[Hebrew, tsdaka] - Mercy is one of the
fundamental precepts of the Bible, complementing the mitzvah, or divine
commandments. It serves as atonement for one's sins and hastens the
coming of the Messiah.
The poor and beggars were treated with respect in Jewish society
because they gave the wealthy the opportunity to do good deeds. One of
the main tasks of Jewish Communities was to care for the poor, orphans
and those in need of assistance, by providing them with medical care and
education--and women with dowries--as well as by showing hospitality to
those who had come from other cities. The Communities were supported in
these tasks by the Community brotherhoods. They also hired doctors who
treated the sick without charge. In many towns, Jewish hospitals were
founded that also served as shelters. Dowry funds were set up, whose
purpose was to provide dowries for poor young women; one was established
in Krakow in 1633.
Before holidays, food or money was distributed to the poor.
During the Purim holidays, anyone who asked for help was supposed to
receive it. The bachurs [Hebrew, bachur = bachelor, young man]-i.e., the
yeshiva students, were especially well cared for. Often, they received
their room and board in exchange for teaching younger pupils.
Along with the dwindling role of the Communities in the
nineteenth century, new charity and self-help organizations appeared.
Modeling themselves on the traditional brotherhood charities, they
usually functioned under the aegis of the religious Communities, such as
chesed shel emes [Hebrew, chesed shel emet, "the grace of truth"].
These included burial societies that allowed the poor to be given
religious burials and cared for graves. There was also, for example, the
beis lechem [Hebrew, beit lechem, "house of bread"], which provided
food for the poor, particularly during the holidays; and the moshav
zkenim [Hebrew, "old people's home"]; beit yesomim [Hebrew, "Children's
Home", i.e., orphanage].
The self-help organizations had a somewhat different
character-they operated in specific professional circles, such as
traders, artisans, those in cottage industries, and companies.
In the nineteenth century, they united in
chevroth [Hebrew, chevra = association], most often linked to the
synagogue; these included both employers and employees. Their functions
during interwar Poland were in part taken over by the trade unions that
were linked to political parties.
After 1905, the free loan societies began to be organized by
synagogues and Communities. In the second half of the nineteenth
century, assimilationists were very active in philanthropic programs.
They tried to break with the traditional system of philanthropy, which
they believed produced people who were helpless and dependent on
constant assistance. To this end, for example, they organized vocational
In the early twentieth century and during the interwar period,
several dozen healthcare societies were operating, which cared for the
sick beyond the Community level, such as the Society for the Care of
Jews Suffering from Nervous and Mental Illnesses (which existed from
1906-1939). They also ran hospitals, shelters, clinics and sanatoria.
Linas Ha-tsedek [Hebrew, Linat Ha-tsedek, "Charity Deposit"] organized
help for the sick and their families in small Communities, and larger
ones provided medical and outpatient care, as well as kosher meals for
patients in municipal hospitals. There was also the Society for the Care
of Poor Jewish Patients, Ezras Choylim Anyim [Hebrew, Ezrat Cholim
Aniyim, "Aid to Poor Patients"], the Jewish Anti-Tuberculosis Society
Briut-Zdrowie, and many others.
In addition, large organizations operated on a nation-wide
scale, often even on an international scale: these included the
Healthcare Society (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia - TOZ), Joint, B'nai
B'rith, and the Central Association for the Care of Orphans and
Abandoned Children in Poland.
During the Second World War, social services became imperative for
survival, as did the significant civil resistance in the ghettos. They
were organized in part by the Judenrats, which ran "people's kitchens"
in the larger ghettos. In particular, these helped feed people who had
been resettled there from other cities and towns.
After the occupying authorities had granted permission, in 1940 the
Jewish Social Self-Help organization, subordinate to the Main Social
Services Council (Rada Glowna Opiekuncza), began operating in the
ghettos. It helped distribute aid from the American "Joint" organization
in the Generalgouvernement, although it was a only a drop in the
bucket; even so, Germans nevertheless confiscated some of what did
Underground organizations emphasized self-help, and created block
committees made up of residents from one or more buildings. Deportees
grouped together according to their points of origin, in loose
organizations of residents of one town or city.
In 1944-1947, in light of the miserable
situation facing Holocaust survivors, the main aim of Jewish
organizations was to provide them with healthcare and material
assistance. An Office for Aid to the Jewish Population was established
as part of the Polish National Liberation Committee, whose functions
were later assumed by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland and by the
religious congregations. Self-help activities were also run by Jewish
political parties. Beginning in 1945, material aid came primarily from
the United Nations (UNRRA) and Joint. They consisted of food and
clothing packages. That same year, ORT and TOZ began operating in
Poland. The former opened workshops and crafts cooperatives, equipping
them with machines and materials sent from abroad, and organized
vocational training. The latter ran a network of clinics, cr�ches and
pre-schools, as well as several hospitals and sanatoria it funded. In
addition to providing healthcare, these orphanages and other facilities
for the elderly and invalids were also subsidized-services which were
not limited solely to Jewish patients. Both associations ceased
operations in 1949-1950, when authorities accused Joint and ORT of
spying and forced their members to leave Poland.
These organizations renewed their activities after 1956, primarily
assisting Jews who had lost their jobs and making funds available to
start production cooperatives, as well as providing disability benefits
to those unfit to work.
In 1968, the communist authorities banned their activities,
permitting Joint to resume activities only in 1981; Joint is currently
supported in part by the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in
Poland. It provides material support to the sick and the elderly who
have no relatives. Since 1989, the Ronald F. Lauder Foundation, based in
the United States, has been active in Poland, fostering religious life
and cultural initiatives of the Jewish community there.