Orphanages: A Child-Care Option?

by Reena Sigman Friedman [Brandeis Univ. Press, 1994], $39.95

A poignant photograph forms the cover of Reena Sigman Friedman’s book, These Are Our Children, Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880-1925. Cracked at the edges from age, the 1904 picture portrays “our children” against a leafy backdrop of trees: Jewish boys and girls sit or stand in five neat rows surrounding an elderly gentleman. Dressed in a jacket, vest, starched white shirt and bow tie, he is stern visaged, white-haired and bearded. The girls all wear the same dark smocked dresses, their long hair combed up, hands folded in their laps; the boys wear plain collarless jackets buttoned to the neck, and matching pants, their hair in crewcuts. Only one boy proves too restless to pose for the Cleveland Orphan Asylum’s group photo—his head is blurred.

It’s hard not to compare this photo to other turn-of-the-century photos (also of children of East European Jewish immigrants) taken on the Lower East Side of New York City by such photographers as Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis. These latter pictures show children at play and work, the disorder of their lives visible in the dirt and poverty of the streets and houses in which they live, and in the disarray of their clothes. Despite the abject conditions, however, a restless energy emanates from these photographs, apparent in the many blurred faces and moving hands. It’s clear from Friedman’s book jacket photo that she is urging American Jews to remember a different group of Jewish children, and to recognize that they are also “our children.”

How the Jewish community cared for these other children, orphans and half-orphans— i.e. children with one surviving parent due to death, divorce, or desertion— forms the subject of Friedman’s comparative analysis of three orphanages: the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City (the largest of the three), the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum (that served Jews throughout the midwest and upper south), and the Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia. Friedman uses these institutions and their history as a lens to explore changing Jewish attitudes toward dependent children. Most orphanage children were boys under the age of 13—widows and widowers found girls more useful around the house, so they were more reluctant to commit daughters to institutions.

The initial impetus to care for needy Jewish children came from women, who organized several of the earliest asylums. Once an institution had been established, men rapidly pushed women to the margins and forced them to remain there throughout the subsequent history of Jewish orphanages. The men who took over created “homes” that were total institutions, “characterized by rigid institutional routines, regimentation, harsh discipline, strict segregation of the sexes, minimal contact with the outside world, and sharp restrictions on contacts with parents and relatives.” Orphanage superintendents sought to create an environment to produce what they called “sober, productive citizens.”

These values reflected regnant American attitudes, including belief in the power of environment to mold children, and scorn for the culture of poor immigrants. Orphanages specifically aimed to become surrogate parents; indeed, many children came to feel closer to their fellow orphans than to their siblings or other relatives.

With German Jews governing and supporting the orphanages, Jewish education took second place to Americanization. Committed to Reform Judaism (which they saw as American Judaism in contrast to a foreign Orthodoxy), orphanages upheld only one day of festivals (instead of the traditional two), and kept “kosher style” (not kosher) kitchens. By 1906, such practices produced a high intermarriage rate among Cleveland alumni (compared to Jews at large): 13% for women and 9% for men. These statistics, Friedman observes, “are telling indicators of the impact the institution’s Americanizing efforts had upon its wards.” Ironically, the orphanages also regularly supplied candidates for Hebrew Union College’s rabbinical school (suggesting that the orphanages’ level of Jewish learning might still have exceeded that of most American Jewish homes). The rabbinate appealed to poor boys as an attractive path of upward mobility, certainly better than a future as a skilled laborer—the lot of a substantial minority of orphanage graduates.

Around World War I, and specifically at the watershed 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent and Neglected Children, American attitudes toward the care of dependent children began to change. Sentiment swung against institutionalization in favor of family care—either through subventions to mothers to help them raise their own children at home, or through foster home placements. As Jewish orphanages shifted from being perceived as model institutions to being attacked by child care professionals as harmful to children, they became more innovative, less rigid, and more open to the outside world—including, significantly, to the children’s own parents. This change corresponded, interestingly, with the maturation of a new group of orphanage superintendents who were drawn from the ranks of orphanage alumni. Mindful of what they had suffered as wards, and sympathetic to the East European culture of orphanage children, they introduced sports, games, clubs, self-government, summer camping, post-secondary education, intensive Jewish learning and kitchens that were authentically kosher.

Two photos in These Are Our Children bespeak the differences. One shows a pre-vocational carpentry class—circa 1890’s—in which the boys carry their tools and look sober and serious. The other portrays the Hebrew Orphan Asylum’s football team— circa 1920’s—in which teammates, in uniforms with helmets, grin amiably. The young carpenters appear burdened by their lives with its rigid preparation for adulthood. The football players, by contrast (in no way preparing for sports vocations), seem to revel in their youth, and its opportunities for restful competition.

The history of Jewish orphanages— though not of dependent children—comes to an end during World War II. Both the New York and the Philadelphia asylums closed their doors; the Cleveland home, re-named Bellefaire when it moved from city to suburbs, became a residential therapeutic facility for emotionally troubled youth.

As Friedman shows in this lucid, detailed, dense account, these institutions have much to teach about how American Jews fulfilled the traditional Jewish injunction to care for the widowed and orphaned, establishing institutions that stood—for better or worse— at the forefront of American child care practices. When American norms changed, Jews dismantled their “ideal” orphanages, and adopted contemporary means to fulfill prescribed Jewish mitzvot.

I couldn’t help thinking, while reading Friedman’s history, of my own grandfather’s childhood plight in America. When his family split apart he was 13—older than most orphanage children. His two older brothers took over the care of their mentally disturbed mother, while my grandfather headed off on his own, sleeping on subways and working at odd factory jobs. Eventually he found his way to a Jewish politician who gave him an introduction to Edward Blum—department store magnate. Blum fulfilled the mitzvah of caring for orphans in his own way: by giving my grandfather biweekly grants that allowed him to return to school.

Friedman’s book retrieves an important piece of history, reinstating a largely forgotten group of children—those not memorialized in Hine and Riis photos of the Lower East Side—into collective American Jewish memory.