA superintendent’s reports, October 1, 1893 and February 1910.

[vi] Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 16; HOA superintendent’s reports, 1893-1905 and 1905-1919.

[vii] Hasci, Second Home, 171; Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 92.

[viii] HOA superintendent’s report, September 1907. See also Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 14.

[ix] HOA superintendent’s reports, 1905-1919. In  May 1906, for example, Freudenthal took Mary Manovitz to the hospital, where she was operated on for appendicitis.

[x] HOA superintendent’s reports, October 1899 and December 1, 1894.

[xi] HOA admission ledger, vol. 1, 232.

[xii] HOA superintendent’s report, October 1907.  Eva Scharf was sent to Hebrew Hospital on November 27, 2010 for kidney trouble, and Charlie Dubinsky stayed until July 18, 1915, when he was released to his married sister (HOA admission ledger, vol. 2, 110 and 130).

[xiii] HOA superintendent’s reports, June 1906 and February 1902.

[xiv] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 99.

[xv] HOA superintendent’s report, June 1899.

[xvi] Aaronsohn, Broken Lights, 32.

[xvii] HOA annual report 1903, 3-4, MS 138, Box 2, Folder 16, JMM.


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