Posted by Jon Federman
"We give people the tools they need to become self-sufficient and meet their basic needs independently."
-- Jewish Family & Children's Service (JF&CS) Website, 2014
"The society aims to make its beneficiaries self-supporting...so as not to be a burden of the Commonwealth but a part of it."
-- Representative Women of New England, on the charities started by Lina Frank Hecht, 19041
One of the major tenets of modern day social service agencies is the concept of self-sufficiency. At present-day JF&CS, we deal with people's immediate needs but also address how they can become more independent in the future. It is hard to believe that this concept was also at the heart of JF&CS predecessor agencies more than 100 years ago.
In the 1880's, pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and heightened anti-Semitism in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe caused a substantial increase in Jewish immigration to the United States. With one of the largest Jewish populations in the US, nearly 100,000 Jews listed Boston as their final destination when they arrived on American shores.
Some 20 years prior to the massive wave of immigration, Boston area Jews provided charity for their needy through a handful of synagogues. But as immigration increased, and by extension, the numbers of people and families in need, the resources of the synagogues were strained. A group of "26 responsible men," members of Congregations Adath Israel and Ohabei Shalom, came together to form the United Hebrew Benevolent Association (UHBA) on January 10, 1864. Led by Nathan Strauss, the group modeled itself after secular benevolent societies, which appealed to the community for support and was the predecessor organization to today’s JF&CS.2
Featuring prominently in the UHBA was a wealthy couple who had moved to Boston from Baltimore, Jacob and Lina Hecht. Although the couple quickly became leading members of the German-Jewish philanthropic community, Mrs. Hecht established a unique and independent identity as a female philanthropist and social reformer.3
Together, the Hechts enjoyed the arts and frequently hosted musicians and literary celebrities in their Commonwealth Avenue home. Their names could also be found on the membership rolls of almost every charitable institution in Boston.4 In 1904, a profile on Lina Hecht was included in a book about important women of New England.5 The article described her as
of a profoundly religious nature and religious training, the holy language that makes ‘charity’ synonymous with ‘justice’ readily finds expression in Mrs. Hecht’s life. While very faithful to the claims of blood, here benevolence knows no limit of race, creed, or color. Her days are given up literally to the noble privilege of ministering to the needs of others.6
In the 1870’s, Mrs. Hecht started her trajectory by funding small educational and health programs for newly arriving immigrants in Boston. By 1878, she had revived the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society, which had been founded in 1869. As the group’s president, Mrs. Hecht oversaw the program in which cloth was purchased to be sewn by immigrant women into blankets, clothing, and undergarments. The resulting items were then distributed free to needy Jewish immigrants. She also initiated fundraising “Calico Balls” to support the group’s Chanukkah parties for the poor.7 With more than 500 members, the society aimed to make its beneficiaries self-supporting and offered food, clothing, medicine, medical attendance, and weeks in the country. The society also advanced capital to establish families in starting businesses.8
Learn more about Lina Hecht and the work she did to help transform the poor in Boston’s Jewish community into empowered, self-sufficient Jewish American citizens in Part II of this story next week.
Jon Federman is the JF&CS Staff Writer. A practicing attorney for more than 15 years, he is thrilled to bring his legal and persuasive writing skills to the JF&CS Marketing Communications department. Jon has a BA from Tufts University and a JD from Boston College Law School. In his spare time he is an exhibiting photographer and an award-winning cartoonist. Jon lived in London, England for five years before returning to Boston in 2011.
1 Julia Ward Howe and Mary Hannah Groves, Ed’s., Representative Women of New England (Boston: New England Historical Publishing co., 1904), 334.
2 Susan Ebert, “Community and Philanthropy,” in The Jews of Boston, ed. Jonathan Sarna and Ellen Smith (Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, 1995), 222.
3 Ellen Smith, “Lina Frank Hecht,” in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (Jewish Women’s Archive, 1 March 2009).
4 Howe and Groves, 334.
8 Howe and Groves, 334.