Jewish philanthropy in the
Beginning their classic work on English Poor Law history, Sidney and Beatrice Webb declare:
Throughout all Christendom the responsibility for the relief of destitution was in the Middle Ages, assumed and accepted, individually and collectively, by the Church. To give alms to all who were in need, to feed the hungry, to succour the widow and the fatherless, to visit the sick, were duties incumbent on every Christian. [Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: English Poor Law History: The Old Poor Law (1927) (afterwards quoted as Webb, Poor Law), p. 1.]
From 1597, these functions of the Church were gradually taken over by the Central and Local Government in England. [Ibid. p. 60.] By the last quarter of the eighteenth century the distinguishing feature of the English Poor Law was a widespread but haphazard provision for the impotent poor by weekly doles of money, with a persistent belief that it was possible to make a profit out of the labour of those men, women and children who could be set to work. [Ibid. p. 399.]
The latter policy called for the provision of instruments of compulsion, 'which were called Houses of Industry when one of their aspects was emphasized, and Houses of Correction or Bridewells when another side of their function came into view'. [Ibid.] With the development of the Industrial Revolution it was found that the new capitalist entrepreneurs were so eager for workers to fill their factories that they would even spend money, in the form of premiums given to those charged with looking after the poor, to secure their services. [Ibid. p. 400.]
The Church and State were very differently motivated in their relief of distress. The Church was primarily concerned with the donor and his soul, the poor was the medium of the rich man's salvation. The State was concerned with law and order, as an authoritative Political Economist put it in 1852:
They [the Poor Laws] are in fact, a bulwark raised by the State to protect its subjects from famine and despair ... [to] prevent them from being driven to excesses ruinous alike to themselves and to others ... Without it [the Poor Law] the peace of society could not be preserved for any considerable period. [J. R. McCulloch, Principles of Political Economy (1852), pp. 400, 407, quoted in Webb, Poor Law, p. 405.]
Jewish philanthropy in London, with the largest concentration of Jews in England, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected, in the main, the basic characteristics of general society. [Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 86, comes to the same conclusion.] These were an acceptance of poverty as a normal state, to be relieved by casual charity dispensed by individuals or endowed bodies; an attempt to humanize conditions for certain categories of person notoriously ill treated, such as prisoners, slaves and chimney boys; and the relief of special disability or distress by the provision of hospitals and asylums. [B. Kirkman Gray, A History of English Philanthropy (1905), (afterwards quoted as Gray, English Philanthropy), pp. 261-2.]
In the provincial Jewish community charitable endeavour corresponded more closely to the monastic example of the Middle Ages and to that which was observed generally in villages in the nineteenth century rather than to that which prevailed in the towns. In this connection it has been said that in the towns the rich knew poor streets whereas in the villages they knew poor people. [Ibid. pp. 233-5.] One consequence of this greater intimacy was that all the poor in the village were noticed, whilst in the towns many deserving cases were overlooked. [Ibid. p. 235.] For much the same reason it was easier to differentiate in the village between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the deserving and local poor apparently received, therefore, more help in provincial Congregations than the undeserving and the peripatetic.
Judging by contemporary practice, the wealthier Jews living in Devon and Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries undoubtedly gave donations to individuals who solicited help but, not surprisingly, no records of this type of charity have survived. On the other hand, there is detailed evidence of both the income and expenditure for charitable purposes by the Congregations of the South-West and the Jewish societies associated with them.
In much the same way as local parishes distributed charity to the general poor, so, too, did local Jewish communities throughout England give aid to the Jewish poor. [J. Rumney, 'The Anglo-Jewish Community, Some Aspects of its Social and Economic Development', JC, Supplement, June 1936 (afterwards quoted as Rumney, Anglo-Jewish Development).] Amongst the local resident poor were aged officials of the Plymouth Congregation who were granted a pension after long service. Cantor Benjamin Levy, after having served the Plymouth Congregation for more than 40 years, was granted a pension in 1814 of 'six guineas per month so long as he remains cantor here'. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 96.] He retained the title of his office and his pension until his death in 1829, aged nearly 100 years. [Annual Register, 29 March 1829.] However, when the Congregation's income dropped in the lean 1820's, his pension was cut first to £40 and then to £30 per annum. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 199.] Widows of officials were also granted a pension. In 1800, the widow of Moses the beadle was granted two shillings per week and free accommodation 'so long as she lives in Plymouth'. [Ibid. p. 15.] Jews, both male and female, who had been long resident in Plymouth, received weekly relief. In 1803, for example, the wife of Aaron ben Isaac was given five shillings a week, and in 1812, the same sum was given to a Betsy Isaac, and 3/6d per week to Benjamin Naftali. [PHC Min. Bk. II, pp. 25, 68.] In 1816, the Congregation budgeted on an annual basis for its stipendiary poor, and yearly sums of £15 for Lazarus Joseph, and £10 each for Mistress Davis, Yehiel ben Naftali Hart and Zenvelcher were allocated. [Ibid. p. 133.] An active pensioner was expected to pay her way and Miss Benjamin was 'to receive £6 per half annum and she must continue to make wax candles as previously'. [Ibid.] Even when the Congregation was financially hard-pressed in 1827 it nevertheless gave 4/0d. every week to 'Mistress Moses, widow of Judah, and to Mistress Abrams, widow of Mordecai'. [Ibid. p. 199.]
Nor was help given only to the aged and widows. In 1804, one Solomon ben Hayyim was in some trouble with the law and the Congregation gave his wife fourteen shillings each week. [Ibid. pp. 31, 33.] Similarly, in 1817, when Judah ben Hayyim Mannheim (Solomon's brother?) was in trouble 'for forging on the Greenwich Hospital Navy Agent', and his parents were distressed for rent arrears of nine pounds, the Congregation arranged a collection in the Anglo-Jewish community, paid for his defence, and then gave his parents twelve pounds, which was the balance of the monies collected. [PHC A/c. 1814-1826, pp. 240, 211. See also supra, p. 236.]
The desperate straits to which those living on the border line of poverty could be brought when work failed, or sickness struck down the breadwinner, are disclosed in a pitiful letter of appeal written by Aaron Nathan in December 1827 to the President of the Plymouth Congregation:
... I now have to Inform you beaing on of the helders that I am Drove to the last Extramity, without a farthin in the world having disposed of Everything I could make money of, so as my wife and Sevon Children Should not starve. [Original in the author's collection. For full text see infra, p. 324.]
His letter to the President and Treasurer [Original in the author's collection.] 'aroused their great compassion for his distress' and the Congregation made him a gift of three pounds to be doled out over twelve weeks. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 203.] The help was continued on a lower scale from August 1828 until May 1829 at three shillings a week. [Ibid.] To put these sums into perspective it may be observed that when an Ann Usher died at Wallsend aged 102 years, she had received parochial relief of £157. 13s. in the previous 30 years, i.e. about two shillings a week. This was regarded as a very large sum in toto. [John Sykes, Local Records of Northumberland, Durham (Newcastle/Tyne, 1866), II, p. 215.] Towards the end of the century the amounts given by the Plymouth Congregation to regular pensioners had hardly changed. In 1883, two maiden ladies, Miss Bellem and Miss Levy each got 2/6d. a week and two men each got 5/-d. per week. [PHC A/c. 1883, pp. 101-4.] These charitable disbursements came from a special charity fund in the hands of the Treasurer.
The cash came from offerings made on Sabbath and Festivals, [See supra, p. 228.] also from charity boxes in the synagogue. There were four of these in the Plymouth synagogue, one let into the South wall known as the Perpetual Box; a second at the back of the bimah, known as the Weekly Box; and two at the two pillars at the entrance, known as the Poor Boxes. The contents of the first box were probably used to pay for the oil in the perpetual lamp, the second box probably received small but regular amounts, whilst the other two were probably used by worshippers who dropped in odd coins during the reading of the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays each week, and the small offerings of those called to the Torah on those days. The income from these in 1888 was 14/-d., 7/-d. and £2. 3. 4d. respectively. [PHC A/c. 1883-1890, p. 417, which gives the names of the different boxes.] If the specific charity income was insufficient to meet charitable needs at any particular time, then the Plymouth Congregation voted funds for this purpose from its general purse. In 1808, for example, it allocated £25 to be given to the local Jewish poor for a six month period, besides out-of-pocket donations to the casual poor. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 48.]
Apart from the regular amounts to the resident poor, eleemosynary aid was given to the comparatively large numbers of Jewish poor who passed through the South-West. The Plymouth Congregation empowered its Charity Treasurer in 1779 to give not more than two shillings to each poor Jew who asked for help, and more in those cases he felt to be especially deserving, provided the President concurred. [PHC Regulations, 1779, no. 45.] Furthermore, the Treasurer could direct a poor man to the home of a member of the Congregation, [An institution known in Yiddish as pletten.] and that member had either to pay for the man's accommodation at an inn, or give the man two shillings. [Ibid. no. 44.] This latter institution fell into abeyance by the time the next regulations were issued in 1835, there being no mention of it in them, but the warden was empowered to 'dispense such casual relief to poor applicants ... not to exceed Five Shillings to any one individual within a month.' [PHC Regulations, 1835, no. 22.] This last sum could be increased to a guinea with the agreement of the President. [Ibid. no. 13.] A similar situation prevailed in Exeter, though there the warden could give only ten shillings, or with the consent of the Honorary Officers, twenty shillings, in a year. [EHC Regulations, 1833, no. 23.]
For how many itinerant poor did the Congregations of the South-West cater? The first time a survey of Anglo-Jewish charitable endeavour was taken was in 1841, [Report at the Jewish Board of Deputies, London, 1841.] at a time when very few Jews lived in Cornwall, the Exeter Congregation was much diminished in members and vitality, and only in Plymouth did a Jewish community still function properly. According to the Board of Deputies' survey in 1841, the Plymouth Congregation supported four resident widows, and relieved one hundred and twenty casual or itinerant poor. Even here it is not possible to break down the figure further between the casual poor who were resident in the town and the itinerant. For 1883, there is a record of the exact number of itinerant poor and also their principal place of stay beforehand. In that year, the Plymouth Congregation's Treasurer paid out £18. 5s. to 73 peripatetic poor, an average of five shillings each, with a maximum of twenty four shillings and a minimum of two shillings to any one person. Although the amount was large for the comparatively small Congregation it pales into insignificance when compared to the amounts distributed by the much larger Congregations. In Liverpool, for example, in the twelve months after April 1868, just over £300 was spent for food, cash payments and assistance in emigration. [Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 91.] The importance of the small provincial Congregations was to act as a staging post enabling poor peripatetic Jews to reach their final destination.
The poor came from a wide variety of towns, mostly from the west side of England, Bristol, Cardiff, Dublin, Exeter, Liverpool, London, Portsmouth, Southampton, and Teignmouth. Whilst from overseas Jews came from Berlin, Jerusalem, Philadelphia and North Africa. [PHC A/c. 1883, p. 107.]
Although entitled as rate payers to claim parochial relief, [Jews in Exeter were paying poor rate from 1752. a Mrs Sarah Abrahams paying ~1<171]d. weekly, and Mr Ezekiel 2d. from 1756 (Exeter Corporation Poor Rate Book, 1752-1756, pp. 1, 125. See also supra, p. 50.] Jewish communities rarely allowed their poor to do so. The Board of Deputies' report in 1841 referred to above, covers eight communities who looked after some 50 resident poor and 2,000 casual poor. [Quoted in Rumney, Anglo-Jewish Development.] Of the 50 resident poor, only one, in Plymouth, received parochial relief. The Portsmouth Congregation, a very similar one to Plymouth's in size and tradition, would not allow its poor to apply for parochial relief. The general feeling was that it was not fair to impose on a society which had given refuge and haven, to do so might lead to a backlash of public feeling, preventing the free ingress of future immigrants. [In 1705, 50 Lutheran refugees from Catholic persecution came from the Palatinate to England where they received one shilling a day from the Queen. Their welcome was followed four years later by a further 10,000 Palatines, who were lodged in tents on Blackheath, but their arrival led to much opposition (Gray, English Philanthropy, p. 155).] There was also another factor, Jews could not easily live within the workhouse as they could not eat there without infringing the dietary laws, though even this problem could be surmounted, as at Liverpool Jews got parochial relief without entering the workhouse. The Plymouth Congregation had several decades earlier, in 1816, considered the advisability of allowing a poor Jew to stay in the workhouse and decided that though in certain circumstances one could, nonetheless a meeting of the vestry had to be called to discuss the case. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 127.]
The impulse to give charity found expression in the South-West Congregations not only in payments to Congregational funds which were then disbursed as charity but also in the formation of societies whose primary or secondary function was to complement the Congregations' charitable disbursements. In forming these organizations the Jews of Devon and Cornwall generally emulated the patterns of similar English societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The eighteenth century in England, particularly in the early part, was a period of association. People became aware of the advantages of associations which could match larger social needs than the individual philanthropist could meet. [Gray, English Philanthropy, pp. 79-81.] The end of that century saw the growth of Friendly Societies, the first of which, the Sunbury Friendly Society, was founded in 1773. This had 48 members at foundation, which later increased to 60. A monthly payment of 1/3d. gave a benefit of seven shillings a week in sickness or £7 on death. [Ibid. p. 244.]
The first known Jewish friendly society in the South-West was the Hebrah Kaddishah Meshivat Nefesh [þ . For a society of similar name founded in London in 1779, see L. Wolf, The Meshebat Nephesh (1897). This, the oldest Ashkenasi charity in England, was founded to alleviate distress following food riots (Jewish Year Book, 1902, p. 94).] and it was inaugurated in Plymouth on Monday, 12 October 1795, the enrolment of members being completed the following week. [Meshivat Nefesh A/c. p. 1.] There were 37 foundation members of whom 13 left at the end of the first year, the number of members dropped to 18 in 1799 and then gradually rose to a peak of 44 in 1811, rapidly falling away once again to 9 in 1819, and fluctuating thereafter between 9 and 13 until 1830, when the records of the society ceased. [Ibid. passim.] The fees to the Meshivat Nefesh were more than double those payable to the Friendly Society at Sunbury. There was an initial entrance fee of 2/6d. plus 1/-d. for a rule book, [Ibid. p. 34. This rule book does not appear to have survived.] an annual entrance fee of 2/6d and two shillings was payable each Jewish calendar month. [Ibid. for years 1799, 1802, 1805, 1807, 1810. There are about twelve and a half Jewish months to the solar year.] The society's income fluctuated from year to year according to the size of membership. It started at £60 in 1796, dropped to £28 in 1798, and then slowly climbed back to the £60 level at which it remained for the next ten years. Peak membership and income was in 1810 and 1811, when some 40 members paid in over £90 each year. [Ibid. passim.]
The prime purpose of the Plymouth Meshivat Nefesh Society seems to have been to provide 'benefits' to its members. [The London Meshivat Nephesh allocated its funds entirely to the poor.] They balloted for some eight or ten prizes of thirty shillings each, though fifteen shilling consolation prizes were also available after 1800, and occasionally even five shilling prizes as well. [Meshivat Nefesh A/c. passim.] It is clear that to some extent at least the society was a lottery rather than a Friendly Society in the accepted sense of the term. In fact, a closer modern analogy would be 'a football pool syndicate', because appreciable sums from the Society's assets were invested in National Lotteries. In 1800, for example, £3. 9s. was spent on three-sixteenths of a lottery ticket, and in 1804, two-sixteenths of a ticket were bought. [Meshivat Nefesh A/c. passim.] Additionally, a ticket in the 'Shakespeare' lottery was purchased for £3. 3. 6d. in 1800 and 1804. [Ibid. p. 33.]
Another substantial purpose of the society was to give members and their guests a gourmand dinner on the Sunday of Hanukah each year. In 1800, 17 members and 19 guests consumed 3 geese, 2 turkeys, 38 1/2 lbs of veal, 4 tongues and 5 bottles of gin, together with the usual accompaniments. [Ibid. p. 127. The Liverpool Congregation established a Jewish Philanthropic Society in 1811. It, too, had a dinner in December, 'equivalent to a grand Christmas party', to which non-Jewish civil dignitaries were invited (Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 50).]
Yet another function of the Society, arising out of the zeal of the members to complement the Congregation's charitable endeavour, was to distribute the interest on the Society's investments to a few Jewish poor. £2. 13s. was paid out 'to several poor persons as settled by the committee' in 1806, and to five poor women and a man in 1808. [Ibid. pp. 59, 67.] The amount given to the poor increased as the Society's investments grew. In 1811, £5. 6s. was paid out to the poor and £2 was allocated for the relief of Jewish poor in Jerusalem. [Ibid. p. 80.] These charitable disbursements rose to a maximum of £10. 11s. in 1815, and then sharply declined the following year to £2. 18s. which was shared among eight people, and then ceased altogether. [Ibid. pp. 95, 99.] Possibly the Society, or a similar one in Exeter, provided death benefits enabling the family to pay for a funeral and an income during the seven days of mourning when the breadwinner is forbidden to go to work. An account of the effects of Simon Levy, silversmith of Woolcombe near Newton Abbott who died in 1802, showed that they were worth £35, an amount of £11 for funeral expences was noted as 'being money received from a club for that purpose'. [Devon Record Office, Moger, Testamentary Causes, Series II, pp. 2124, 2127.]
Just as the Friendly Societies were at double risk, the poor got tired of contributing and the rich of managing, [Gray, English Philanthropy, p. 243.] so too were the societies, including the Meshivat Nefesh of Plymouth and its successors which will be described shortly, of the Congregations in the South-West. There was a comparatively limited number of those able to organize and even fewer prepared to do so, and for these latter there was ample opportunity and need to occupy all their spare time arranging the affairs of the Congregation. The account book of the Plymouth Meshivat Nefesh Society ends with the year 1830, no other books of the society or references to it have been noted after that date, and so it is likely that it quietly petered out about that year.
There was in Plymouth another Jewish society which apparently fulfilled more closely than the Meshivat Nefesh the function of a Friendly Society. It was the Jewish Brotherly Society, founded in 1823, [JC, 2 January 1852.] and disbanded about 1860. [It probably merged into the United Jewish Hand-in-Hand Benevolent Society, Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport, founded 1861 (see infra. p. 287).] This society was apparently originally recruited from the ranks of Plymouth's poorer Jews, as Charles Marks one of the late Presidents of the Society in a most moving speech very properly alluded to some who had been members and because fortune had prospered them in business had thought it becoming to leave a Society which deserved to be supported. [JC, 2 January 1852.]
Once again, the annual dinner was an important part of the activities of this society. The Jewish Chronicle carried a report that 30 members had dined on Christmas Day, 1851, which was the 28th anniversary of the society. [Ibid. They were not celebrating Christmas, but using the opportunity of a public holiday to meet together.] Toasts were proposed to the British Government 'under which we so peaceably live', The Chief Rabbi, Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore, and the Reader and second Reader of the Congregation &emdash; Reverends Stadthagen and Woolf. It was considered that the affairs of this society were in decline, there being only some 30 diners in 1851 and again in 1852, due in part to many being absent from the town and 'several having left to go to foreign parts'. [JC, 17 December 1852.]
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the Anglo-Jewish community felt it was time to put its charitable house in order. [Cf. supra, p. 280, n. 8.] There was much duplication of effort, whilst important social work, particularly the education of poor children, was neglected. 'It is desirable', wrote Henry Faudel in 1844, 'to resort to a plan of centralization ...'. [Suggestions to the Jews for Improvement in Reference to their Charities, Education and General Improvement, By a Jew (1844), p. 32.] Furthermore, the community, largely British born and anglicized, was becoming sensitive to the sight of itinerant Jewish poor knocking at the door for aid. In 1845, for example, the Jews of Liverpool founded the 'Liverpool Society for the Suppression of Mendicancy and the More Effectual Relief of the Deserving Poor' in order to discourage itinerant mendicants. [Rumney, 'Social Development'; Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 87.] Four years earlier, in 1841, a Jewish 'Society for helping itinerant poor' had been founded in Plymouth. A relic of this society, and apparently the sole surviving trace, is a book still in the possession of the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation. The following is a translation of the title page:
Indication Book of the Society for Helping Poor Strangers which was established here, the holy congregation of Plymouth, Sunday, 9 Shevat in the year: 'He that is gracious unto the poor lendeth unto the Lord, And his deed will He repay unto him.' [Proverbs, xix, 17. The date is derived from this chronogram.]
The book consists of a number of thickened pages which have been perforated with holes. Horizontally opposite the lines of holes are inscribed in alphabetic order the Hebrew and, later, the English names of regular worshippers in the synagogue. The holes form six vertical columns and above these is written, in Hebrew, 3d., 6d., 1s., 18d., 2s., half-crown. The purpose of these holes was to act as an aide memoire to the Society's Treasurer of the monies offered to the Society during the Reading of the Law on Sabbaths and Festivals. On these days an observant Jew may not write, and to ensure that no offerings were forgotten the Treasurer tied a piece of string, coloured according to the day on which the offering was made, in the appropriate hole. The book was made by Samuel Cohen, as may be seen from his modest signature at the foot of the title page. [He signed, 'The small one Samuel ben Menahem Men[del] KZ'. He came from Cheltenham and settled in Plymouth in the early 1820's (¬ G, 1820, p. 98). He died 27 April 1860, and the translation of the inscription on his tombstone reads: An honourable and faithful man ... working loving kindness with the poor and hastening to prayer, evening, morning and noon' (Ply. Tomb. B71).]
The Society appears to have disbanded by 1854, for in that year Samuel Cohen gave the book to the Congregation so that it could be used to record offerings to the new Cemetery Fund. This is evident from the inscription on the title page which reads in translation:
I made it, as supra, and now I give it to the said holy congregation for the service of the cemetery Improvement Charity in the year: 'May our name be inscribed for life in Thy book'. [After Job, xix, 23.]
It may be mentioned that the Jewish community in Exeter also had a Society for Charity to the Poor about 1830, but apart from a brief entry in an account book there is no information about its functions other than its name. [EHC A/c. 1827-1830, p. 82.]
Soon after the Plymouth Society for Helping the Itinerant Poor had disbanded, another took its place. It went by the grandiose title of the 'United Jewish Hand-in-Hand Benevolent Society, Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport' and it was founded in 1861. [The Society's 1865 balance sheet (in the author's collection) was its fourth.] Once again, the main purpose of the Society as set out in its revised rules of 1876 was to obviate the necessity of resorting to private collection, by relieving from the Funds of the Society urgent cases of distress, itinerant or otherwise. [Hand-in-Hand Min. Bk. p. 26.] These last two words 'or otherwise', refer to a change of policy decided upon in 1873, for until that year only itinerant poor were helped, but in 1873 the society had surplus funds and these were utilized for the benefit of the resident poor as well. [Ibid. p. 2.]
The Hand-in-Hand's income was derived from an annual subscription of 12s. per member, donations, particularly those made in the synagogue on Sabbaths and Festivals, and bank interest on its deposit account. The income rose gradually from £12. 2. 11d. in 1865, to its maximum in 1879 of £19. 4. 6d. and then fell away to £8. 7. 6d. by 1888. [Ibid. passim.] Apparently, there was a general appreciation by the Jews in Plymouth of the work of the society, as in many years the non members' donations amounted to one-third of the total income. [Ibid. accounts for years 1875-1877, for example.]
Over the period for which accounts are extant, 1865-1888, some seventy per cent of the society's income was expended on charity disbursements, ten per cent on administrative expenses (a commission was paid to the collector of the membership dues), and twenty per cent on refreshments for the members. [Out of the monthly payment of 1/3d. to the Sunbury Friendly Society in 1773, 3d. had to be spent on beer (Gray, English Philanthropy, p. 244). Many Friendly Societies were attached to public houses, which naturally encouraged them.]
Usually, a half-crown or five shillings was given to the itinerant poor, though larger sums are also recorded in the society's minute book. In 1874, for example, a Mrs Lipshitz was given 15s., '5s. now, 5s. at her confinement, 5s. the week after', [Hand-in-Hand Min. Bk. p. 8.] £1 was given to 'a poor woman and child just arrived in town', [Ibid.] and in 1875 a visiting magid (itinerant preacher) and cantor were given 15s. each. [Hand-in-Hand Min. Bk. p. 43.]
Another characteristic typical of charitable endeavour in both Gentile and Jewish society in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to remove the poor to another parish, so that somebody else would have the responsibility of looking after them. [See Webb, Poor Law, pp. 376-395. About 1821, there were at least 60,000 poor in England continually circulating up and down the country at the public expense.] The Exeter Congregation, though hard pressed financially in 1844, found it expedient to give £3 to Miss Catherine Ezekiel 'to enable her to go to friends in Cincinnati'. [EHC Min. Bk. I, p. 116.] The Hand-in-Hand Society in Plymouth gave ten shillings to a Judah Levy to get him to London in 1875, and one pound to a Mrs. Scheertal to help her return to Germany in 1886. [Hand-in-Hand Min. Bk. pp. 16, 68.] To a large extent it would probably not be wrong to regard all payments to the itinerant poor as subsidies to help them on their way to another place where others would have the responsibility of them.
In England it was 'Elizabethan charity that made the pregnant discovery that if poverty is to be relieved provision must be made not only for those unable or unwilling to work but also for many who are willing to work, but unable to find employment'. [Gray, English Philanthropy, p. 34.] European Jews were unfortunately only too familiar with poverty which came through no fault of the poor. The Chmielnicki massacres, expulsion from Prague, the Pale of Settlement or discriminatory legislation were any of them more than sufficient to reduce the wealthiest Jew to a pauper on the mere flourish of a signature. Accordingly, Jews were more disposed to give a coreligionist the capital or means to set him up again, and the poor Jew felt little or no shame in asking his fellow Jew for help. To ask a Gentile for help, however, was a very different matter, as Shemoel Hirsch in the early nineteenth century recalls asking a Quaker for charity:
When I came to the door I could scarce enter for shame, as it was a different mode of begging from that practised by the Jews. To them I need no ceremony but plainly and plumply go in and say, 'I am a poor Jew', and they understood what was wanted. [Clegg, Shemoel Hirsch, p. 32.]
Indeed, Shemoel whilst still a young lad of 14 had been set up as a pedlar with stock and tray by the Jews of the Great Synagogue, London. [Ibid. p. 24.] When illness left him penniless, the Jews of Exeter set him up again. [Ibid. p. 35.] When he was robbed in Newcastle so that 'in the twinkling of an eye I was reduced from a gentleman to a beggar' [Ibid. p. 38.] a Newcastle Jew gave him the money to get to Manchester, and there the Jews made a collection for him to set him up once again. [Ibid. p. 40.]
Within a few months he had £25 worth of stock and some pounds in ready cash in his pocket again. In other words he was set up four times within a couple of years by various Jewish communities, who would no doubt have continued to do so, had not his spirit been broken by his ups and downs. In different circumstances but similarly motivated, the Plymouth Hand-in-Hand Society, in line with the Chinese proverb, 'He who gives his neighbour a fish feeds him for the day, but he who gives him a fishing rod feeds him for life', in 1879 made a grant of fifteen shillings to one Leon Isaacs to enable him to buy a sewing machine. [Hand-in-Hand Min. Bk. p. 46.]
When the United Jewish Hand-in-Hand Benevolent Society of Plymouth, Stonehouse, and Devonport died away yet another organization came into existence, this time called the Plymouth Hebrew Board of Guardians. It was founded in 1909, and once again it helped the Plymouth Congregation to supplement its charitable aid to resident and casual poor. Changed circumstances gave it two new purposes, to help obtain licences for pedlars and to speed emigrants in transit on their way to America. [Cf. Plymouth Hebrew Board of Guardians, 1st Annual Report (Plymouth, 1909). p. 5 (in the author's collection).]
To complete the picture of Jewish charitable societies in operation in Plymouth, three ladies' societies may be mentioned. One was the Jewish Female Amicable Society of Plymouth. All that is known of this society is that it existed, and in 1843 gave to its Honorary Secretary &emdash; a man, Mr Reuben Abrams &emdash; a silver snuff box in appreciation of his services to them. [Letter to the author from the Curator, Jewish Museum, London, 12 May 1964.] Then there was the Ladies' Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1830, [Jew. Year Book (1935), p. 244.] and still active in 1868, when Jacob Nathan left a bequest of £100 to it. [Transactions of Plymouth Institute, VI, p. 82.] There are no extant records of its work, and it merged with the Plymouth (Jewish) Ladies Benevolent Society early in the 1930's. [Jew. Year Book (1935), p. 244.] This latter society had been founded by Mrs. Asher Levy [Her husband had been Treasurer of the United Jewish Hand-in-Hand Society.] on 20 July 1890, when she convened a meeting to re-form an old Ladies' Philanthropic Society which had lapsed. [JC, 15 August 1890.] The particular purpose of the Ladies' Benevolent Aid Society was to give a small dowry to any poor Jewish bride. [Ibid. The Ladies Benevolent, as it is known in the in the Plymouth Congregation, still functions.]
There is no evidence of disbursements by the Plymouth Jewish charitable societies to any non-Jews, and it is unlikely that there were any. On the other hand, Jews as individuals in the South-West would have made their normal contribution as citizens to the Poor Rate, [Exeter Corporation Poor Rate Book, 1752-56, pp. 1, 125.] as well as responding to requests for help from time to time. The author, when Rabbi of Plymouth, followed in his predecessors' footsteps and disbursed financial help on behalf of the Congregation to Gentiles as well as Jews who came to ask for it. [It is a mitzvah to do so (Tur, Yoreh Deah, 251, 1).] Then, too, there were particular cases when the Jewish community made special efforts for local charities. There was, for example, a 'benefit concert' type of service in the Exeter Synagogue on behalf of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in 1815. [Trewman's Flying Post, 22 June 1815.] The connection between the Exeter Congregation and the Hospital goes back at least to 1797, and probably earlier, when the 'Warden of the Jews' was granted two votes, one in his private and one in his representative capacity, in the election of a new surgeon. [J. Harris, The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (1922), p. 72.] In Plymouth, William Woolf was elected Warden of the Poor in 1855 and continued to serve for the next decade, becoming vice-Governor of the Poor Law Guardians in 1864. Nor was he the only Jew among the town's Guardians, he had Josiah Solomons and Joseph Solomons for company during most of the time of his service, [JC, 20 May 1864.] and they were followed by Israel Roseman in Stonehouse in the 1870's. [Information from his family.] They must assuredly have had some reputation for charitable work in the town to have been elected in the first place. In Exeter, Alexander Alexander was elected a Guardian of the Exeter Poor Corporation from 1877 until his death in 1887, serving as President for one year in 1882. [Trewman's Flying Post, 23 February 1887.] Then there were the wide ranging bequests of £1,800 to 21 Plymouth and Exeter charitable or social institutions in the will of Jacob Nathan who was described as 'one of the most liberal benefactors of modern Plymouth'. [Transactions Plymouth Institute, VI, p. 82.] No doubt the epithet was earned by benefactions during his life time as well as those which were post mortem. Harry Bischofswerder, proprietor of the Wheal Helena Mine, [An alternative name for Tregurtha Downs Mine near Marazion. It was the last survivor of a brief upsurge of interest in mining in 1881, and was closed in 1895.] built a hall in 1887 for the use of the Penzance public, the Jubilee Hall. In it, he and his wife annually entertained to New Year's dinner 350 of the poor of Penzance for some years just before the turn of the century. 'All who served were afterwards the guests of these kind and hospitable people'. [Royal Cornwall Gazette, 21 January 1892.]
One special category of poor person has always had a special niche in the charitable affections of diaspora Jewry &emdash; the Jewish poor of the Holy Land. The Penzance Congregation operated a Jerusalem Fund in 1830, which remitted a few pounds a year until 1865, when the Congregation was virtually defunct. [Roth, MSS 271, Roth, MSS 273.] The first bequest in the will of an 1832 Plymouth cholera victim, Meyer Jacob Cohen, whose estate was under £100, was one guinea to be sent to the poor of Jerusalem.[Devon Record Office, Wills C794.] An 1854 appeal on behalf of the Famishing Jews of the Holy Land, organized by Chief Rabbi Adler, elicited a substantial response of £51. 7s. from the Jews of the South-West. [JC, 16 June 1854.] Besides this special appeal, both the Plymouth Congregation and Leon Solomon in Dawlish made regular remittances to Adler, which he transferred to Palestine. [Chief Rabbinate Archives, 9, letters nos. 749, 1206.] At least one emissary, a Rabbi Nissim from Jerusalem found himself stranded without the means to get back. Rabbi Adler gave him a letter of recommendation to Leon Solomon who presumably made it worthwhile for Nissim to travel from London to Dawlish to get help. [Ibid. letter no. 1205.] In 1875, the Plymouth Congregation must have written to Adler complaining it had not received a proper receipt for £14. 18. 9d. it had sent to the poor scholars of Jerusalem. Adler in turn wrote to the Rabbis administering the Fund and they wrote back [Letter in the author's collection.] on Friday, 7 Heshvan 5635 (= 5 November 1875) [The Jewish year is given as 5635 but this was probably an error for 5636.] explaining that all such moneys were divided between the four holy cities (Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, Tiberias) and that a receipt signed on behalf of any one of the cities was good for them all.
During the eighteenth, and to a greater degree the nineteenth, centuries the needs of groups with special disabilities were recognized to an increasing extent. [Gray, English Philanthropy, pp. 261-62.] Gray, for example, considered that the London Jewish Hospital for lying-in-women was 'the first model of one special form of hospital which was to play a considerable part in the social economy of the poor'. [Ibid. p. 57, n. 3.] There was never a sufficient number of Jews in the South-West with special disabilities to make the foundation of hospitals or asylums for them a matter of necessity, but local Jews played their part in the financial support of such institutions when they were founded in London. [Cf. Jacob Nathan's 'strong opposition on religious principles' to a Jewish child being admitted to the non-Jewish Deaf and Dumb Asylum, Kent Road, London (JC, 6 January 1865, letter of L. Hyman).] In 1860, for example, 40 Jews in Plymouth and their friends collected nearly £24 in response to an appeal for the Jews' Hospital, London. [JC, 14 September 1860.] Similarly, after World War II, the Plymouth Congregation supported the South Wales Jewish Home for the Aged in Cardiff. Elderly Jews from Plymouth in need of care were given preferential entry because of the special relationship.
Plymouth's proximity to the Dartmoor prison at Princeton provided the members of the Congregation with further opportunities to practise lovingkindness. At the end of 1814 there were at Dartmoor 2,340 American prisoners of war. [Francis Abel, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815 (1914), p. 257.] Among these were a number of Jewish soldiers and sailors. The most famous of them was Commodore Uriah P. Levy, [P.R.O. Adm. 103/268, no. 1859.] who fathered the law abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy. Another Jewish sailor was one Captain Levi Charles Harby. Whilst this man was a prisoner, a Jewish baker came up daily from Plymouth to sell bread. One day a loaf was offered to Capt. Harby which he refused; the baker, however, insisted. Inside the loaf was a newspaper telling of the battle of New Orleans. This apparently encouraged Harby to escape (?with the help of the baker). He got back to his own navy and served with signal success. [Henry Cohen, Settlement of the Jews in Texas (American Jewish Historical Society Publication, no. 2, 1894), p. 8.]
According to Dr Alexander Carlebach of Jerusalem, his great-great-great uncle, David Joel, settled in Exeter about 1825 and was a visitor of prisons <197]
He once helped a Polish Jew to escape from prison by changing clothes with him, and the next morning the warders found him in the cell in the place of the prisoner. [Letter to the author, dated 16 February 1965.]
Many Jewish traders operated at the prison, [Francis Abel, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815 (1914), p. 257; Basil Thomson, The Story of Dartmoor Prison (1907), pp. 66, 69, 146.] and it is reasonable to suppose that they helped their coreligionists in one way or another.
The next Jewish prisoners of war to occupy Dartmoor prison, of whom anything is known, were those brought back from the Crimean War. They were Polish Jews and many were accompanied by wives and children. Revd Stadthagen regularly visited them, and provided spiritual and material comforts for them. In January 1855, Chief Rabbi Adler wrote to the Superintendent at Dartmoor Prison, probably prompted to do so by the Plymouth Congregation, regretting that the Jewish prisoners had to work on their Sabbath. [Chief Rabbinate Archives, 3, letter no. 9008.] Abraham Joseph, a Plymothian who had moved to London, collected £11 in 1855 from the Jews of London and sent if off to Stadthagen, together with a donation of £6 from Sir Moses Montefiore. This sum enabled 'those captives in a strange land' to celebrate Passover. [JC, 20 April 1855.] The amount collected for one week's food points to a group of 30 or 40 Jews. Dr Adler sent further sums to Stadthagen for the benefit of the prisoners in 1855 and 1856. [Chief Rabbinate Archives, 4, letters nos. 147, 203.]
The Jewish connection with the Prison was maintained when it was used to incarcerate civilian prisoners. Chief Rabbi Adler wrote to various convicts in 1861 to help them with their private problems, [Ibid. 7, 3 September 1861.] as well as to the wardens of the Plymouth Congregation urging them to arrange for religious comforts to be made available to Jewish prisoners. [Ibid. 7, 11 March 1861.] At about the same time he wrote to the Governor of the Prison intimating that matzot for Jewish prisoners would be sent from the Great Synagogue, London, and that the Plymouth Congregation's Reader should be permitted to visit the Jewish convicts regularly. [Ibid. 7, letter no. 6846. Matzot and food for Passover are still sent to the prison by the Visitation Committee, United Synagogue, London, and for many years the members of the Plymouth Congregation donated money to supplement the prisoners' rations at Passover and the High Holydays.] Apparently, though, it was not the Governor who made difficulties for Revd Stadthagen to visit the Prison but the Plymouth Congregation. [Chief Rabbinate Archives, 11, 7 August 1868.] So that when there was only one prisoner, Adler asked the Governor to transfer him to Portsmouth 'where it will be easier to attend to the convict's spiritual needs'. [Ibid.] Successive ministers of the Plymouth Congregation continued to visit Dartmoor prison, as well as the Exeter and Channings Wood prisons, with the co-operation of the Visitation Committee of the United Synagogue, London, until the 1980's.
To sum up, it appears that itinerant poor Jews were helped on their way by the Congregations of the South-West, whilst the local indigent and distressed were looked after either by the Congregations or their allied societies.
<$FKokosalakis, <I]Ethnic Identity<D], p. 86, comes to the same conclusion.] 
Although the amount was large for the comparatively small Congregation it pales into insignificance when compared to the amounts distributed by the much larger Congregations. In Liverpool, for example, in the twelve months after April 1868, just over £300 was spent for food, cash payments and assistance in emigration. [Kokosalakis, <I]Ethnic Identity<D], p. 91.] The importance of the small provincial Congregations was to act as a staging post enabling poor peripatetic Jews to reach their final destination. 
The impulse to give charity found expression in the South-West [199a]
<$F<F21P09I]Ibid<D]. p. 127. The Liverpool Congregation established a Jewish Philanthropic Society in 1811. It, too, had a dinner in December, 'equivalent to a grand Christmas party', to which non-Jewish civil dignitaries were invited (Kokosalakis, <I]Ethnic Identity<D], p. 50).] 
<$F~See illustration.] [202n]
Illustration 33: The tombstone of Jacob Nathan [206 opp]
This website is
owned by JewishGen and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. All
material found herein is owned by or licensed to us. You may view, download, and
print material from this site only for your own personal use. You may not post
material from this site on another website without our consent. You may not
transmit or distribute material from this website to others. You may not use
this website or information found at this site for any commercial purpose.
Copyright © 2002 - 2014 JCR-UK. All Rights Reserved