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Brith Sholom Celebrates a Century of Working to Help Others

December 15, 2005 By:
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Newly settled an ocean away from their native lands, immigrants at the turn of the century faced language barriers, culture clashes, and often, a sense of extreme loneliness.

But back then, 44 professionals - mostly Philadelphians, and all male - got together to create an organization that would allow Jewish immigrants to socialize and to maintain a sense of their native lands with others who shared their language and Old World customs.

That organization, Brith Sholom, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. When formed, the organization - whose name in Hebrew means "covenant of peace" - aimed to provide the poor with health benefits or insurance, but it quickly became involved in other civic, social and charitable activities.

In 1909, Brith Sholom purchased the land for the still-standing Eagleville Sanitarium, which first served patients with tuberculosis, and later admitted those with substance and alcohol-abuse issues. In addition, the men's organization - Brith Sholom Women wasn't founded until 1942 - rescued 50 Jewish children from Vienna, Austria, in 1939, housing them at a camp in Collegeville, Pa., before setting them up in foster homes or reuniting them with their families when World War II ended.

Seymour Rose, a member of the group since 1963, when he moved his family to Overbrook Park, says that while the charitable work is important, there's another aspect that may trump all good deeds performed.

"It's more social than anything else," he said. "I've met some of the most wonderful people I've ever met. We want our members to get a sense of friendship and camaraderie - and a sense of helping others."

Perhaps the group's most important contribution to Philadelphia Jewish life - and what continues today as its major cause - was the building 35 years ago of the Brith Sholom House. The Wynnefield high-rise is a living facility for Jewish senior citizens with about 360 available apartments. Others are currently being remodeled.

Each resident pays a $600 to $700 stipend per month for the apartment. Without looking to federal assistance, stated Rose, Brith Sholom and its subordinate lodges do most of the fundraising to support the upkeep of the building and to help provide one kosher meal offered daily.

To commemorate the organization's centennial, Brith Sholom held a dinner-dance back in July. One of the children who had been rescued from Vienna in 1939 spoke, as did a wounded Israeli soldier who recovered in Haifa at Beit Halochem, a rehabilitation center built by Brith Sholom for Israeli veterans.

These days, the local chapter also puts out a weekly e-mail that discusses bias against Israel in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Once a thriving organization with - at its height in 1932 - 50,000 members and dozens of lodges in cities across the country, Brith Sholom has seen a dramatic decrease in membership.

Don Lapinson, national president, estimates that there are a little more than 1,000 men and women who belong to the 15 lodges still active in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

But the group is working to increase membership; just last year, it welcomed its first new lodge in five years.

Lapinson said he hopes the now co-educational group will continue to grow with the times.

Said the official: "That's what organizations are about - getting together and helping other Jews."

 

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