The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society
Supporting the Philadelphia Jewish
Community since 1819
During the winter of 1819, when the weather was bitter and fuel and food were scarce, Mrs. Aaron Levy and Miss Hannah Levy, members of Congregation Mikveh Israel, became concerned about the women within their own community who were turning to Christian missionaries for assistance. Aid was given willingly and generously, but with a solid dose of indoctrination and the implicit message of conversion. The dames Levy reacted by founding the first Jewish communal organization in Philadelphia to address the needs of their indigent sisters of the House of Israel. Lacking experience in public philanthropy, they recruited Rebecca Gratz, a seasoned and respected volunteer in secular charities, as a member of the board of managers. Gratz served as the first secretary for nearly 40 years, shaping the direction of the society through her eloquent minutes, letters and annual reports.
FHBS's legacy, a blueprint for the distribution of tzedakah in a sensitive and caring way, is sustained to this day, distinguishing the association as the oldest, Jewish charitable organization in continuous existence in the United States. A board of 13 managers, acting in a volunteer capacity, assumes responsibility for administration and almost all overhead, which amounted to less than 2% of the total income for fiscal year 2004-2005. Support came from individuals, family foundations, Camp Council, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and its Endowment Corporation and Ziv Tzedakah Fund as well as the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Combined Federal Campaign. During that same period of time, FHBS distributed over $91,700 to 168 different needy women, focusing on four categories of aid: emergency assistance, monthly stipends, camp scholarships and outreach to the elderly through the installation of stair glides and emergency response systems.
Clients encompass all age groups from preschoolers to centenarians and are spread throughout the five-county, Greater Philadelphia area. A communal professional must verify financial need before support is extended. And FHBS is usually part of a larger plan for addressing the client's needs, which always includes a review of the public entitlements for which she qualifies and help in obtaining them. The plan also may include additional monetary aid, job assessment and training, counseling and volunteer services, among others.
Consider, for example,
Olga, a thirty-two year old woman from the former Soviet Union whose husband was killed in an automobile accident. Unemployed at the time, after having been laid off from her job as a waitress, Olga suddenly found herself with no income and a nine-year-old child to support. While she coped with her grief and the logistics of restructuring her life, FHBS shared responsibility with Jewish Family and Children's Service for two months? rent - $963 each.
Temma spent 1944-45 in Auschwitz-Birkeneau. Seventy-six years old and in poor health, she lives with her husband, also a Holocaust survivor. Their combined monthly income is $1,200. Two adult sons help out with groceries and household chores, but do not have extra money to assist in paying for the multiple medications both parents need. About a year ago, Temma had a leg amputated, increasing health care expenses. FHBS paid $563 to cover three months of secondary health insurance premiums.
Bernice was in chronic need of financial assistance from the Jewish community. A client of Jewish Family & Children's Service through the City Line Aging Support Program (CLASP), she was referred to FHBS on several occasions. With an annual income of $11,124, it was impossible for her to manage all her bills. In August of 2004, just before her 87th birthday, Bernice was diagnosed with liver cancer. She moved from hospitalization to rehab and was awaiting discharge to her twin sister's two-story house for hospice care when FHBS received the request for a stair glide. The only company that could assess the house and install equipment immediately charged $915, non-refundable, for a six- month period. FHBS did not hesitate to respond. Bernice died two months later, having spent her final days under the loving care of her sister, Lillian, who wrote: Had to thank you for your beautiful words of comfort and all the help provided by the you and FHBS, which made a difficult time a little easier.
Because FHBS is an all-volunteer organization, it has been easy to preserve its intrinsically Jewish response to poverty. And as resources have become more plentiful, board members, in turn, have given more time and energy to insure that moneys collected are distributed in accord with those values that make FHBS unique
--- upholding the self-respect and dignity of the recipient and fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah, always in the spirit of gemilut hesed.
While tzedakah is a mitzvah that is not bound by time, and contributions are always welcome, FHBS creates two special donor opportunities during the year ---
at the High Holiday season and again in anticipation of Purim. With the latter holiday only a month away, FHBS invites you to hop on the Queen Esther Express by considering a no-cal, lite, cholesterol-free alternative to traditional mishloach manot. For donations starting at $18, FHBS will send up to three cards in honor of your friends and family letting them know that you not only have fulfilled the commandment in a most modern way, but also extended your hand to a Jewish woman in need. For additional information about this project or the work of FHBS, please contact Eileen Sklaroff, President at
Past Networking Central Groups of the Month
In this section we highlight a new local group each month in order to encourage networking.