Young Jewish merchants look after their interests in a novel type of voluntary society
The Association for Sick-Care and the modernization of Jewish voluntary societies
The introduction to the statutes of the Hamburg Association for Sick-Care declares that the association “does not restrict its care to [financial and material] support, but it also fulfills the duties of friendship toward the sick, exercises sacred love of humanity heilige Menschenliebe toward them, and aims at replacing relatives to the bachelor and to make the foreigner feel the separation from his family less acutely” (p.1). Accordingly, the statues explain that the association was committed “to alleviate the sufferings of the sickbed through visits of friendship” (p. 7), undertaken by members of the Association for Sick-Care themselves. A sick member enjoyed this personal attention in addition to the professional services by a physician, a surgeon, and two attendants who were engaged by the association (p. 7). And in case of illness, a paying member was hosted in a hospital or spa and received a weekly cash allowance.
Thus apparently, the Association for Sick-Care was geared towards young, unmarried men who had arrived in Hamburg recently and who had no family in the city. The statutes in fact spelled out that members needed to be unmarried and between 18 and 40 years old, at the time they joined the association (p. 10). This stood in contrast to many other contemporary Jewish voluntary associations which only admitted well-established community members; and early modern hevrot had often excluded unmarried men from leadership positions. In this regard, the Association for Sick-Care was inspired by the movement of youth hevrot that had begun to emerge in the middle of the 18th century in German and Central European towns, such as Dresden, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and Prague. The most prominent and fashionable exponents of these youth hevrot were the Society of Friends Gesellschaft der Freunde in Berlin and Königsberg and the Society of Brothers Gesellschaft der Brüder in Breslau. In these novel mutual-aid sick-care societies, young men expressed a new self-confidence and created a framework that provided them with medical care and financial support when they fell ill. At least some of their members had moved recently to the towns and cities they lived in. Their residence rights were precarious, they lacked family support, and in case of sickness or need they depended on communal charity boards which only reluctantly assisted foreigners and newcomers.
The Association for Sick-Care, however, stressed emphatically that it did not disburse charity. Rather, in the introduction to its statutes the association stated that members aided each other as friends and equals, and the text asserted that the association “carefully avoided anything that would offend the most tender sense of honor even in the slightest” (p. 1). Accordingly, a member fallen ill was required to accept monetary sick benefits, and he incurred a penalty, if he refused to accept the allowance. Thus, this sick-care society might have catered to young men in somewhat precarious positions, but it was not designed for the poor and marginal. The board members of the voluntary association did not receive any compensation for holding offices, and membership required an “untarnished reputation” and was revoked “without lenience,” when some “dishonoring punishment” by the authorities diminished a member’s social rank (pp. 9-10). Likewise, the Association for Sick-Care only admitted newcomers after they had been in Hamburg for a year, or when they had erected a business in the city.
Evidently, these young men strove to establish themselves as respectable middle class individuals and being recipients of charity or being in the company of unreliable newcomers or of men with questionable reputations would have impinged on their social standing. Even more concretely, a merchant’s “honor” was his creditworthiness, and a young man who was in the process of building a good name in the business world for himself had to be extremely careful. Also, while they seem to have been aware that illness could threaten their economic standing and make them dependent on help and care, these young merchants possessed ambition, self-esteem, and a new sense of self-reliance. They not only asserted themselves by looking after their interest, but their association also expressed the confident and self-referential world view of the rising middle classes, rather than the religious and more humble outlook of previous generations of Jewish men. The following section will discuss this transition in some detail.
The sick-care societies that had operated in early modern German lands had not dispensed standard monetary benefits. Appropriately called hevrot bikkur holim societies for visiting the sick, pre-modern associations had operated in a religious framework and focused on offering spiritual support in illness and on providing assistance with the performance of death rites and burials. When a member of a hevrah singular of hevrot had received a financial contribution, it had been an act of charity. This was the practice from which the members of the Association for Sick-Care distanced themselves so carefully and forcefully.
Likewise though not quite as explicitly, they rejected or at least eschewed the religious framework that had prompted the proliferation of hevrot in early modern Germany from the late 17th century on and that was still guiding for many Jewish voluntary societies in the early decades of the 19th century. Early modern hevrot had been founded originally for the study of religious texts in a mystical context, and the rise of Jewish voluntary societies had been fueled by the spreading of kabbalistic ideas and practices in Ashkenaz.
Thus, a premodern hevrah was above all a male prayer circle whose members aspired to fulfill the mitzvot religious commandments of studying Torah, zedakah, and performing “acts of loving-kindness,” called gemilut hesed. Gemilut hesed encompassed various benevolent acts, among which burial stood out in importance. In fact, the first hevrot had been burial societies and into the 19th century, the great majority of Jewish voluntary societies still looked after the burials of their members. Hevrot also fulfilled important social functions, such as feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and giving dowries to poor brides, but their central purpose was to allow their members to acquire spiritual benefits. Whether a pious, benevolent act benefitted a deceased, sick, or poor person, the philanthropic deed ultimately and primarily constituted a means of serving God. Accordingly, statutes of Jewish associations had commonly cited the reward in the olam ha-ba world to come as a motivation for establishing a voluntary society.
In the 18th century however, hevrot in Germany and Central Europe added mutual-aid features to the functions of their voluntary societies and thereby laid the seed for a dramatic transformation of Jewish associational life. As discussed above, members of youth hevrot were now entitled to receiving medical care and financial benefits when sick or in need, and in Frankfurt unmarried Jews had created a specialized mutual-aid sick-care society as early as 1738. In Hamburg, the association Agudah Jescharah Honest Society, founded around 1780, followed this trend of financially supporting sick members, and numerous other Jewish voluntary associations in the city came to dispense dowries, loans, or plain monetary donations to members. In fact, Hamburg established itself as a center of Jewish and non-Jewish mutual-aid societies.
Members of most 18th century youth hevrot had still engaged in acts of gemilut hesed such as visiting the sick, burying the dead, and poor relief, and they are likely to have held prayer services and study sessions. However, some Jewish self-help societies began to devote themselves exclusively to mutual-aid functions. Beginning in the early decades of the 18th century, Hamburg’s Jews founded small death-benefit chests Sterbekassen, which provided monetary benefits to help with the costs of burials and to replace some of the income a family lost, when abstaining from work during the religiously mandated seven days of mourning. In marked contrast to burial societies, these death-benefit chests held neither prayer services nor religious study sessions. Their members performed no ablutions, refrained from guarding or burying the dead, and did not comfort families of deceased Jews. This is the context in which the members of the Association for Sick-Care likewise had withdrawn from engaging in religious practices such as Torah study, prayer, or burial rites. In fact, the 1832 annual report of the association spelled out the shift in world view that underlay these changes, by stating that “elevated love of humanity” Rainer Liedtke, Jewish welfare in Hamburg and Manchester, c. 1850–1914, Oxford 1998, p. 193. had come to replace a charity that had sought reward in a religious framework.
In the religious economy of pre-modern rabbinic Judaism, zedakah and gemilut hesed had allowed the donors and benefactors to accumulate merit for the afterlife; and recipients of charity or loving-kindness were valued, because they enabled others to perform acts that pleased and honored God. Yet in the introduction to the statutes of the Hamburg Association for Sick-Care, discussed here, benevolence Wohltätigkeit was no longer understood within religious parameters. Here, benevolence was no longer zedakah in the premodern, religious sense. Rather, the “innumerable benevolent deeds” (p. 2) members could engage in, such as financially supporting of the Association for Sick-Care, visiting sick fellow members, and caring for them, were now defined in strictly secular terms, as benefitting humanity. Concepts of morality and honor had lost much, if not all, of their religious connotations, and ideas of civic responsibility and bourgeois respectability had come to motivate and shape Jewish associational life. Thus, this text exemplifies the transition of Jewish voluntary associations from early modern, religiously motivated hevrot to modern forms of benevolence and self-help. Jews in the later decades of the 19th century and scholars of Jewish history until today have often regarded these modernized forms of Jewish welfare as traditional, at times even calling them zedakah. And in fact, the innovations of the Enlightenment era became the traditions of an upwardly mobile German Jewish population.
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Benjamin Baader, Dr. phil., is Associate Professor at the Department of History at the University of Manitoba, Canada. His focus of research is: Jewish history, gender history, women's history, history of masculinities, religion, history and memory, historiography as well as German history.
Benjamin Maria Baader, The Hamburg Verein für Kranken=Pflege and the modernization of Jewish voluntary societies in the early 19th century, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, November 19, 2019. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-179.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].