Travel bans, border walls and neo-Nazi rallies. Amidst all of the searing hatred and bigotry dominating national headlines, Pittsburgh promises to be a potential beacon of inclusion and compassion in an ocean of isolation and simmering resentment.
Pittsburgh Jewish organizations are transcending cultural schisms and personal prejudices to provide technical, emotional and financial support to newcomer immigrants and refugees who need it most.
Jews helping people is nothing new. Judaism has traditions of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” as well as tzedakah, or “acts of justice.” Aside from these inherent customs, Jews have developed social practices in response to anti-Semitism. Often encountering prejudice from their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews constructed aid societies to help less fortunate members of their communities. The harsh reality was, if they did not take care of their own, nobody would. Furthermore, the Torah reminds Jews not to resent the stranger, for Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt. This notion of a shared experience has become more powerful throughout history, as Jews have often been marginalized and ostracized. Recognizing a commonality in experience is a powerful motivation for extending aid.
In Pittsburgh, Jewish aid societies date back to the mid-19th century. Barbara Burstin outlines this progression in her two-volume series, “Steel City Jews.” In the mid-1840s, William Frank and Louis Jaroslowski, two successful German-Jewish immigrants, founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society to assist the community in burial expenses and nursing the sick. Eventually merging with its sister organization in 1880, the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, these complementary aid organizations formed the United Hebrew Relief Association (UHRA) to respond to increased immigration. In 1927, the organization again changed its name to the Jewish Welfare Association (JWA), reflecting its transition to working more closely with clients, rather than merely distributing funds.
The Great Depression forced organizations to consolidate resources, and JWA merged with several other immigrant and community aid groups to form the Jewish Social Service Bureau. Finally, in 1950, the Bureau once again changed its name to the recognizable Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS). JFCS, now Jewish Family & Community Services, still functions today, with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) as a partner organization.
As Jewish immigration decreased, Pittsburgh’s JFCS did not simply pack up and close their resettlement operations. Leslie Aizenman, director of JFCS Refugee and Immigrant Services, notes that the organization’s purpose naturally incorporates Jewish ideals and experiences. “It’s a Jewish value to save a life, to welcome a stranger” Aizenman says, “and we [as Jews] have been fleeing for a long time.” Idly watching newly arriving migrants struggle unassisted was not an option. The situation was too big to walk away from, the organization’s leadership had too much experience under their belts, and the mission was too relatable for a Jewish community all too familiar with being a stranger in a foreign land.
But JFCS is not the only repurposed Jewish assistance organization. The Irene Kaufmann Settlement House (IKS), the predecessor of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, opened in the Hill District in the late 1800s to help acclimate newly arriving families and facilitate community events. As African-American migration increased in the 1920s, IKS served this incoming community in the same capacity. The Hebrew Free Loan Association, once giving interest-free loans exclusively to Jewish clientele, expanded to the broader community. And the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which was started with the funds from the sale of Montefiore Hospital, helps finance citywide initiatives that benefit all citizens.
But why do Jewish organizations, once created to help a community that no one else would help, now offer assistance to members from outside that community?
First, there is the religious tradition of helping others. While American Jews’ success and slowed immigration rates have reduced the need for strictly Jewish aid organizations, tikkun olam and tzedakah still heavily influence social activism and engagement. Helping others is simply an ingrained characteristic of Judaism.
Coupled with these religious traditions, Jews hold a moral obligation to help those who flee oppression. The Jewish community need not look far back in a long history of persecution to find examples of the dangers of ambivalence and ignorance. For thousands of years, Jews were forced from their homes: from Egypt to Persia, from Jerusalem to Cordoba, from Kiev to Paris. As recent as the 1930s, even the United States turned Jews away. The St. Louis, a cruise liner loaded with Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, was denied entry to America’s shores, and was forced to return to Europe.
As a national community with the resources and political clout to sustain substantial aid and intervention, American Jews must continue to help immigrants in need. Pittsburgh’s Jewish organizations are emblematic of this multifaceted mission for inclusion and outreach. For Jews know all too well: we were all once strangers in a foreign land. PJC