Lacking a chief rabbinate, American Jewry has instead often found its leaders in the philanthropic sector. No leader was as pre-eminent in his day as Jacob Schiff (1847–1920), the investment banker who guided American Jewry from 1890 to 1920 in the crucial years when more than two million Eastern European Jews arrived on America’s shores. With Jacob H. Schiff: A Study in American Jewish Leadership, Naomi W. Cohen, the distinguished former professor of Jewish History at Hunter College and author of Jews in Christian America, has provided us with the first full-length biography of Schiff.
Dignified, elegant, and self-assured, Schiff was a German Jew of aristocratic bearing, the son of a prominent Frankfurt banking family. Schiff left for America at the ripe age of 18, with $500 in his pocket and a packet of kosher meat, to work in New York, quickly joining (and eventually heading) the investment firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Under Schiff’s deft leadership, Kuhn, Loeb & Co. came to finance America’s expanding railways and growth companies, including Western Union and Westinghouse, thereby challenging J. P. Morgan’s dominance of American high finance.
New York’s German Jews, predominantly located on the Upper East Side, were far better heeled than their Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European brethren residing in tenement squalor on the Lower East Side. But Schiff did not suffer from the traditional German Jewish aversion to the Ostjuden; instead, he realized that the future of American Jewry lay in their great numbers. Guided by a strong philanthropic ethos inculcated in the Jewish community of his native Frankfurt, Schiff worked diligently to integrate these newcomers into American society.
Schiff, Cohen notes, “labored to shape a collective Jewish identity in tune with the modern era, an identity predicated on Jewish continuity even as it broke from ghetto life.”
Schiff was a leading proponent of Americanization, of taking traditional Eastern European immigrants with their black hats and beards and turning them into modern Americans, teaching them English, citizenship and American civic culture along the way. Schiff thought the best way to lessen anti-Semitism would be to integrate—not assimilate—Jewry into America as a whole. Accordingly, one of Schiff’s major priorities was to discourage Jews from congregating in ghettos. He was a major giver to the Jewish Agricultural Society, which sought to place Jews in farm settings. In addition, he pioneered the Galveston Plan, an attempt to get Eastern European Jews to immigrate to Texas and the Southwest rather than the urban northeast. (The Plan failed, however, as only 10,000 Jews went to Galveston from 1907 to 1914.)
Part and parcel of this immigrant’s plan to Americanize his fellow Jews was Schiff’s effort at religious reform. Schiff was raised as a Modern Orthodox Jew in Frankfurt, but like most of his fellow Germans, he affiliated with Reform Judaism in America, attending New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Reform, with its outright disdain for tradition and dietary laws, was an anathema to the largely traditional Eastern European Jews. Though Schiff was neither kosher nor Sabbath observant, he respected and understood Orthodoxy. He thought that the best way to Americanize Eastern European Jewry would be by promoting a middle way between strict Orthodoxy and lax Reform; a more modern practice that would conserve some of the traditions discarded by Reform. Hence, Schiff became the major benefactor for the then-fledgling Conservative Jewish movement by heavily underwriting the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
For those Jews trapped in the ghetto, Schiff became the major benefactor (and, in most cases, the guiding light) of numerous communal institutions designed to welcome or care for the uprooted. Many of these institutions continue to play a major role in the social service infrastructure of New York City. Schiff founded and, for 35 years, ran the Montefiore Hospital for the chronically ill. (Of Montefiore, he once said, “I have reared it as I would my own child.”) Schiff funded the Visiting Nurse Service to provide in-home health care and the Henry Street Settlement to shelter new immigrants, and was a major donor to the Hebrew Free Loan Society, a mutual aid society.
While these institutions were designed to promote communal well-being, they were also designed to show Christian Americans that Jews could take care of their own. Though these institutions were Jewish in character, they were not religious institutions, and, at Schiff’s insistence, their services, by and large, were open to qualified individuals of any creed. Schiff, it should be noted, contributed heavily as well to non-Jewish philanthropies, such as the YMCA and secular institutions, including Harvard University and Barnard College. Of special interest to him were efforts to improve the social and economic status of blacks; Schiff was a prominent contributor to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Schiff’s philanthropic interests soon overwhelmed his business interests. When, for instance, the stock of the Northern Pacific Railroad crashed in May 1901, runners scoured Wall Street in search of Schiff, who was later found tending to the ill at Montefiore Hospital. Later in life, when Schiff’s own health began to falter, he chose to curtail his work at Kuhn, Loeb rather than his charitable obligations.
Schiff believed in old-fashioned, hands-on philanthropy, not the kind practiced by the denizens of today’s cocktail fundraising circuit. Schiff quietly and regularly did the rounds at Montefiore Hospital and the Henry Street Settlement. Schiff was a beloved figure on the Lower East Side. His presence provided great succor to those in need, especially as he remembered the names and case histories of patients and residents. Moreover, these frequent and unguided visits afforded Schiff the opportunity to view his endeavors first hand, without the rose-colored accounts of social service professionals in his employ. Schiff was not an “easy donor”—intimately familiar with the charities he funded, Schiff never hesitated to offer unsolicited, critical advice to those engaged in philanthropic activity. As a board member, Schiff was known for asking hard questions and demanding straightforward answers.
In short, through this mix of generosity and accountability, Schiff acted towards philanthropies the way he wanted them to act toward recipients of their services, offering a “tough love” approach. Indeed, Schiff actually practiced many of the cornerstones of what Marvin Olasky has termed “effective compassion.” The institutions he supported offered face-to-face philanthropy, to what Schiff termed the “deserving poor,” who themselves, in turn, were expected to work to promote their own good. Schiff’s major goal, when possible, was to foster independence among aid recipients. However, if Schiff’s efforts by and large had a communal orientation, they did not, however, offer a faith-based approach to fighting social problems.
Cohen’s fascinating portrait of this extraordinary man focuses on the various dualities in Schiff’s life; the businessman and the philanthropist, the German Jew among the Eastern Europeans, the Jewish leader in Christian America, the autocrat dealing with an ever more democratic Jewish world. What is missing from this account, however, is a critical assessment of Schiff’s efforts, especially his attempt to promote integration through Americanization. Some estimates show that fully one-third of the descendants of all Jewish immigrants to America (including the most prominent members of Schiff’s own family) are no longer Jewish. A critical analysis of how and why these efforts at integration have so often led to assimilation would have been useful.
Kenneth R. Weinstein is director of the Washington Office of the Hudson Institute.