Who needs help?
It’s a question asked and answered by Jews across the Delaware Valley. It’s become a l’dor v’dor question, with one generation of Jews helping the next.
That’s exactly what happened 125 years ago, as Eastern European Jews fled oppression in their homelands and poured into Philadelphia. Jews already established in America did what they could to help. There were small acts, like individual families donating food and clothing to Jewish organizations, and big acts, like those of Baron de Hirsch. In 1896, the philanthropist founded the town of Woodbine in South Jersey so that Russian immigrants could live, work and worship freely.
In the city itself, there were dozens of Jewish charitable groups: the Jewish Hospital, United Hebrew Charities, Jewish Foster Homes, Hebrew Education Society, Orphans’ Guardians, Jewish Maternity Association, Jewish Immigrant Society, HIAS, the Young Women’s Union and Hebrew Society and others. The need was so great that, in 1901, Jacob Gimbel, the department store mogul, led the movement to unite and organize the multiple charities into one entity. It was called the Federation of Jewish Charities; Gimbel served as its president for 11 years.
In 1957, the Federation merged with Allied Jewish Appeal to become the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia. In 1990, that name changed to its present one: Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Over time, the Federation broadened its reach beyond the Jewish community and beyond the scope of basic needs. Education, health care, arts and culture — the Federation and Philadelphia Jews have expanded tikkun olam work into many spheres.
In Gimbel’s footsteps have followed countless philanthropists who have helped build and sustain the community and its institutions and services.
There are grass-roots leaders who go on to run organizations that change lives around the region. And there are individual volunteers whose actions bring about positive change, like the countless Philadelphia Jews who work to better their communities and congregations, the thousands of people who show up for Mitzvah Mania, and the hundreds of kids who do mitzvah projects, like Madison Stern, a 16-year old Jewish Jersey girl who did so much tikkun olam work that she recently won a Volunteer Service Award from the president of the United States.
“There are just so many people who need help,” Stern says. “And if you can help them, why wouldn’t you?”