Photomontage illustrating activities of OZE (Society for the Protection of Jewish Health), Ukmergė, Lithuania, 1937. Photograph by J. Glaso. (YIVO)

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Accompanying the classical version of charity—direct assistance provided by a person of means to a person in need, and the traditional and fraternal associations that addressed the various needs of the poor—there developed in East European Jewish society an extensive and far-reaching network of philanthropy. In this context, the term philanthropy refers to assistance provided to individuals, communities, or social and educational institutions by wealthy individuals above and beyond traditional communal frameworks.

Air, Sun, Water." Yiddish poster. Artwork and/or printed by Julian Liebermann, Berlin, 1926. This poster was produced for distribution for use in one of the numerous health education campaigns sponsored by OZE (Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jews) in Eastern Europe. (YIVO)

Philanthropy was viewed as a fundamental component of the world of the wealthy. This attitude was based on the notion that the wealth and assets a person inherited or accumulated were entrusted to him so that he might serve as God’s agent to help the needy. This idea was so deeply implanted in the consciousness of East European Jewish society that a man of means who did not set aside a portion of his assets for philanthropic purposes, in addition to his regular contributions to charity, was viewed as violating God’s will. Philanthropic activity also served as a criterion for acceptance into elite economic circles. Public recognition of the enhanced social standing of one who enjoyed upward economic mobility was, among other things, conditioned upon that person’s philanthropic activity. Such activity was not monochromatic; various forms can be distinguished. It is, however, possible to outline three spheres of activity based on geographical factors: philanthropic giving was dedicated to local, national, and international causes.

The first sphere was local or communal. Alongside their continuous support for local charity and assistance networks, many affluent people financed and operated special projects that went beyond day-to-day welfare activities. Thus, for example, there were times when local charity networks encountered great difficulties owing to a sudden rise in need or decline in income, and philanthropists took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps. In years when famine struck Eastern Europe, some communal welfare networks stood on the verge of collapse due to their inability to provide for the most elementary needs of the poor masses.

In the 1800s, local philanthropists, including Yehudah Opatov and Akiva Yosef Kossovskii in Vilna, Shim‘on Margolin in Mogilev (Belorussia), and Pinḥas Rosenberg in Moscow, saw to the orderly supply of bread and potatoes for those in need. These wealthy men also supplied flour, matzo, and other Passover foodstuffs to a very large number of needy people. Yitsḥak Rabinowitz (b. 1881), one of the most famous men of means in the community of Bobruisk, financed hundreds of sets of clothing for the poor, and donated considerable sums of money to buy firewood to heat houses.

Doctors and nurses from an antityphus team sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Równe, Poland (present-day Rivne, Ukr.), posing with disinfection equipment, 1921 or 1922. (YIVO)

In times of grave distress—for example, during the cholera epidemic of 1848—philanthropists assisted their communities in the area of medical care by establishing hospitals and paying doctors’ fees. An additional realm of local philanthropic activity involved financing and operating long-term community projects. In practice, the great majority of communal institutions—synagogues, hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, homes for the aged, and yeshivas—were established with money donated by local philanthropists. So, too, the ongoing maintenance of such vital institutions—paying for heat, food, and the like—was generally funded with donations from philanthropists.

One of philanthropy’s most well-known objectives was to allow small numbers of outstanding Talmud scholars to engage in full-time study by providing them with financial assistance. However, philanthropic activity was not limited to the religious domain or to immediate help for the needy. Donors also worked to develop local networks to assist all of an area’s residents, Jews and non-Jews. Thus, for example, Yeḥi’el Dov Volkovyski (1819–1903), one of the wealthiest men in Białystok in the nineteenth century, financed the excavation and operation of a new well in that city; Yehoshu‘a Efron (1794–1867) and Ḥiya’ Danzig (1789–1863) funded and operated a vocational training institute for impoverished children in Vilna; and the Pines and Kossovskii families established a Jewish hospital in Vilna, as did the Friedland family in Dvinsk and Izrail’ (Yisra’el) Brodskii (1823–1888) in Kiev. Khayim Frenkel (1857–1920) and his family, wealthy leather producers in the city of Shavli (Šiauliai) in northern Lithuania, contributed their expansive house to the local Jewish community for the establishment of a school. Similar initiatives were taken by members of the Zbytkower, Natanson, Rosen, Epstein, Bergson, and Bloch families in Warsaw (in the nineteenth century); by the Horowitz, Jakubowicz, and Landau families in Kraków; and by the families of Nota Notkin (d. 1804) and Yehoshu‘a Zeitlin (1742–1821) in Shklov and neighboring towns.

One of the common avenues of philanthropy involved bequests. Thus, the wealthy Grodno physician Yosef Yosl Rabinowitz (d. 1810) left a large sum of money to the local bikur ḥolim (sick visiting) society, and his townsman, Eli‘ezer Bergman (1826–1896), donated the founding funds for a gemilut ḥesed (charity) fund; and Matityahu Strashun (1817–1885) of Vilna left his great library to the local Jewish community.

Students with their teachers at a Jewish school for girls financed by the wealthy industrialist Khayim Frenkel, Shavli, ca. 1905. (YIVO)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, philanthropic societies began to operate in Warsaw and other East European cities, such as ‘Ezra, Aḥisamaḥ, Aḥi‘ezer, Society for the Protection of Women, and others. Philanthropic activity also took place within the framework of the various Hasidic courts. Such activity was usually initiated by a Hasidic tsadik who determined the objectives of the philanthropic activity and also raised money from men of means, usually from among his followers, to achieve those ends.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a change took place in the philanthropic activity of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Along with local and regional activities, philanthropists also expanded their contributions to the national level. Moreover, if until then philanthropic activity had been characterized by a focus on clearly defined projects, by independent initiatives, and by a mode of operation that adopted the traditional model of shtadlones (intercession with the authorities)—illustrated, for example, by the activities of Zundl Sonnenberg (1785–1854) of Grodno and Eli‘ezer Dilon (d. 1838)—now for the first time groups of wealthy and politically influential Jews organized to assist Jews in need of help across the Pale of Settlement on the basis of a fixed and established model of operation. This activity took place on the national plain, along the lines of similar associations in Britain and the United States.

At the same time, Jewish philanthropy developed internationally, finding expression in the activities of such wealthy Jews as Moses Montefiore, and through national and international Jewish bodies, including the Alliance Israélite Universelle. The first and most important philanthropic body in Eastern Europe was the Society for the Promotion of Culture (or Enlightenment) among the Jews of Russia (OPE), founded in 1863 at the initiative of the economic–political Jewish elite consisting of names such as Gintsburg, Brodskii, Reich, Rosenberg, Rosenthal, Zak, Horowitz, and Bertenson. The declared objective of this organization was to provide assistance in the realms of education and culture. Within a short time, the organization had become the major influence in promoting and cultivating a modern Jewish educational system within the borders of the Russian Empire. Activities included supporting the establishment and operation of schools; financing the studies of Jewish university students; and writing, publishing, and distributing textbooks.

Aid packages being dispensed at the remittance office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Warsaw, ca. 1920. Photograph by “USA” Werkstatte. (YIVO)

OPE served as a model and catalyst for the establishment of similar organizations. In 1880, some of its founders and members—Shemu’el Poliakov (1837–1888), Abraham Zak (1829–1893), Horace Gintsburg (1833–1909), Leon Rosenthal (1817–1887), and Me’ir Friedland (b. 1902)—established ORT, an organization dedicated to the promotion by vocational training of skilled trades and agriculture among Jews. Until the end of World War I, the organization was active mainly in Eastern Europe, and focused on founding vocational training schools and on acquiring modern tools of production.

In 1912, the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jews (OZE) was founded, with its main branches in Kiev, Kharkov, and Minsk, and health centers all across Eastern Europe. Along with the ongoing assistance it provided, the society engaged in intensive activity during periods of pogroms and war. In 1915, the Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims (EKOPO) was founded in Moscow.

After World War I, ORT’s work expanded to other countries, including Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, and France, and focused on establishing trade schools for students and professional training for adults. ORT also provided capital and professional training to Jewish agriculturalists, and was one of the few Jewish organizations active in the USSR in the interwar period. Another was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC; also known as “the Joint”), which played a particularly important role in Eastern Europe between the wars. The JDC gave financial support to the poor, providing health care, credits for small businesses, and significant efforts, through its subsidiary Agro-Joint, to assist Jewish agricultural projects in the Soviet Union until 1938.

After World War II, the Joint provided help to Jewish refugees seeking to emigrate to the West or to Palestine. It also found ways to get aid to Jews living in Communist countries. From the 1980s, the JDC’s activities intensified and were concentrated in supporting the poor, in providing education, and in establishing community centers. In the last years of the twentieth century, the educational and religious activities of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe were noteworthy.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, Toldot ha-yehudim be-Krakov uve-Kazimeiz, vols. 1–2 (Jerusalem, 2002/03); David E. Fishman, Russia’s First Modern Jews (New York and London, 1995); Sarah Feige Meinkin Foner, Mi-Zikhronot yeme yalduti (Warsaw, 1903); Ephraim Frisch, An Historical Survey of Jewish Philanthropy (New York, 1969); Guide to the Material on ORT’s History (New York 1981); Jacob Kellner, “Filantropyah ve-tikhnun ḥevrati ba-ḥevrah ha-yehudit, 1842–1882” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1973); Isaac Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1844–1917 (Jerusalem, 1981); David Maggid and Hillel Noah Maggid, Toldot mishpeḥot Gintsburg (St. Petersburg, 1899); Arieh Munitz, Irgune “ORT” bi-Verit ha-Mo’atsot ba-shanim, 1917–1938 (Tel Aviv, 1980/81); Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale (Berkeley, 2002); ORT, 1880–2000: Facing the Future (London, 2000); Jack Rader, By the Skill of Their Hands: The Story of ORT (Geneva, 1960?); Leon Moiseevich Rozenthal (Yehudah b. ha-R. Mosheh ha-Levi Rozental), Toldot ḥevrat marbe haskalah be-Yisra’el be-Erets Rusyah, 2 vols. in 1 (St. Petersburg, 1885/86–1889/90); Leon Shapiro, The History of ORT (New York, 1980); Elias Tcherikower (I. M. Cherikover), Istoriia obshchestva dlia rasprostraneniia prosveshcheniia mezhdu evreiami v Rossii, 1863–1913 (St. Petersburg, 1913); Mordechai Zalkin, “Yisakhar u-Zevulun: Li-Demuto shel lamdan lita’i be-me’ah ha-19,” Gal-Ed 18 (2002): 125–154.



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss