Jews endured Depression better than others, scholar says

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In October of 1930 the Eureka Benevolent Society — the precursor to the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services — handled 174 clients and gave away $7,000. Nearly 2-1/2 years later, the same organization served 635 clients and doled out $19,000.

Nonetheless, and in part because of this effort, Bay Area Jews weathered the Depression better than most residents.

According to a 1933 public survey of unemployment relief in San Francisco, "The proportion of Jewish dependency throughout the Depression has been markedly less than that of the general population."

Shelly Tenenbaum, an associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., on sabbatical in Berkeley, uncovered this information while embarking on her latest project, a comparative study of Jewish survival during the Depression in San Francisco and Boston.

Several years ago Tenenbaum penned "A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the U.S. 1880-1945." While studying Jewish loan societies, she noticed none disbanded during the Depression. And some, like the one in Providence, R.I., actually formed during those years.

"I wanted to place these facts in a larger perspective and context," she says. Tenenbaum also discovered that "there was no one Jewish experience during the Depression. In terms of Jews, obviously your class affected your experience."

Take Celia Alperth, whose husband owned a furniture store at Fillmore and McAllister.

When the Depression came, "they [clients] stopped giving payments but he didn't take the furniture away," she wrote in her memoirs, housed at the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. "He got ulcers," and ultimately lost his business.

Excerpts from Margaret Samuels' diary as a Mills College student in 1932, also kept at the Western Jewish History Center, paint a different perspective:

March 10, 1932: "Got up early for once in my life and went down to the Buick place. My car is a dream. Black body with a light, bright green trimming around the windows and fine striping on the body. The green isn't what I expected — but it's much better. Very expensive upholstery by mistake. Gee. But it's beautiful."

Or March 25, 1932: "Had a time for myself looking for a maid."

Samuels' entries raise an interesting issue, Tenenbaum says. "The larger question for me was `How did Jews move up [the economic ladder] so fast?'

"I'd always heard it was because of education and a work ethic. But this seemed rather simplistic to me."

She theorizes instead that Jews across the country survived the Depression better than non-Jews for two reasons: Jews took care of their own through federations and other agencies, and Jews were more financially secure than other ethnic groups by the 1930s.

Two-thirds of Jews from Russia arrived with urban industrial skills. They also had higher literacy rates than other groups, Tenenbaum explains.

Another reason for Jews' financial advancement is that "Jews came to the United States as family units. They came to stay. They had invested in the country — in business and in education," Tenenbaum says.

Bay Area Jews were even less vulnerable, she adds.

In 1930, San Francisco Jews raised $600,000 for a new Jewish Community Center. And in 1931, they raised $800,000 for an addition to Mount Zion Hospital.

Jews accounted for less than 5 percent of the San Francisco population yet contributed 30 percent to Community Chest, the non sectarian umbrella organization for city agencies.

This generosity was returned during the Depression, when the federation received 20 percent of Community Chest expenditures and "the Jewish community infrastructure [utilized this in] every aspect of relief — scholarships, camps, matzah, interest-free loans, help to German emigres," Tenenbaum says.

But most San Francisco Jews didn't lean on this assistance.

Professionals were hit less hard than unskilled workers, Tenenbaum explains. And by the 1930s, 40 percent of working Jews in the area were employed in white-collar jobs, compared to 15 percent of all San Franciscans.

In addition, only .7 percent of area Jews were considered unskilled labor, vs. 9 percent of the general population. One-third of San Francisco Jews owned businesses. Nine percent of other San Franciscans made that claim.

Meanwhile, with the advent of welfare, in 1934 the Eureka Benevolent Society — a federation beneficiary — and other similar organizations were forced to turn their relief cases over to the government.

According to Tenenbaum, aid recipients fared better from the Eureka Benevolent Society than from welfare. But the benevolent society shifted its focus from relief to services and its name to Jewish Family and Children's Services. By March of 1934, its caseloads dropped to 210.

Still, the Jewish community continued to call upon itself to raise funds for Community Chest and Jews in Europe.

"Expected funds can be obtained," read a Jan. 3, 1930 article in Emanu-El, the precursor to the Jewish Bulletin. "People realize that hungry mouths must be fed and sick folks attended to regardless of the stock market and surely our Jewish people will not diminish their donations when the call for aid is more urgent than ever."

Four years later, Emanu-El ran an editorial piece reading, "We may impulsively recoil at giving more with depressed incomes, but our inconvenience is one between the margins of luxury and necessity… while the plight of European Jews is between necessity and death."

Tenenbaum explains that from 1930 to 1933, the Jewish press mixed articles about poverty and unemployment with optimistic pieces and stories about synagogues joining together to provide food and shelter. However, starting Jan. 30, 1933, when Adolph Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, "the Depression took a back seat to coverage about Europe," Tenenbaum says.

Emanu-El wrote about "repression, discrimination and horrors of daily life in Europe. Appeals for funds went overseas," she says.

"The conscience was, `compared to European Jews, San Francisco Jews had it good.' They seemed to understand the importance of self-help and understand their own economic mobility."