From Communal Charity to National Welfare: Jewish Orphanages in Eastern Europe Before and After World War I

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East European Jewish Affairs

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This article examines Jewish institutions for the care of orphans in an attempt to understand several aspects of Jewish life in Eastern Europe: (1) attitudes towards orphans on the part of communal leaders, intellectuals, and political activists; (2) the transition of Jewish charitable and (in the modern period) philanthropic institutions from the pre‐modern communal charity of the early nineteenth century to modern “scientific philanthropy” at the fin de siècle to national welfare in the interwar period; (3) and, to a lesser extent, the experiences of orphans themselves, as far as is possible to ascertain from documents relating to the institutions that cared for them. Marginal figures such as orphans were of growing concern to the organised Jewish community in its increasingly complex encounter with modernity in the Russian Empire, and traditional patterns of charity, family life, and relations between socioeconomic classes were cast into doubt by new government policies and modern scientific attitudes arriving from Western and Central Europe. The religiously mandated charity of the pre‐modern kehillah gave way to a paternalistic philanthropy that aimed to mould a generation of “productive” working‐class Jews. However, the upheavals of World War I and the mass politicisation of East European Jewry brought about a transformation in attitudes towards orphans and other marginal groups, whose care was made a centrepiece of national, and nationally minded, Jewish communal life in the interwar Polish Republic.


© 2009 Taylor & Francis



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