Toward the end of their early Friday afternoon lunch, as the plates that held grilled cheese sandwiches and salads were cleared, four women were bickering. The kind of affectionate bickering that only occurs between truly close friends.
The women — Elaine Barnett, Bunny Solomon, Harriet Rubin and Claire Steinberg — are four of originally 25 women who made up Charities Anonymous.
The four ladies all are between 92 and 94 years old — though you truly wouldn’t know by looking at them — and have been friends, some of them since elementary school, but all 25 of them since high school at West Philadelphia High School or Overbrook High School.
They were bickering about to which charity or to how many charities they should write their last check as Charities Anonymous. This lunch served as their final meeting. Rubin is soon moving to Florida, and some of the other women who might still be active are unable to make their once monthly meetings. So it was time to choose the final recipient of a donation (or donations).
There are worse things to be bickering about.
In the end, they decided to evenly divide the remaining $3,000 in their funds to three different organizations: $1,000 to a charity associated with multiple sclerosis in honor of one of the girls’ sons who has MS, $1,000 to Ronald McDonald House Charities and $1,000 to a charity associated with breast cancer.
Other members unable to make the meeting, including Myra Kanze and Roz Domers, still played a role in the decision.
Charities Anonymous began in 1953 after these four women and 21 of their friends decided they really wanted to make a difference in their community.
In the last 63 years, they have held annual luncheons and fundraisers and raised tens of thousands of dollars that have been given to an extensive list of charities and organizations — from Child Abuse Prevention to Kosher Meals on Wheels to Northern Hebrew Day Nursery.
“We wanted to do charity work where we could see where the money went,” said Bunny Solomon, who just turned 94 and attends Beth David Reform Congregation, “and each year, we wanted to give to a different charity.”
They would try to give to charities — they picked one each year — wherever they heard there was a need, but focused on ones that particularly affected members’ lives. If someone’s cousin was diagnosed with cancer, they would give to a foundation that supported cancer research or to a hospital.
“Over the years, we helped practically every charity,” Solomon said. “Wherever we heard there was a need — especially if it was close to us — that’s where we gave.”
Through their Happiness and Memorial Fund, they raised money by selling cards for holidays and for condolences, as well as packing baskets for holidays.
But their biggest fundraiser came during the fall.
Each year, they would hold a luncheon, which featured not just a lunch but also a fashion show from places like Saks Fifth Avenue and a speaker representing the charity they chose to support that year.
They would sell 500 to 600 tickets to what Solomon called “the luncheon of the year.”
“Everyone wanted to come,” added Rubin, who said everyone sported large hats and looked the part. “Everyone dressed to the hilt.”
Throughout their last lunch meeting, the friends reminisced about these luncheons and the organizations they have been able to support.
Steinberg brought a plaque with her that Charities Anonymous received from the Ronald McDonald House Charities in recognition of a donation they had given one year.
Rubin pulled out a manila envelope full of yellowed newspaper clippings written about them and photographs from past parties. There were programs from past luncheons and letters thanking the women for their gifts.
“On behalf of Haverford Community Hospital’s staff and Board of Directors, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you and Charities Anonymous for the kind donation you’ve given our hospital,” read one.
“We received the good news regarding the generous donation that Charities Anonymous is planning to give to our center. We are extremely grateful for your gift and want to express our joy and appreciation in receiving this gift from your organization,” read another.
Some were even from a specific recipient. In 1983, the group donated $5,000 to a man named Jack Walters, who lived at Neshaminy Manor Nursing Home. A quadriplegic, Walters was given a new electric wheelchair with the money from Charities Anonymous.
A thank you letter from Walters was included in Rubin’s collection of letters and documents, which began, “Your card about the wheelchair was received creating a feeling of joy and happiness within me. I lack the ability to describe my feelings of independence that this will give me for the first time in 14 years.” He went on to finish his high school diploma and take college courses.
Being able to give to those in need is what they were all about, and continued to be about down to their final meeting.
In each luncheon program was a quote from the Talmud, “Whoever practices charity and justice is as though he filled the whole world with loving kindness.”
This quote was also painted onto a hand-painted piece of china one of the members would give to the president each year as a gift when that person retired.
The women took turns as president, each serving for a year or two or a little longer.
Their meetings, complete with a full lunch, would take place each month, rotating in each other’s homes so they could spend time together — their husbands, children and even grandchildren, in turn, all became friends, too, and that seems unlikely to change.
“It’s wonderful we all got together — and stayed together — all these years,” Solomon reflected.
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