Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
With about $50 million in deposits and 135,000 customers, Bankers Trust was Philadelphia’s 10th-largest bank in the fall of 1930, a year after the Great Depression started. That’s when anxious depositors began withdrawing money — and they didn’t stop until it escalated into a full-scale run that amounted to $17 million worth of withdrawals by Friday, Dec. 19.
The bank, owned by Albert M. Greenfield, was out of available cash.
Many of the city’s other leading bankers — all Protestants — met over the weekend to decide if they wanted to bail out the rough-edged, aggressive Russian Jewish immigrant.
“When all was said and done,” Dan Rottenberg, who is working on a biography of Greenfield, concluded in an essay, “they simply did not trust Greenfield, did not like him, were not comfortable dealing with him.”
So they turned him down. And Bankers Trust’s doors never again opened for business
A similar fate felled smaller neighborhood banks that served first-generation Eastern European Jews. Banks like Blitzstein’s at Fourth and Lombard Streets were part of the fabric of the heavily Jewish South Philadelphia neighborhood, which was home to small businesses like Shupak’s pickles and Joseph Polak’s confectionary, as well as scores of pushcarts and sweatshops.
Greenfield, of course, went on to extraordinary wealth and prominence, controlling or owning the nation’s largest real estate concern; a huge retail empire that included Lit Brothers, Bonwit Teller and Snellenburg & Co.; a mortgage company; and six Center City hotels. “Hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians lived, worked or did business in buildings he owned, managed, leased, bought or sold,” Rottenberg wrote in the essay that appeared in Jewish Life in Philadelphia 1830-1940, edited by the late Murray Friedman.
And they got their news from him for a time as well: Greenfield owned the Jewish Exponent for a period in the early 1940s, until he sold it to the Allied Jewish Appeal, a forerunner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, for a nominal fee in 1944.
Greenfield was one of the city’s Jewish power players who spanned the period before and after World War II, a time when, Friedman writes in his book, Jewish Life in Philadelphia 1940-2000, Jews went from outsiders to insiders. He personified the metamorphosis, going on to head the Chamber of Commerce and the City Planning Commission in the 1950s, and becoming the financial adviser to Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty, who headed the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1918 to 1951. He was also a delegate to five Democratic National Conventions.
Other big names of the era included Walter Annenberg, who amassed his fortune as publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Racing Form, both of which he inherited from his father, and from TV Guide, which he founded in 1953; and Joseph and Samuel Fels, who built the Fels Naptha Soap Company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Even without these corporate giants, Jews, particularly those from Germany, were well-integrated into the city before the migration from Eastern Europe. According to Friedman, 15 percent of Jews around 1900 were bankers, brokers or wholesale merchants, 35 percent were retailers and 5 percent professionals. But an economic panic in 1907 and 1908 put an end to a lot of those jobs.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jews still had to contend with a seemingly impregnable glass ceiling. They occupied almost no managerial offices in major industrial organizations, banks or insurance firms. They were not invited to join the clubs where business was done and they did not get asked on to prestigious boards.
But perhaps most glaring was the obstacle Robert Segal found when he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960: Most large firms were not interested in him.
Except, of course, for Wolf Block. “Prior to 1960, Jewish kids from Harvard or Penn could hardly go elsewhere,” said Segal, who became one of the city’s most prominent real estate lawyers. Many large firms had no Jews, some had a token or two and a very few “mixed” firms, such as Dilworth Paxson, had more. There were other Jewish firms — Fox Rothschild, for instance — but Wolf Block was the Jewish firm.
And its business was built on Jewish clients, some of whom became mainstays in the segments of Philadelphia’s economy that were wide open for Jews: real estate, textiles, retail and more.
Wolf Block was dissolved in 2009, but Jewish graduates from Harvard, Penn and dozens of other law schools are now practicing in and leading law firms everywhere in the city.
And all kinds of other local Jewish businessmen have found remarkable success over the years, including Sidney Kimmel with Jones New York, the women’s clothing firm; Raymond Perelman by buying and selling businesses; Ronald Rubin by developing buildings and shopping centers.
And one defining characteristic has run through Philadelphia businesses great and small: Many of them became serious philanthropists, contributing to Jewish institutions as well as the civic and cultural life of the city.