The Pittsburgh Response

A well founded reputation for hospitality on a grand scale” 

Before 1880, there were two primary Jewish philanthropy groups: The Hebrew Benevolent Society, a gentleman’s group that raised funds for the poor; and the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, a women’s group that volunteered and raised funds to aid the sick, poor, and needy. These two groups merged in 1880 to form the United Hebrew Relief Association.

The Pittsburgh House of Shelter was organized in 1883. The home had several locations throughout the Hill District and provided temporary shelter for newly arriving Jewish immigrants. Men and women were welcomed and given a bed, a change of clothing, and a meal for up to three nights, after which time they were expected to find work and a more permanent place to live.

House of Shelter
Photo © Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

The Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh started in 1886 with five men at a Hill District synagogue who wanted to give money to a single mother in dire need. Loans were made to small businessmen, families facing a crisis, and to immigrants starting anew. Repaid money was lent out again.

The Columbian Council, later known as the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was founded in 1894 for the explicit purpose of Americanization. NCJW helped immigrant women and children upon their arrival to Pittsburgh and protected them from exploitation.

An Irene Kaufmann Settlement visiting nurse and patient in the Hill District
Photo © Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

To provide a physical space for addressing the problems facing immigrants, the Columbian Council established their own building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which became known as the Columbian School and Settlement. While services changed and evolved over time, it served the community in the Hill District with no restrictions related to race or religion.

Irene Kaufmann Settlement
Photo © Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives
An article from Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 7, 1903.

In 1909 the Columbian School and Settlement accepted a large gift from Henry and Theresa Kaufmann and was renamed the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in memory of their daughter. The settlement became its own entity outside of the Columbian Council.

In 1912, the Pittsburgh Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, later known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh was formed to centralize the fundraising for these many charitable organizations.

With the rise in aid, there was also a rise in xenophobia. Those who had arrived only a generation or two before, frequently from Western Europe, became wary of the new immigrants, many of whom were coming from Eastern and Southern Europe and were considered “the worst class of immigrants.”

In July 1890, reporter Marilyn P. Epstein wrote: “Stop the worthless influx of immigrants into this country…of which it seems Pittsburgh gets seven-eights…it is true the majority of [e]migrants are fleeing from cruel oppression…but for them to become life-long patrons of charity…if arrivals increase or continue, it will be impossible to aid them”

But immigrants proved their critics wrong. Upon seeing how newcomers soon came to support themselves, in January 1892, Epstein amended her opinion, writing: “We must welcome and encourage and adopt the stranger, as we who were aliens were welcomed.”