Orphan, Orphanage

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Treatment of Orphans

Communal concern for orphaned children has deep roots in Jewish tradition, and numerous biblical commandments stress the importance of providing for them. Along with the widow (almanah), resident alien (ger), and Levite (Levi), orphans are to be protected and treated with justice and compassion (Deut. 16:11 and 14; 24:19–21; 26:12–13). Psalm 68:6 describes God as a "father of the fatherless."

Rabbinic Judaism reinforced the individual and communal obligation to meet the needs of orphans. "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home," Sanhedrin 19b states, "it is as though he had begotten him." According to Ketubbot 50a, a man who brings up an orphan boy or orphan girl in his house and enables them to marry, is performing righteousness at all times. The rabbis considered the community responsible for supporting impoverished orphans, including educating them and preparing them for marriage.

Maimonides summed up biblical and rabbinic discussions regarding the treatment of orphans in the Mishneh Torah (De'ot 6:10), specifying the need for sensitivity and courtesy: "Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannizes over them, or causes them loss of money, is guilty of a transgression …. If a teacher punishes orphan children in order to teach them Torah or a trade, or lead them in the right way – this is permissible. And yet he should not treat them like others, but make a distinction in their favor. He should guide them gently, with the utmost tenderness and courtesy…."

In Jewish Law

The meaning of the word yatom ("orphan"), as found in the traditional literature, varies in accordance with the context. In terms of the social treatment of the orphan, no distinction is made as to whether the child has been orphaned of father or mother (Yad, De'ot 6:10). If, however, reference is being made to the special privileges accorded the orphan by the civil code, then only the fatherless child is meant (Resp. Mahayashdam, nos. 196, 454).

The Talmud shows great concern for the claims of minor children to support from their father's estate. The rabbis recognized no legal differences between children of "privileged" or "secondary" wives, and extended protection even to a man's proven illegitimate offspring (see *Maintenance, *Parent and Child, *Yuḥasin). They also extended the legal protection of orphan girls by seeing to it that each ketubbah should specifically pledge the bridegroom's estate for the support of his surviving minor daughters (ketubbat benan nokevan), and, in the absence of his pledge, by construing the omission as an error. Ultimately, the right of female orphans to support came to overshadow the claims of all other heirs, and, if need be, the entire estate was used for this purpose (M. Ket. 4:11; 13:3; tj Git. 5:3–4; and commentaries; see *Succession.).

In the case of impoverished orphan children whose father left little or no property, the Talmud holds the community responsible for their support, for marrying them off, and for providing them with the means to live economically independent lives. Communal funds were to be used to rent and furnish a house for a young man, and to fit out a girl with clothing and a minimum dowry. If the communal funds were low, the orphan girl was given priority over the boy. If the community chest could afford to do so, the provisions provided for the orphan were made in accordance with his social position and the former manner of life to which he had been accustomed (M. Ket. 6:5 and tb Ket. 67b).

In the case of a man who died without appointing a guardian for his minor children, the court must do so (Mishneh Torah, Nahalot 10:5; cf.bk 37a). For more particulars see *Apotropos. Minor orphans and their property are exempt from the ordinary laws of overreaching (ona'ah; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 109:4–5), usury (ribbit de-Rabbanan; yd 160:18), the seventh-year recession of debts (prosbul; Ḥm 67:28), and communal taxation for the charity fund (ẓedakah), with specified exceptions (tb bb 8a and Sh. Ar., yd 248:3; for further particulars see *Taxation).

Whenever orphans of any age are involved in litigation regarding their father's property or transactions, judicial practice is to enter on their behalf all pleas and all arguments that their father could have entered (b. bb 23a; see *Pleas; *Practice and Procedure).

[Aaron Kirschenbaum]

Communal Care of Orphans

Orphan care was a major concern of all medieval European Jewish communities. Many Cairo Genizah letters express the anguish of destitute widows and their children who appealed for help to alleviate their distress. Orphaned children in this milieu were sheltered by relatives or, when this was not possible, by other families, especially those of teachers or cantors, and the community assumed responsibility for the education of such youngsters. Individuals were encouraged to marry off the orphaned daughter of a poor relative, and to provide dowries for poor brides, particularly orphans. Jewish philanthropists left large sums for this purpose. In Saragossa, Spain, the general charitable society for the poor, including orphaned girls, was known as Hoce Hece (probably a corruption of the Hebrew osei ḥesed). In Rome, during the 17th century, two societies supplied minimum dowries and trousseaus to needy brides. A wide ranging society, the Hasi Betulot, founded in 1613 (based in Venice, but extending to several other cities), and a similar one, based in Amsterdam and known as the Dotar (established in 1615), provided dowries and financial assistance to impoverished girls, including orphans.

The first Jewish orphanage is thought to have been established by members of the Spanish-Portuguese community in Amsterdam in 1648, and was administered by a society known as Aby Yetomim (Father of Orphans). Its founders may have been inspired by similar institutions under non-Jewish auspices. The Jewish orphans' home in Fuerth, established in 1763 with a donation from a private businessman, was the first of its kind in Germany. These institutions were part of the "extraordinary expansion of Jewish philanthropic societies in the eighteenth century," described by Salo Baron.

Jewish orphanages were founded in many European cities during the 19th century. In London, Jews' Hospital opened in 1807 to care for the aged Jewish poor and to provide education and industrial employment for youngsters, including orphans. An orphanage already served destitute children in the Sephardi community, and a society to care for orphaned Ashkenazi children, known as Honen le-Yetonim, existed from 1818. In 1831, the Orphan Asylum was established in response to needs arising from a severe cholera epidemic the year before. Children in the orphanage were educated, taught a trade, and apprenticed outside the institution. Eventually, Jews' Hospital and the Orphan Asylum merged to form the Jews' Hospital and Orphan Asylum, later known as the Norwood Home for Jewish Children. In Germany, the number of Jewish hospitals and orphanages increased significantly after the nation's unification in 1871. This trend was linked to the rationalization of philanthropy and development of the social work profession throughout Europe, as well as the influx of eastern European Jewish immigrants into Germany during these years. The growing number of Jewish orphanages, many with modernized buildings, joined the extensive network of German Jewish charitable organizations.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many cities and towns in Poland, including Warsaw, Bialystok, Radom, Tarnow, Chelm, Lomza, and Brody, had at least one, and often several, Jewish orphanages. Children admitted to these asylums were either actual orphans or from impoverished families. The orphanages housed and fed their wards, educated them in general and Jewish subjects, and taught them trades. Following their discharge, youngsters were often apprenticed, sent to Jewish vocational schools, or continued their education in yeshivot or other schools

The number and size of East European Jewish child care institutions increased significantly during and following World War i in order to serve the large number of children orphaned during the war and in subsequent pogroms. An orphan home for boys was established in Warsaw in 1917, and another orphanage, Ezrah ve-Haẓẓalah (Help and Rescue), was founded in Stanislawow in 1919. These orphan homes were funded by private individuals (especially through bequests), donations, fundraising activities, grants from the municipal authorities and, in several cases, contributions from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (jdc). Many Jewish orphanages continued to function into World War ii. Probably the best known of that period was the one on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. Dr. Janusz *Korczak, the famous Polish Jewish physician, educator, and writer, had directed that institution since 1912, while at the same time lecturing and publishing many books on child development and welfare. During the final deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto, in August 1942, he refused to abandon his children and led 200 of them on a dignified and poignant march to the train station, after which they were transported to Treblinka and murdered.

Jewish Orphanages in the United States

Societies for the care of orphaned Jewish children in the U.S. date back to the early 19th century. The Society for the Relief of Orphans and Children of Indigent Parents in Charleston, South Carolina, created in 1801, which maintained orphans in private homes (and later established an orphan asylum) was an important pioneer. In 1855, the first actual Jewish orphanages, the Jewish Foster Home of Philadelphia and the Association for the Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans of New Orleans, were established.

Before the mid-19th century, most dependent children had been maintained through charity in their own homes, placement with other families, indenture, apprenticeship, or placement in public almshouses, along with adult poor. The decades following the Civil War witnessed campaigns in several states to remove children from the often unwholesome atmosphere of such almshouses. The number of American orphanages mushroomed in response to the needs of children orphaned by the Civil War and, later, to the hardships of impoverished, largely immigrant, families in America's crowded cities. Many Catholic and Jewish child care institutions were established in this era due to concerns that children housed in so-called non-sectarian institutions were subject to Protestant proselytizing. Jewish orphanages were founded in New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, Newark, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Rochester, New York, Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, among other cities, part of a constantly expanding network of Jewish child care institutions (also including juvenile reformatories and foundling asylums). Some of the largest and most influential of these were the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (1860), the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum (1868), and the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York (1879).

Jewish orphanages in the U.S. provided their wards with general and Jewish education, vocational training, and placement services ("after-care") once they left the orphanage. By 1900, according to estimates at the time, the majority of children served by these institutions were not full orphans, but rather half-orphans or the children of ill or destitute parents. While most Jewish orphanages had been founded by Central European Jews, initially to serve the poor of their own communities, they subsequently aided impoverished eastern European Jewish immigrants. However, such Jews in many cities also created their own child care institutions (such as the Hebrew National Jewish Orphan Asylum in New York, the Home for Hebrew Orphans in Brooklyn, the Orthodox Jewish Orphan Asylum in Cleveland, and the Marks Nathan Orphan Asylum in Chicago), which offered more traditional religious education and training. In the 19th century, larger Jewish institutions, like many other child care asylums of the time, tended to be highly regimented and impersonal; however, by the early years of the 20th century, many liberalized their policies due to the influence of a "new breed" of orphanage managers and in keeping with changing theories of child development.

Although foster care gradually superseded institutional care as the preferred means of providing for dependent children in the early 20th century, Jewish orphanages retained their vitality in many communities. Quite a few institutions reorganized themselves structurally so as to create more home-like environments for their wards. The so-called "cottage plan" (originating in France, Germany, and England) was first introduced in a Jewish institution in 1912 by the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York, which became known as Pleasantville. This model, which grouped youngsters of mixed ages in small cottages on a rural property, was later adopted by Jewish orphanages in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland as well. In the mid-1930s, according to one estimate, there were about 100 organizations serving approximately 10,000 dependent Jewish children (including, but not limited to, full and half orphans) in the U.S., either in institutions or foster homes. Some Jewish orphanages, such as the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum, renamed Bellefaire in 1929, gradually focused more attention on youngsters with social, emotional, and behavioral problems, rather than orphans. By the 1940s, most American Jewish orphanages had closed their doors, and had been absorbed into city-wide Jewish Child Care Associations or similar agencies, which allocated children to various types of care, including group homes, foster care, and adoption.

Orphanages in the Yishuv and in Israel

The first Jewish orphanage in the yishuv was the Diskin Orphan Home in Jerusalem, founded in 1881 to assist those fleeing the pogroms in Russia. The Zion Orphanage (1900) and the General Israel Orphans' Home for Girls (1902) followed. Not all of the children in these institutions were orphans; some were placed there because their parents were temporarily unable to care for them.

During and following World War i, the need for orphan care increased dramatically due to war-time conditions, cholera and typhus outbreaks, as well as Arab riots during the 1920s. About 4,500 of the 20,000 children under 15 in the yishuv between 1918 and 1928 were orphaned of one or both parents, primarily as a result of the war. In 1918, there were three orphanages in Jerusalem (accommodating about 500 children), as well as the *Mikveh Israel agricultural training school near Tel Aviv (which housed Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Yemenite orphans from abroad, and admitted 150 war orphans after the war). In 1919, The Palestine Orphan Committee was formed (at the initiative of American and British Zionists, but later including board members from the yishuv as well) to provide for the large numbers of children orphaned during the war. Although the committee, which functioned until 1928, initially favored home placement (through grants to mothers, relatives, and foster homes), it also established 12 small, short-lived institutions and two larger, more permanent institutions. Over 700 children were cared for in Jerusalem orphanages during the 1920s. Among these were the General Orphanage (a religious institution) and the wizo (Women's International Zionist Organization) Baby Home for orphans and abandoned children. Another wizo home for infants was founded in Tel Aviv in 1929, and the two housed over 250 infants during the 1930s. By 1945, there were 21 orphan homes in the country.

Emerging in the 1920s, and gaining strength in the 1930s and 1940s, was the Children's Village model, i.e., rural communities of children (many of whom were orphans and, increasingly, refugees from Europe) who lived together and learned agricultural skills. The first such village was Me'ir Shefeyah for orphan girls, founded near Zikhron Ya'akov in 1923. Another early, well known institution of this type was Ben Shemen, founded in 1925, which took in all 200 children from a model Jewish orphan home in Kovno, Lithuania. A third children's village was created in Haifa for 120 children arriving in 1934 from the Ahava Orphan Home in Berlin. During the 1930s, these youth villages served as the foundation of the remarkable *Youth Aliyah program, which rescued 16,167 youngsters from Europe by 1945, and assisted another 14,000 children in the immediate postwar period. Children who arrived in Palestine with their parents were cared for by the yishuv's Social Work Department, while orphans and partial orphans were cared for by Youth Aliyah.

In the early years, many child welfare workers in the yishuv, particularly Henrietta *Szold, had favored home-based or foster care for orphaned children, However, by the early 1930s, institutional care emerged as the preferred method, generally for economic reasons; it was easier to raise funds for orphan homes than for family settings. Such institutions, influenced by European models and meshed with the collectivist orientation of Israeli society, appeared best suited to accommodate massive waves of immigrants, and were viewed as more stable environments for children than many home settings. In the 1980s, approximately 10,000 children under the age of 14 (including orphans as well as children with problematic family situations) lived in about 200 residential institutions in Israel.

The Role of Women

Women played a significant role in the history of Jewish orphanages, both as founders, managers, and supporters of orphanages, and as recipients of aid. Orphanage work was considered to be an appropriate sphere of activity for women, who served these institutions in both volunteer and professional capacities.

Women volunteers took active roles in fundraising for orphanages, and also provided children with food, clothing, and entertainment. In both Europe and the U.S., women founded and/or directed Jewish orphanages, although sometimes the original women directors were later replaced by men. This pattern was evident, for example, in the Jewish Foster Home of Philadelphia and the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York. In Poland, several Jewish orphanages were administered by women's committees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including those in Czenstochowa, Wloclawek, and Biala-Podlaska. Orphanage work was in keeping with popular views of womanhood at the time, which legitimized women's involvement in charitable causes, particularly those assisting other women and children.

Women also worked as paid matrons, teachers, and other staff members in many Jewish orphanages. For example, Simha Peixotto, a prominent Jewish educator at the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia, was also a beloved teacher in that city's Jewish Foster Home, where she taught Hebrew and prepared boys for bar mitzvah from 1863 to 1878. In addition, Bertha *Pappenheim, the well-known leader of the Jewish women's movement in Germany in the early 20th century, served as housemother of a Jewish orphanage for girls in Frankfurt from 1895 to 1907.

Finally, Jewish orphanages assisted large numbers of desperate mothers, and provided education and training for young girls who might not otherwise have had such opportunities. Most of the youngsters admitted to these institutions, at least in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were half-orphans, especially the children of widowed or deserted mothers. In most child care institutions, boys and girls received training considered suitable for their sex, for example, woodworking and carpentry for boys, and sewing and embroidery for girls. However, by the early 20th century, orphanage directors, at least in the United States, attempted to provide all of their wards, male and female, with broader educational opportunities, based on their individual talents and abilities.

Contemporary Efforts

The greatest growth in Jewish group child care in recent years has probably been in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, where orphanages funded by the jdc and religious groups (such as *Chabad, the Lubavitch organization) have been established to meet the needs of orphaned and destitute children. Concerned about the significant number of Jewish children housed in general orphanages in Ukraine (where they were subjected to terrible living conditions, abuse, and antisemitism), the jdc, for example, helped support the opening of a Jewish Children's Home in Odessa in 1996, which is currently sheltering more than 100 children.

Sources of Communal Support

In pre-modern times, the kuppah (Jewish community chest) supported orphans along with other impoverished people. Once institutions for the care of Jewish orphans were established, they received funding from many sources. These included: private donations (including bequests), membership dues (i.e., groups of individuals who supported particular institutions), grants or subsidies from the municipal authorities, specific fund-raising events and drives (e.g., "Purim Balls"), solicitations of funds from abroad, and pledges made in synagogues (especially during the Torah reading on specific holidays). In addition, individuals or local merchants often made donations of food, clothing, equipment and entertainment, and Jewish organizations, such as *B'nai B'rith, the *Joint Distribution Committee, or *ort (Organization of Rehabilitation through Training) provided financial support. In some cases, these organizations played major roles in establishing the institutions; for example, the western division of the International Order of B'nai B'rith founded the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum in 1868, and the *Bund (the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia) founded a children's home in Chelm during World War i.

Standards of Care

Jewish child care institutions in all parts of the world were influenced by prevailing trends in child welfare in the larger society. However, there were also instances in which the Jewish institutions pioneered in certain areas and made important contributions to the child welfare field as a whole. In America, even in the 19th century, the era of the so-called "total institution," Jewish orphanages were known for progressive measures, such as the official prohibition against corporal punishment (before this became public policy in many states), quality medical care systems (including staff physicians, dental care, and accurate record-keeping), widespread advocacy of public school education for institutionalized youngsters, and sponsorship of "boarding out" and widows' pension programs.

[Reena Sigman Friedman (2nd ed.)]


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