Jewish Philanthropy in 1950s Waterville

by Yichen Jiang ’13 (January 2011)

Philanthropy has always been a fundamental part of the Jewish identity. Historically, contributing to society was considered a religious obligation in Judaism, rather than a voluntary act of charity. The practice of tzedakah, roughly translated as social justice, was a mitzvah required by the Torah, and hence a vital part of being a good Jew (Dashefsky and Lazerwitz 21). Samuel C. Heilman explains the traditional interpretation of tzedakah as follows: “to give one’s wealth to another Jew in need is an imperative, commanded both by the laws and by the traditions of Jewry, and no man may consider his religious obligations completely fulfilled without his having engaged in charity giving” (Heilman 371).

In the context of contemporary America, however, attributing the prevalence of Jewish philanthropy solely to religious obligation is nothing short of a misinterpretation. By the 1950s, tzedakah had long since evolved into a moral value for Jews in America. Furthermore, charitable inclinations were not limited to Jewish causes, but were directed at humanitarian causes in general. Jewish involvement in secular charitable organizations becomes increasingly visible during the years following the Second World War, especially in small towns such as Waterville.

The Golden Age

Specialty Shoe Store, owned by Samuel Hillson (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

The modern evolution of tzedakah began with the need for members of the Jewish community to look out for one another back in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. As a result of the oppression faced by Jews in Europe, the sense of responsibility to one’s “home community” was deeply entrenched in the Ashkenazi interpretation of tzedakah. When Ashkenazi Jews arrived in America in the 19th century, their established sense of community and tradition of intra-communal generosity facilitated and accelerated their upward socioeconomic mobility. There are countless tales of established Jewish merchants assisting newcomer Jewish peddlers from the early stages of Jewish immigration in America. These peddlers would then help other new Jewish immigrants once they become successful in starting their own stores. These cycles of generosity were crucial in propelling the Jews into the upper middle class in America in a span of less than three generations. These tales of social ascension for Jewish immigrants in America illustrate clearly the influence of traditional values on modern Jewish behavior: “the gift of self-reliance,” through which a Jew helps out someone in need by enabling him to work, is ranked at the top of the traditional tzedakah ladder of charity (Dashefsky and Lazerwitz 21).

By the 1950s, the Jewish population in America was already well established both financially and socially. In Waterville, most Jewish families lived comfortably during this period as storeowners, manufacturers, or professionals. Even though the goal of achieving self-reliance had been reached, the inclination to give back to the community did not disappear among Jews in America. This willingness, compounded with the abundance of energy and labor following the Second World War, laid the groundwork for contributions towards local Jewish causes, which contribute to trends such as the synagogue construction boom across America. The firm economic footing of the Jewish community also enabled them to direct a lot of their generosity toward the broader American community. As Marshall Sklare observed in his study of “Lakeville,” a 1950s suburban Jewish community, “to be a good Jew means to be an ethical individual; it also means to be kind, helpful, and interested in the welfare of neighbors, fellow Americans, and of humanity-at-large” (Sklare 324). It is clear that by the 1950s, Jews across the United States embraced the idea of being an American in their sense of identity, which led to an increase in Jewish participation in secular charitable organizations. They were no longer the ostracized community in Europe, but rather a part of the great American society. This is not to say that Jewish identity completely dissolved into the American cultural melting pot: 98% of Jews surveyed in Lakeville responded that it was essential or desirable for a good Jew to “accept his being a Jew and not try to hide it” (Sklare 322). In fact, the 1950s saw the American Jewish community focus much of their philanthropic attention on international Jewish causes, such as the State of Israel.

A New Beth Israel: The Pinnacle of Jewish Philanthropy in Waterville

Because of its small size, Waterville’s Jewish community has only ever had one synagogue, unlike many other Jewish towns in the United States. Although rarely used for things other than religious observances, the old Beth Israel synagogue building on Kelsey Street had been the de facto Jewish community center for Waterville ever since its completion in 1905. However, following the influx of war brides and new families into the Jewish population after World War II, there was a demand for a more versatile Jewish community center for the town. As Phyllis Shiro recalls, the old synagogue was “just a little upstairs and down, and that was it”; it wasn’t used for much other than high holiday services.

Documents preserved at Beth Israel indicate that there was an attempt by the Waterville Jewish Federation to collect funds towards building a Jewish community center. The Federation created the “Waterville Jewish Community Center Fund” in 1949, and collected $300 annually for the account. Ultimately, the Federation was not able to get enough momentum behind the cause. There simply wasn’t a need for a dedicated community center separate from the synagogue, so the Waterville Jewish Community Center Fund was turned over to the Beth Israel Board of Directors in 1957 for the construction of its new building; the Federation itself ceased to exist sometime thereafter.

Beth Israel's new building, completed 1958 (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

The construction of the new Beth Israel synagogue can be seen as the crowning achievement of the Waterville Jewish community in terms of philanthropy. In the 1958 Dedication Booklet of the Beth Israel synagogue, 65 out of the 79 active Jewish families in Waterville were listed as building fund donors. The 82% turnout for the construction of the new synagogue is the highest participation rate for any single Jewish philanthropic cause in Waterville in 1958; donations to Hadassah come in at a distant second at 70%.

Beth Israel’s board of directors at the time was a great driving force behind the Jewish community. Even though all the men on the board had active careers away from the synagogue, every one of them devoted substantial amounts of time and energy towards the synagogue. Paula Lunder recalls, “those men were marvelous, they were treasurer, they were shamas, they were everything. They stood during services, they participated, they ran minyans… It’s really a lovely story.” The sheer number of board meetings and synagogue documents from 1957 to 1958 can attest to the dedication of the board members.

The Roles of Jewish Women in Philanthropy

Due to social norms in the 1950s, Jewish women were excluded from certain kinds of synagogue leadership. The fact that there were no women on the board of Beth Israel until much later on in the century reflects this exclusion.  However, traditions and social norms did not prevent the Jewish women in Waterville from engaging in philanthropic work within the Jewish community. The Beth Israel Sisterhood, forexample, was founded as a women’s auxiliary organization attached to the synagogue.  As Paula Lunder explained, “We took care of the physical properties of the synagogue. When there were functions there, we made sure it was clean, and the books were in order, and the bima, which we call our altar, was properly adorned and clean, and everything looked appropriate in the synagogue.”

By the 1950s, the Jewish charitable organizations in Waterville—the Sisterhood, B’nai B’rith, and Hadassah—were run exclusively by women. This is especially interesting because B’nai B’rith was originally created nationally as a fraternal structure. For the Waterville Jewish community, the lack of male membership in Hadassah and B’nai B’rith can partially be explained by the men’s preoccupation with their careers as well as the synagogue. (Learn more about Jewish involvement in Waterville civic organizations and Jewish women in the postwar years.)

The dependence of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith in Waterville on female membership can be seen clearly when women began joining the work force later on in the century. Ss Paula Lunder observed, “the women were all at work, and they couldn’t support those organizations. The time for them had passed.”  However, this did not mean that the women stopped participating in communal activities entirely. The introduction of women into the work force along with the men meant that their roles in the community began to resemble that of the men: “the women became a part of the structure of the temple,” Paula said.

When it comes to Jewish causes, it is clear that most of Waterville’s Jews chose to channel their philanthropic contributions through local chapters of organizations such as Hadassah and B’nai B’rith. Through these chapters, Jewish families were able to support both American Jewish and Israeli causes. Since these groups held separate events, Jews in Waterville were able to support the domestic and foreign Jewish causes separately, which helped the community sidestep the issue of allocating funds for the different causes, a major issue that plagued Jewish communities across America (Kaplow 138). Data from 1958 records show that 91% of Jewish families chose to support domestic Jewish causes, including the Beth Israel building fund, while 74% supported Israeli causes.

As the only Jewish philanthropic organizations in Waterville apart from the synagogue, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah and the Sisterhood became integral parts of life for the Jewish community. Over all, 73% of the Jewish households in Waterville donated to at least one of these three organizations in the period surrounding 1958.

Many women in the community saw Hadassah, B’nai B’rith, and the Sisterhood as more than just charitable Jewish organizations. The group meetings became opportunities for the local Jewish women to socialize and express their Jewish identity together. The social nature of these philanthropic groups in Waterville was clearly reflected in the activities they organized.  As Myrt Wolman explained, “We had art auctions, we had dances… We had bridge parties, big ones. We had ad books, we went around the communities and solicited for ads… we had a cookbook.”

The popularity of these organizations can also be attributed to the high charitable inclination of the community as a whole. In 1958, 94% of all Jewish families in Waterville were involved in charitable work within the community in one form or another. For a lot of Jewish families in Waterville, philanthropy simply became a part of everyday life. For instance, sponsoring tree plantings in Israel was so commonplace that the Hadassah chapter in Waterville didn’t even have set fundraisers for the cause.  According to Paula Lunder, “If you had the birth of a child, if you had a birthday, if you had, unfortunately, a death, you would send a memorial in honor of the person… and you planted a tree in Israel.”

Secular Philanthropy

Waterville Boys Club (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

The years following World War II spelled a period of accelerated integration for Jewish communities around America. Sklare’s Lakeville study reports that by the late 1950s, there was a much stronger identification with secular charities than with Jewish charities within the American Jewish community. The study shows that 67% of Jews surveyed expressed that it was essential for a good Jew to support all humanitarian causes, while only 39% believed that it was essential for a good Jew to contribute to Jewish causes (Sklare 322). In the case of Waterville, this was a period in which Jewish philanthropists were especially visible in their support for secular causes. The 1950s and 1960s saw generous donations from the Jewish community to local organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, Thayer Hospital, Maine’s Home for Little Wanderers, and Colby College.

In some cases, the motivation for the generosity came simply from a realization that help was needed.  “In those days,” said Bob Rosenthal, “the Thayer Hospital was an outstanding hospital, and they needed a new facility. And being a major landowner, we had a good site for them, so we gave it to them.” At other times, the relationship between patrons and recipient was one of mutual benefit.  “Colby afforded a small town like Waterville a piece of the intellectual life,” said Sara Miller Arnon.

Whatever the motivations were, the fact is that members of the Waterville Jewish community were extremely active in secular charitable organizations. The emphasis the Jewish community put on supporting all charitable causes was clear in interviews of community members. When asked to talk about philanthropy, most of our narrators chose to either start with, or focus on, contributions to non-Jewish organizations in Waterville. Although we do not have enough empirical data to present a numerical analysis, there is no doubt that the Waterville Jewish community was more involved in secular charities than it was in Jewish ones. When it comes to the question of Jewish identity evident in philanthropy, it would be a fair assessment to assert that Waterville Jews have come to view their town, or indeed the United States as a whole, to be the “home community” that they are committed to. In this sense, the identity of Jews in Waterville is a prime candidate for showcasing the 20th century evolution of tzedakah. As Sam Shapiro puts it, “we are certainly not Jews first and Americans second.”

Print Sources

Dashefsky, Arnold, and Bernard Lazerwitz. Charitable Choices: Philanthropic Decisions of Donors in the American Jewish Community. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2009.

Heilman, Samuel C. “The Gift of Alms: Face-to-Face Almsgiving among Orthodox Jews.” Urban Life and Culture (1975): 371-95.

Kaplow, Herman L. “Motivations for Giving: A Motivational Research Approach.” In Understanding American Jewish Philanthropy, edited by Marc Lee Raphael. New York: Ktav, 1979.

Sklare, Marshall, and Joseph Greenblum. Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.


Arnon, Sara Miller. Interview by Becky Muller, Spring 2010

Lunder, Paula. Interview by Yichen Jiang, January 8 and 22, 2011

Rosenthal, Bob. Interview by Lyoe Lee, January 14, 2011

Shapiro, Sam. Interview by Kimi Kossler, July 27, 2010

Shiro, Phyllis. Interview by Sam Levine, January 17, 2010

Wolman, Gordon and Myrtle. Interview by Hasan Bhatti, January 21, 2010