[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 education programs.

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 arrive.

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.
(A.C., G.Z./CM)

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