What’s a Jewish orphanage?

What’s a Jewish orphanage?

The Hebrew Orphan’s Home of Hudson County in its time

The Hebrew Orphan’s Home of Hudson County opened in 1915 and was certified the next year.

It’s notable in the context of a story about the Jewish Home Family because all the rest of the organization began right there. It’s also striking for modern readers because the concept of a home for Jewish orphans seems odd. We don’t have orphanages much any more — luckily, we don’t need them much any more — and somehow it seems that Jewish children bereft of their parents always would have families to take them in.

When we think that, we forget about the realities of immigrant early-20th-century life.

Dr. Reena Sigman Friedman, a historian who now teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, studied Jewish orphanages for her doctoral dissertation, and then turned it into a book, “These Are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880–1925.”

“The great majority of the orphans in the orphanages I studied were not full orphans,” Dr. Friedman said. “They were half orphans” —one of their parents had either died or deserted the family — “or they were the children of destitute parents, or one or both of their parents had tuberculosis.”

New Jersey certified the incorporation of the Hebrew Orphan’s Home of New Jersey in 1916.
New Jersey certified the incorporation of the Hebrew Orphan’s Home of New Jersey in 1916.

Some of the children would stay in the orphanage for short stints, while others would be in, on average, for four to 10 years, she said. When parents, other family members, or older siblings could bring them home, they did. While there were asylums for babies, most infants were able to stay with family members; the youngest children in orphanages generally were about 5. They aged out at 16 — often the orphanages would find apprenticeships for those teenagers, and at times their families could take them back when they were old enough to contribute rather than take from the family coffers.

Sibling groups often were broken up, Dr. Friedman said. On the other hand, parents often were allowed to visit, particularly in smaller orphanages, like the Jersey City one. “They were trying to Americanize the kids, so they didn’t want too much contact at first, but those rules liberalized over time,” she said.

Jewish orphanages, like their Catholic counterparts, often were created to offer an alternative to the Protestant institutions that took in Jewish children but either overtly or covertly tried to convert them. Jewish orphanages taught Jewish values, but at least at first those values were specifically liberal, and often unlike those the children would have known from home. Later, Orthodox orphanages were created; food would no longer be kosher-style but actually kosher, Dr. Friedman said. “There were a lot of similarities between Jewish and non-Jewish orphanages, but my sense is that because there was a long history of Jewish child care institutions in Europe, and because there are the biblical mandates to take care of orphans, in general there was somewhat more of a Jewish sensibility, and a little more compassion,” she added.

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