Emblazoned in neon on the side of a bridge spanning the Delaware, just upriver from Center City, is the slogan, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”
Tweaked a bit, the phrase aptly defines the last 125 years in Jewish institutional and organizational life: “Philadelphia Leads, the World Heeds.”
Whether through the 1888 launching of the Jewish Publication Society; the 1893 founding of Gratz College, the first Hebrew teachers’ college to train women as well as men; or the 1970s burgeoning of the Soviet Jewry movement, which would ultimately help open the gates for thousands of former “Jews of Silence,” Philadelphia has served as an incubator for big ideas — and big beginnings.
“There was a moment in American Jewish history when Philadelphia was the most exciting and productive creator of institutions in the United States,” says sociologist Rela Geffen.
Jewish intellectuals and scholars, known collectively as the Philadelphia Group — among them such page-one names as Sabato Morais, Cyrus Adler and Mayer Sulzberger — helped lay the groundwork for many of the institutions that became the foundations of American Jewish life.
In Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830-1940, the late Murray Friedman offers a representational list of organizations with strong roots in the City of Brotherly Love: the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Jewish Committee (for whose Middle Atlantic States chapter Friedman served as director), JPS, the Jewish Chautauqua Society and the Baron de Hirsch Fund.
Friedman notes that it was Adler who, in 1906, introduced the idea of an authoritative body to speak for American Jews on national and international matters. Sulzberger became the first president of AJC, which, to this day, continues to combat anti-Semitism and promote pluralism and human rights.
The blossoming of Jewish organizational life corresponded with a mass migration of newcomers, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began to flood Philadelphia in the late 1880s. The influx led to what Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel describes as a 20-fold increase in the region’s Jewish population over 30 years — an increase that would be nearly unthinkable today.
“Jews were among the largest of the immigrant groups coming into the eastern seaboard,” he notes. “It was a huge change, making Philadelphia emerge as one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Philadelphia probably had more Jews than Warsaw, then the largest Jewish population in Europe.”
Numbers of that magnitude demanded serious infrastructure, which became the responsibility of the community over the next several decades. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a frenzy of institution-building, including hospitals, foster homes, lodges, synagogues, settlement houses and social organizations.
In 1901, under the leadership of a small core of German-Jewish laymen, the organization that would ultimately become known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia made its debut — the fourth of its kind in the country after those started in Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati.
Growth was rapid: By 1918, when the umbrella organization had expanded from 14 to 39 constituent agencies, the lay leaders hired the first Federation executive director. That year, too, power began slowly to shift as German Jews gave recognition to leaders of Russian ancestry.
As the needs of world Jewry have changed, so have the Federation’s main areas of concentration, from helping to resettle and absorb the survivors of Hitler’s reign of terror, to building the State of Israel and assuring that it continues to thrive, to today’s focus on helping vulnerable populations and ensuring Jewish continuity.