Adjusting Our Lives by Dr. Herman Frank
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Adjusting Our Lives by Dr. Herman Frank

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Dr. Frank’s column appears in this space every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The fundamental problem of Jewish social service in America, and one that grows in importance as the years roll by, is the question of purely Jewish responsibility as against public responsibility for Jewish poverty and privation. By public responsibility is meant the support of the indigent, sick and unemployed by funds from the federal, state and city treasury. Traditionally, Jewish isolation in philanthropic work, in dealing with the problems of poverty and distress, has always been considered by our people an honorable self-imposed obligation.


Now, this attitude can be traced back to certain conditions peculiar to the time when the Jews began to settle down on the American soil. In a new vast country of small individual enterprise, and permeated with the spirit of militant Protestantism, the Jew, of course, had to submit to certain dire restrictions. Among these, more likely than not, might have been a stipulation that the Jews could care for their own poor.

Historians of Jewish philanthropy in America have stated that in 1652 Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, now New York, received a solemn promise from Portuguese Jews, the first Hebrew settlers in North America, ever to care for their poor in such a manner that they should never become a public charge.

Although the American Jews have to a great extent fulfilled that semi-legendary promise, this obligation is based upon poor historical foundations, and still poorer public law, to be binding for all the generations to come, as has been pointed out by the more critically minded delvers into the past.


Two hundred and fifty years ago, and perhaps even fifty years ago, poverty might have been primarily a result of individual factors and was only in a few, if any, cases a mass phenomenon. The Jews who had come from fanatically fierce Catholic lands to the New Netherlands had good reasons to believe that the support of the poor among them would never become a very heavy burden, but would surely ingratiate them with the stern, unbending bigots of the Peter Stuyvesant type.

But within one or two generations, in our own time, we have in America four million and a half Jewish people, instead of a quarter of a million of Jews fifty years ago. Instead, again, of being a country of petty individual enterprise and with a widely scattered small population, we have become the greatest industrial country in the world with huge urban centers and with a complex civilization.

The 125 million people in the United States are all bound together in our economic life. Very few individuals therefore, may be directly responsible for the economic disasters that befall them. Consequently, Jewish poverty is a result of the whole social and economic problem of wealth production and accumulation of the country as a whole.


In actual practice, the Jews have not fully taken care of their own in the modern social and industrial conditions. Let us illustrate with a few telling examples. Since 1912, nearly every State in the Union has adopted Mothers’ Assistance Funds and up to 1930, about $50,000,000 a year are spent in that direction. Naturally, Jewish widows and orphans are taking advantage of these laws in the various States where they are in effect.

Industrial accidents, to take another field of labor and social legislation, are a comparatively minor cause of poverty and distress in the experience of social welfare agencies. Yet for that group of cases alone 250 million dollars are paid each year, through the instrumentality of the Workmen’s Compensation laws, and the amount is annually rising. Jewish workmen, needless to say, enjoy the benefits of compensation laws and of compulsory accident insurance, on the part of employers of labor, to the same extent as the Gentile workers do.

Much food for thought is contained in the comparison of these 250 million dollars spent annually under public auspices, for a minor cause of poverty, on the one hand, with the sixty to seventy million dollars that are collected each year throughout the country for all private charitable agencies on the other.

Again, among the 125,000 old men and women on the rosters of Old Age Security plans in some twenty-five States, there will be a goodly number of Jewish names. Finally, thousands of our students in colleges, mostly poor, are maintained partly out of State funds and partly out of philanthropic contributions of non-Jews.


Jewish and general philanthropy alike are subject to the same inexorable law that their resources must become more restricted as the result of the very forces which make for an increased demand upon these resources. In the present depression, too, the voluntary group – responsibility has become tragically inadequate in meeting the serious problem of mass distress just when the need is at its height. Hence the growing public responsibility in the form of Federal, State, county and municipal provision for the unemployable and the unemployed.

From this new trend, two consequences logically follow. First, a theory of independent group responsibility is likely to become an anti-social force if it destroys, for example, Jewish participation in some or all national progressive movements aiming at social security and welfare, Second, a theory, plan, and method for cooperation between public relief agencies and Jewish social service organizations have to be worked out.

What we need most, at the present juncture, is a long-time program for coordination of all the vital branches of Jewish social work, on the one hand, with new activities, by State and city, on behalf of the needy and helpless citizens on the other.

Dr. Frank’s column appears in this space every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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