Orphanage and Community
Part II 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.
The Hebrew Orphan Asylum (HOA)’s population ranged from about seventy to 100 during Rabbi Freudenthal’s tenure. Like many nineteenth century orphanages, the HOA served mostly “half-orphans,” who had lost one parent and whose remaining parent was unable to cope.[i] Most children stayed at the HOA for just under five years. Generally, the HOA restored custody to parents or other relatives who could prove they were financially solvent. A typical note in the HOA’s admission ledger refers to a child admitted at the age of three and released just before her fifth birthday to be “placed under the care of her mother, who having been married again, had, according to the laws of our institution to take care of the child.”[ii] Frequently, a destitute parent did not surrender all of his or her children. A widow, for example, might keep infant children at home or place them with relatives, and send older ones out to work. School-age children—too old to need constant supervision but too young to help support the family—were more likely to be sent to the HOA.[iii]
The HOA thrived in an era of orphanage growth in the United States. Between 1860 and the 1890s, the number of orphanages swelled from 170 to 600. During this period, the nation’s population doubled and cities became crowded with new arrivals from overseas as well from rural America. Whereas rural orphans might be sent to live with relatives or neighbors, the concentration of urban poverty made orphanages a more realistic solution to caring for destitute city children. Like the HOA, many nineteenth century orphanages served members of particular immigrant ethnic groups, who tended to cluster in urban areas.[iv]
Jewish immigrants who had come primarily from Germany in the mid-1800s created the HOA to serve their fellow German Jews. Its population shifted in the 1880s, as immigration from Eastern Europe (primarily the Russian Empire) accelerated. Whereas the German Jews had, by and large, prospered and assimilated in the decades since they arrived, many of the newcomers, struggling to gain a foothold, lived only one illness or job loss away from destitution.
Although the recent arrivals needed help from their better-established coreligionists, charity could breed resentment. The Jews from Russia, which lacked an orphanage tradition, were initially wary of yielding their offspring to an asylum.[v] Perhaps they suspected that their benefactors’ charitable impulses were colored by self-interest. Like assimilated Jews in other American cities at the time, members of Baltimore’s established Jewish community wanted to encourage the newcomers to assimilate as quickly as possible, fearing that the immigrants’ “otherness”— strange customs, unfamiliar language, and old world dress—threatened to mark all Jews as outsiders.
Moreover, to many Russian Jews, the assimilated German Jews who ran the orphanage seemed as foreign as gentiles—different in language, culture, and religious observance. Rabbi Freudenthal was a Reform rabbi of German descent, who conducted services at the HOA in the Reform tradition. Until 1902, he taught German alongside Hebrew at the orphanage.[vi] Michael Aaronsohn, whose autobiographical novel, Broken Lights, portrays his childhood at the HOA, describes its “German walls of discipline and frustration” and “the bondage of German subjugation.”[vii] Partly as a result of such cultural differences, the Russian Jewish community established its own orphanage in 1902, the Hebrew Sheltering Aid Society (also known as the Betsy Levy Home). Nevertheless, many immigrant families continued to send their children to the larger and well-established HOA.[viii]
The HOA’s trustees had a major role in the asylum’s operation. They reviewed and approved all admissions and discharges, addressed chronic disciplinary cases, ordered building repairs and improvements, and raised funds. The Jewish community supported the orphanage with cash and in-kind gifts. Operating funds came from membership dues, donations, and the proceeds of special events such as balls, banquets, and performances organized by the Hebrew Ladies Orphan Aid Society. The Society’s 1886 ball, for example, netted $2,050. In 1901, a vaudeville show raised $1,519.[ix] Community members regularly provided food treats for the children, as well as games, books, outings, and services such as instruction or equipment repair.
The HOA’s relationship to the wider community was limited by its location at a remove from Baltimore’s two Jewish neighborhoods. Most of its benefactors lived in the Eutaw Place area south of Druid Hill Park. Its wards generally came from the immigrant Jewish neighborhood east of downtown.[x] Around three miles away, the HOA’s location precluded casual visits from trustees or members of the orphans’ families. The Ladies Aid Society’s December 1904 minutes note, “The President suggested that it would be advisable for the ladies to visit the Orphan Asylum at certain intervals,—if possible, to go in a body.” The HOA must have been an inconvenient destination for the ladies, whose minutes reflect ambivalence about whether to hold their meetings there. Ultimately, they decided to meet at the HOA in the summer but to gather at the Madison Avenue Synagogue, nearer to their homes, in the winter months.[xi]
Nor could the orphans take advantage of the religious or cultural resources that were clustered in the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. Instead, the orphanage relied on local municipal resources such as the police station and the public school, and many of the HOA’s employees lived in Calverton.[xii] Freudenthal involved himself in local issues, protesting, for example, when PS 65 proposed a longer day without a lunch break that would allow the children to return to the orphanage to eat, and speaking out against the construction of a saloon nearby as potentially “disastrous to the morals of our children.”[xiii]
Freudenthal regularly encouraged the trustees to attend HOA events, from bar mitzvah and festival celebrations to the children’s annual academic examinations, a highlight of their year. At the examinations each May, the children competed in a number of categories for cash prizes, which were deposited in their individual savings accounts. Local benefactors sponsored the prizes. In 1908, the “Kitchen Prize” and the “Sewing Room Prize,” twenty-five dollars each and named for Mrs. William S. Rayner, went to Emilie Truer and Rebecca Morsovitch, respectively. The twenty-five dollar Scholarship prize, named for Michael Reese, was awarded to Israel Finglass, and Reuben Candor won a silver watch from M.J. Oppenheimer for good conduct.[xiv]
The HOA was answerable to two communities, the wealthy German Jews who supported it and the impoverished Russian Jews who entrusted it with their children.[xv] The annual examinations served the dual purpose of assuring its benefactors that their money was well spent, and demonstrating to the orphans’ relatives—who were also invited to attend—that their children were thriving. The competition showcased the HOA as an educational institution that fulfilled the promise of its founders, who foresaw a “first class institution of learning” and looked forward to the day “when it [would] be considered an honor and a high testimonial to have been a graduate of . . . the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of Baltimore.”[xvi]
[i] Ashby, Endangered Children, 63.
[ii] Hebrew Orphan Asylum admission ledger, vol. 1, 145, MS 138, Box 2, Folder 1, Jewish Museum of Maryland (hereafter JMM).
[iii] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 62.
[iv] Ashby, Endangered Children, 55; Timothy A. Hasci, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 28.
[v] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 153.
[vi] HOA superintendent’s report, September 1902, MS 138, Box 13, JMM.
[vii] Michael Aaronsohn, Broken Lights (Cincinnati: Johnson & Hardin Company, 1946), 28-29.
[viii] The Betsy Levy Home was one of several parallel charities established by East European Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. It was funded by the family of M.S. and Betsy Levy, who, although of German descent, often partnered with the East European Jewish community (see Jennifer Vess’s article on the JEA in this issue). The Levys were among the leaders who helped bring the German and East European communities together under the Associated Jewish Charities umbrella in 1920.
[ix] Hebrew Ladies Orphan Aid Society minutes, May 13, 1886 and June 5, 1901, MS 138, Box 2, Folders 13 and 14, JMM.
[x] HOA admission ledgers, MS 138, JMM. A survey of the admission ledgers shows that almost all of the children came from addresses in East Baltimore.
[xi] Hebrew Ladies Orphan Aid Society minutes, December 2, 1904, MS 138, Box 2, Folder 14.
[xii] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 159.
[xiii] HOA superintendent’s reports, October 1898 and September 1903.
[xiv] Ibid., May 1908.
[xv] Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered, 153.
[xvi] Rayner address, 9.