Jacob Schiff was born in Germany in 1847, the son of a prominent rabbinical family. Over the objections of his father, he traveled to New York City in 1865 to work a brief stint as a broker. Eventually he settled in the U.S. and took a position at the prominent banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb, and Company. By the close of the nineteenth century Schiff was one of the richest and most prominent men in the country. He channeled much of his wealth into Jewish causes like Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and the American Jewish Relief Committee.
Indeed, Schiff supported nearly every major Jewish charity of his day. He was a major lifelong funder of the Henry Street Settlement that did so much to reduce immigrant squalor in New York City’s Lower East Side. Amid rising pogroms in Russia and elsewhere he financed Zionist organizations and efforts to relocate European Jews to safety in Palestine. He also aided many non-Jewish causes. He funded the Montefiore Hospital in New York for decades, served as its president, and visited the hospital weekly. Throughout his philanthropic career Jacob Schiff resisted public recognition. When he saw plans for a plaque on the Jewish Theological Seminary building he immediately crossed out his name.