What Jewish Women Are Doing For The Jews At Ellis Island
At Ellis Island: The Ellis, Island representative of the Department of Immigrant Aid, of the Council of Jewish Women, is bidding farewell to immigrants who have just been admitted and are about to depart for some destination in the United States. © 1921 The Jewish Woman
Sunsets and ships will speak romance to all of us down to the end of time. No matter how confirmed our worldliness may be, there is always in the clouds and the glow something of memories and dreams, something that carries us backward to the yesterdays of our own life, or onward through a world's tomorrows.
The romance of the ship is that of life's realities, the meeting and the parting of the ways, love, grief, or bold adventure. And all of this it is to all of us, whether the vessel be out on perilous seas or coming safely back to port.
Even at Ellis Island, the great boats have not lost their power to enthrall; and as they unload their freight of alien men, who conic with all their strength and strangeness to join the army of grim toilers in this broad land, we read in their tense eagerness the whole glad story of American freedom as it seems to the oppressed beyond the seas. But with the women, somehow, it is different, and even the romance of toil has gone.
As they stand there before us waiting to land, their heads bent under the burdens they carry, it seems hardly the material weight which bears them down, but the burden of life's handicaps. Hopefulness is seldom in their eyes. but only a great fear, driving them on to unknown ills by the power of a greater fear of being driven back to those they fled.
For them there is nothing ahead but "The weariness, the fever. and the fret Here. where men sit and hear each other groan; Where youth grows pale. and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow, And leaden-eyed despairs."
Those who are only poor and alien are the fortunate among them, those whose worst fears pass with the coming of the husband or the friend who is to serve them as a shield. But for the sick, the friendless, or deserted, many of them the merest girls, whose ignorance of law or language seems impossible of penetration by anything but an instinctive dread, the woman's woe is doubled.
For the Jewesses, coming from the many lands where they have been victims of persecution and inhumanity, the hopelessness is still more deepened by the torments of memory. For them the sum of possible human misery seems, indeed, complete. But only seems, for romance is still alive in the world; and there are those who, loving the sunsets, love too the idealism of yesterdays long gone, and who remember the words spoken from Mount Sinai :
"Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger. seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
To each of these unhappy sisters, who stand groping in spiritual darkness at the gateway of a new world, a hand is stretched out and a word of welcome spoken by a voice that she knows as the voice of a woman of her people.
It is done (not only at Ellis Island, but at all the important port cities) in the name of the Council of Jewish Women, and is one of the ways in which 15.000 American women of Jewish faith are trying to prove that they are good Jews and loyal Americans, and that they consider it at once a responsibility and a proud privilege to share with the men of the nation the work of converting the unhappy alien into a useful and a happy citizen.
The Immigrant Aid work, of which the friendly social service given at the ports of entry represents only the verbal beginning, has clone a great deal to make the name of the Council of Jewish Women familiar; and yet it is one of the most recent of their philanthropies.
The society has been in existence for seventeen years and is the outgrowth of a delegation, which, under the able leadership of Mrs. Hannah G. Solomon, represented the Jewish women at the Parliament of Religions held at t h e World's Fair in Chicago, in 1893. The preamble of their constitution reads :
"We, Jewish women. sincerely believing that a closer fellowship, a greater unity of thought and purpose, and a nobler accomplishment will result from a widespread organization, do, therefore, bind ourselves together in a union of workers to further the best and highest interests of humanity in fields Religious, Philanthropic and Educational."
The Council is, therefore, primarily a religious organization, and the work among the poor, the sick, the blind. the alien, the unfortunate of all kinds, is undertaken by its members as a practical expression of the religion which teaches that. "Whoso oppressed' the poor reproaches his Maker; but he that bath mercy on the needy honored' him."
But because the Mosaic law, upon which the faith is built, is made up as much of commands for the conduct of life as for the forms and ceremonials of worship, it is hard to distinguish where religion ends and philanthropy begins. Or, to put it in another way, the Jewish religion itself is one not only of faith but of works.
There is, besides, a close historical relationship between the religious and philanthropic duties of the American Jew, for it is an oft-quoted fact that the
little band of Jews who landed in America in 1655 were permitted to do so only "provided that the poor among them shall not become a burden to the country or the community, but be supported by their own nation."
For more than two centuries, this was not a desperate task in spite of its difficulties. The Jews who came were sturdy pioneers, trying their material and spiritual fortunes, in the way of the other early American settlers in the land of promise. Most of them were poor and, like other poor folk, were ready to share their little with the neighbor or the brother who had nothing.
The forms of their religion, their strict dietary laws, and their own gregariousness kept them away from many worldly dangers. They were thrifty, law-abiding, sober. Parents, of course, died and left their orphan children to the care of the community; sickness imposed too heavy a tax upon many a family; often the injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" was obeyed more literally than the economics of the situation warranted.
But all of this created just enough demand for charity to develop an active spirit of brotherly love and responsibility among the richer men (who founded benevolent institutions with great zeal), and to justify the women in organizing hospital visiting committees and sewing societies where coffee and causerie might, not too wastefully, mingle with the cutting and the basting.
They were happy years for the Jews, those first centuries of American freedom, in spite of social and commercial barriers; and they filled the hearts of the people with true pharisaic complacency. It was often whispered proudly among them that, if some of the hotels were closed to the chosen people. so, too, were all the jails and the reformatories.
Although there were exceptions, this was quite generally true. Then came the years of terror in the East, when Russia and Romania raised their treacherous hands against the Jews, when tens of thousands of despairing men, women, and children rushed from streets that literally flowed with the blood of their murdered brothers, and fled, homeless and helpless, to our land, the hatred of tyrants in their hearts. Even then, American Jews believed that they were facing only the problem of relieving an enormous poverty.
They met the task bravely, the best of them; but every year and every fresh massacre added, and still adds, to the number of the bereft who hold out their hands for succor. And the bitterness of the affliction was not in the sinful persecution of a race, not in the poverty, not even in the tragedy stamped by the mourning in almost every family.
The bitterness lay in learning the lesson that, when Jews were deprived of all the rights that man holds dear, herded together like cattle in the filthy, sunless slums of the great port cities, a nation of students and farmers forced into the sweated trades and denied, by the conditions under which they lived, the safeguards of privacy and cleanliness and sanitation prescribed by a wise law-giver as a part of their religion, then they were subject to the same human weaknesses of disease and crime to which other people were, under like conditions.
Nobody who does not know how the heart of a Jew beats for all his people can understand the shudder that ran through the race when it was first declared that tuberculosis was rampant on the East side in New York, nor the sense of personal shame with which they faced the fact that the weakest of the people, some of the girls and boys who are the pride and treasure of the Jewish home, had fallen into sin.
On the other hand, nobody who does not know how hidebound is the conviction of the average worthy and conservative Jew that his race is innately immune from the dangers of vice and plague, can appreciate the struggle of the progressive philanthropists against such odds.
It is only a few years since it was almost impossible to raise the funds necessary to start a reform school for Jewish boys, because nobody would admit that Jewish boys were bad in the law-offending manner of other boys; and to this day the Council of Jewish Women is carrying on a brave but almost silent fight for the maintenance of the "Lakeview Home" for wayward girls and unmarried mothers.
It was not the sympathy of the people that was lacking, but experience to help them to understand; yet their tardiness in recognizing the facts, brought upon the Jews in many places, and deservedly, the accusation that theirs were the only children whom nobody protected *in the courts, and theirs the only youth to whom, when immured for infraction of the law, no religious teacher found his way. But the race has learned one of its saddest lessons and is zealously endeavoring to fulfil its added obligations.
The Council of Jewish Women shares the honor of being among the first to recognize the great need for social service; and the form of their organization has, in itself, aided them in carrying on their work. For they are not a federation of clubs, a union of independent bodies, joined for purposes of reciprocal helpfulness; they are a national organization with broad and definite aims, divided into fifty-five local sections in order to secure more complete and efficient service.
The Councils stand especially for work for girls and for women, following that with work for boys, and supplementing even this by taking up anything called for at a special time which no other society stands ready to perform. Just now, for instance, in the interest of the national crusade against the great white plague, they are making an investigation of the condition of tubercular patients two years after their discharge from sanatoriums.
It is this widespread interest which made it possible for the executive secretary, Miss Sadie American, to whose unusual constructive ability. energy, and initiative much of the. breadth of the work must be credited, to write in the last triennial record :
"I report one hundred and fifty-four different philanthropies, reaching 45,376 individuals, and a total expenditure of $138,695.07, all of which has been raised by the members. Seventy-five outside philanthropies, the majority of which were non-sectarian, were given $11,045. To the National Hospital for Consumptives of Denver, $2,037, to the San Francisco earthquake sufferers, $3,200, and for Russian relief, $3,265."
The institutions supported by the sections are of varied character. In Portland, Syracuse, Pittsburg, and Toledo they take the familiar form of the neighborhood house or social settlement and include all the numerous activities usually associated with our American development of that institution. Each of these homes, with its organized backing, is counted an important force for good in every civic undertaking.
In Syracuse, where the Council settlement was the first to be established, one of the judges said, "Through the work done in that home, juvenile delinquency among the children of the district has decreased seventy-five per cent." And in Pittsburg the Council neighborhood workers assisted in the famous Pittsburg Survey, and are doing yeoman's service for the Child Labor Association.
In Providence, which is the home of Mrs. Cesar Misch, the national president, the North End dispensary responds to the needs of the poorest Jewish section of the city, giving advice and treatment to five thousand patients annually. The work of the dispensary does not end in the building provided for its use; for, besides the physicians and the paid attendant maintained by the section, some member of the society is on hand daily to follow up the medical aid with any needed social service.
The Chicago section, which has had the benefit of the inspiring presence and untiring effort and enthusiasm of Mrs. Hannah Solomon, mentioned as one of the founders of the Council and for thirteen years its national president, has always been a leader in good works. Wherever there is a crusade for educational or social progress, the Chicago Jewish women will be found well abreast of their Christian sisters.
It is, therefore, not remarkable that the Chicago section found both time and money to spare from a multiplicity of worthy endeavors, to dedicate a vacation and convalescent home for the women and children of the congested districts. The home at 'Western Springs, Ill., has been developed according to the plans of Mr. Jens Jensen, the landscape architect; and the good food and clean lodging and the "bed all to themselves" are beautifully supplemented, in their gifts of health to weary mothers and happiness to pale-faced children, by groves of trees, fine shaded walks, a playground, dear pools for wading, and, over all, the sun.
In New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia the problems always consequent upon overcrowding, overworking, and underpaying have been so serious that the institutional work of the sections has been forced into channels of correction rather than of prevention.
And yet the "Brooklyn Council Home for Friendless Jewish Children," the "Philadelphia Industrial Home for Jewish Girls," and the "Lakeview Home" (maintained by the New York section), have done such remarkable work with the delinquents and unfortunates in their charge that they really deserve to be classed as preventive, by virtue of the greater ills they have avoided. rather than as correctional, because of the delinquency they punish.
The fine young poet was himself too weak for life, too sensitive to bear "our mortal slight of elemental claims," who wrote,
"These are the Failures. Clutched by Circumstances,
They were—say not too weak !—too ready prey,
Or else they nodded when their Master Chance
Wound his one signal, and went on his way."
That these are not failures, unless we of stronger hearts and clearer vision leave them where they fall, the results of the Council's work prove only too conclusively. It is rather we who are the failures if we leave our girls, weakened by their struggle for existence, a prey to our social and economic evils. It was in order to avoid these evils in the future, to abolish the necessity for cure by destroying the causes of disease, that the Immigrant Aid was added to the long list of Council activities.
At most of the important ports of entry, the Council stations an agent, whose first duty it is to take the name and address of every Jewish girl who lands, and to assist wherever possible in clearing away the difficulties and mistakes which add to the hardship of the landing, as well as those more serious ones which lead to detention and often to deportation.
Even the most trivial complication seems serious at such a time, and it is hard to estimate the value of a word of friendly interpretation, the finding of lost baggage, correction of addresses, or the sending of a telegram to distant relatives who may not have received the girl's last letter. Sometimes there is stupidity to counteract, or fear which wears the aspect of stupidity.
It is not unusual to find a girl giving an assumed name and priding herself upon her sagacity in duping the government agent, whom habit induces her to regard as a spy, sublimely unconscious that she is subjecting herself to the chance of deportation, because, if nobody is there to call for her under that name, she will not be allowed to land.
When guardians prove indifferent or husbands faithless, a graver duty is imposed. One has only to study the annals of the poor to know the true measure of human helpfulness and sacrifice; but one learns, too, that the hunger and failure and despair which chasten the strong make cowards of the weak.
It requires a jog of the memory, at times, to remember the glad faces of the many men who clasped hands with waiting women and went their way into the unrecorded history which is their happiness. And how the heart aches for the girls who are unwelcome and do not understand.
How ashamed one is of all the race of men when one sees a poor girl gradually losing her faith that "he will conic" and then her hope that "he may come." The work is well rewarded that makes him come, late or unwilling, to assume his rightful burden; and the woman who performs such work requires the shrewdness of a trained detective, the sympathy of a devoted friend, the tact of a social leader, and the patience of Job. And sometimes, added to all this. it is a sense of humor that saves the situation.
There was, for instance, the case of the little woman who waited patiently in Russia for the letter which should say that her husband's struggle with unsuccessfulness was over and that she and her three children might come to America. Instead of that, there came her the whispered word that he was planning to divorce her.
In hot haste she and her little family packed their few belongings and took the first steamer for this country, landing here without money, without friends, without even the husband's correct address. The agent of the Council found this unhappy family excluded for deportation.
It was easy to get the story from the despairing woman; but with nothing but the man's name in a big-city wilderness of names, a knowledge of the facts hardly relieved the situation of its difficulties. How the man was traced and found would make a chapter in itself; but still the work was only begun.
For he loved his wife and babies only less than he hated his mother-in-law, and refused to go to Ellis Island until he received a definite assurance that this traditional breaker-up of happy homes would never again come nearer to him than the Russian frontier. That condition complied with, he accepted the services of the agent as peacemaker; and husband and wife, so near the point of tragedy, were reunited and, let us hope, lived happily thereafter.
When the agent has completed the manifold services for those detained and has spoken the last word of cheer to those for whom there is no alternative but to go back to their own wretchedness, she starts out with a long list of those whom she regards as doubtful, follows them to the given address to be sure that they are in proper surroundings, secures employment for those who have no means of securing it themselves, or, if the address is in another city, communicates with the local section, securing its cooperation.
One of the most interesting facts which has developed through this work, one in which the Council feels great pride, as Jews, and sorrow, as citizens, is the high average standard of the girls when they arrive, physically and morally, compared with the standard in after years. The dangers are in the tenements and factories, the dance-halls and moving-picture shows of our big cities.
It is to guard against these dangers that every Jewish immigrant girl receives an invitation to apply to the personal service agent of the Council, during her "social evenings," for whatever friendly advice she desires. The invitation does not pass unheeded. Not only the immigrant girls, but those who have long passed the three years during which they are technically aliens. they and their relatives, all come to claim the benefits of this big-hearted friendship.
They come in search of work (which, has been secured for hundreds), of legal or medical aid, of little Social favors,. or sonic special aid for the insane, of assistance in managing a recalcitrant child who "refuses to be investigated," of advice in regard to learning a trade, or entering English or industrial classes or clubs of all kinds, of all the advice and all the aid which a friend with power can give-except alms.
They come, too, in .search of amusement and recreation, and it is the eager desire of all Council sections to provide properly for this important factor in a young girl's life. What they hope to do, by organized effort, in -encouraging model dance-halls and the better class Of low-priced 'theatres and concerts. will be better spoken of five Years from now; for the work is still voting.
It has not been possible to do more than mention the splendid record of the Committee on the Blind or the hospital service, with their common aim of bringing light and cheer, and, more especially, of enabling those who are handicapped by sickness or affliction to keep themselves and their families above the level of pauper-ization by increased industrial efficiency.
There are many things which have not even had their little word. And so it seems something of a paradox to say again that the ultimate object of this great society is not extensive, but intensive; not to relieve the ills attendant upon poverty, but to develop the understanding and to broaden the sympathies of its members, so that their conscious social and educational cooperation shall aid in lessening the injustice which is the cause of poverty.
It is with this Ultima Thule in mind that the Council leaders lay fundamental stress upon the things of least interest to outsiders, the lectures and study circles, the religious schools, the conferences and entertainments, even the purely social functions which make for solidarity and for a fuller understanding of the vital American principle that "in union there is strength."
Isaacs, Edith J. R., "What Jewish Women Are Doing For The Jews At Ellis Island," in Twentieth Century Magazine, Volume V, No. 3, January 1912