Philanthropy Among the Landsmanshaftn

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by Sarah Ponichtera, Processing Archivist, Center for Jewish History

The landsmanshaftn collections of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research here at the Center illuminate the complex role of philanthropy in immigrant Jewish culture. Although the majority of the records concern apparently mundane affairs of collecting dues and reserving graves, buying Israel bonds and making dinner reservations for meetings, their constitutions reveal a wide array of activities in the lives of their members. 

The most important fact about the landsmanshaftn is perhaps the most obvious: their identity derives from the fact that their members were born in the same town in Europe, and arrived in the same town in America. The activities of the landsmanshaftn can be understood as reconstituting a lost sense of community.  Part of that naturally revolved around philanthropy.

Landsmanshaftn provided free loans to members in financial need, provided financial benefits when a person was too sick to work in an era before the current social safety net was put in place, and helped the family get back on its feet after a death, both defraying the cost of the burial and providing a lump sum payment. They also gave to many Jewish causes. 

However, they helped members to celebrate as much as they did to grieve. They organized delegations to attend members’ weddings and brises, gave presents on these happy occasions, and sent cards if the members had moved away. They met regularly at restaurants, often the same one, month after month, creating a communal ritual. Occasionally they would hold a meeting at a resort, voting on communal issues while relaxing in a beautiful natural setting. Philanthropy among the landsmanshaftn was not only for troubled times; it was part of a communal life that shared both the ups and the downs of life together. 

In the past year, archivists at the Center for Jewish History have processed and created finding aids for over sixty landsmanshaft collections on a Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives Grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. These, in addition to the Guide to YIVO’s Landsmanshaftn Archive, published in 1986, make the records of the landsmanshaftn more accessible than ever before.

The Center is currently developing an exhibit on the history of Jewish philanthropy in the United States. To learn more, click here.

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