In 1878, a group of German Jewish philanthropists gathered at Temple Beth Elohim on Keap Street to do something to protect and shelter Jewish orphans. Before that time, Brooklyn’s Jewish orphans were being taken care of by the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, in Manhattan, in an orphanage on East 77th St. In 1878, New York City had the largest Jewish population in the country, over 60,000 people, while Brooklyn had only 13,000. But as more and more Jewish immigrants poured into the city, the Asylum could not handle its charges, and Brooklyn’s as well, and the Jewish orphans of the city of Brooklyn had nowhere to go. Led by Brooklyn philanthropist Sigismund Kaufman, the German Jewish community raised over $2,000 to open an orphanage.
A state charter was obtained in 1879, and a building at 384 McDonough Street, in the Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood, opened as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum Society of the City of Brooklyn (BHOA). In the first year, they admitted eight boys and two girls. By 1881, they had 25 kids, and they needed to add a new wing to the building. They now occupied 29 city lots in their buildings on MacDonough near Stuyvesant Avenue. They thought they now had enough room to last them another ten years. They woefully underestimated.
In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, and along with the commuters, the businesses and the trade came thousands of immigrants who had been crushed into the tenements of the Lower East Side. In Brooklyn they found more room, better housing and a growing economy. Thousands of Jewish immigrants escaping the pograms of Eastern Europe began settling in Brooklyn, and with them came many more orphaned children.
We have to remember that there were no social services back then, no official government agencies who took care of children or any other people who couldn’t care for themselves. It was up to private and religious charities to be the lifelines. Brooklyn, like all cities, had orphans of all races and creeds wandering the streets, living where they could, employed as messengers, newsboys, match girls and whatever else they could get. Many of the Jewish orphans could not speak English, had never been to school and endured prejudice for being homeless, poor, foreign and Jewish.
Brooklyn’s wealthy German Jewish community took the challenge to heart, and held fundraisers, dances, fairs and events to raise money for a larger facility. In May of 1892, the cornerstone was laid for a large new facility that would take up the block of Ralph Avenue, Howard Avenue, Dean and Pacific Streets. It was a sprawling, classic late Victorian Romanesque Revival institution designed by Theobald Engelhardt, one of Brooklyn’s best known German-American architects. The Orphan Asylum at 373-393 Ralph Avenue sat on a hill, with the rising skyline of Manhattan visible to the north. It opened in December of 1892 with 139 children in residence, 56 boys and 83 girls. The grounds had a large playground, a gymnasium, dormitory rooms, bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, classrooms, workrooms and a hospital facility.
The entire complex was known as the “house on the hill” by the children. In 1899, the organization officially changed its name to the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The children were clothed in uniforms made for them by the Ladies’ Sewing Society, which in 1895 was led by Mrs. Abraham Abraham, the wife of the founder of the Abraham & Straus deptartment store. Her husband was one of the largest donors to the asylum, and both of them were very active in various committees and fundraisers. Most of Brooklyn’s prominent Jewish businessmen and their wives were active partners in the affairs of the asylum.
In 1895, the New York Times praised the BHOA for their charity and for a fine building, saying, “The generous philanthropy of the Brooklyn Israelites is shown in the maintenance and equipment of their beautiful orphan asylum…The building has been constructed in the most modern manner. It is considered as a model for such institutions, and delegates from all denominations and all sections of the Union have inspected it with the view of using it as a pattern. In every case it has been pronounced superb in all its appointments by experts, and not a few of the asylums built in the past three years in this country have followed closely on its plans.”
Good thing, because by 1909, the institution had exploded with over six hundred kids in their care. The opening of the Manhattan Bridge in 1903, and the growth of the subways had brought thousands of new immigrants to Brooklyn, and hundreds of destitute children. By 1926, the BHOA listed one thousand kids, with 400 living on Ralph Avenue, and the other 600 living with foster parents throughout Brooklyn.
Not all of these children were orphans. From the very beginning, many of the children had one or both parents still alive, but unable to raise them. Sometimes there just wasn’t enough money, or food, or shelter. By 1933, during the Great Depression, the BHOA estimated that 65 percent of their children had parents, but the parents were too poor to take care of them. The BHOA took kids from the age of 4 to 10, but expanded to serve children up until the age of 16. The children attended nearby Public School No. 35, and also received classes at the asylum for Hebrew, German and Torah studies.
Girls were given sewing lessons and lessons in the domestic arts. Older boys were given vocational training and/or professional and college education, often with financial help from the BHOA. The children had sports and gymnastic training. The BHOA had a large concert band, which was extremely popular for fundraisers, and like their Catholic orphan counterparts at the St. John’s Home for Boys, the band made the rounds of political and social functions, where the children performed with great gusto.
Life for the children was not easy, but it was not awful, either. The children lived very regimented and disciplined lives at the Home, but they were all fed, clothed and educated. Many would never have received those things with their parents, or out on their own. They were taught Jewish traditions, languages and customs. Alumni of the home would write that they always knew they all had hundreds of “cousins” in their fellows, and those connections would be with them throughout their lives. Although it must have been stigmatizing and embarrassing to attend nearby public school with asylum uniforms, the kids were probably as well dressed as some of the other kids in the school, if not better.
From time to time they got treats, as well. During her lifetime, Mrs. Abraham took the entire population of kids on an annual trip to Coney Island, which she paid for. In 1898, over 200 kids descended on Coney Island for a day of riding the rides, eating hot dogs at Feltmann’s and playing on the beach. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that a great time was had by all, and a tired group of children made their way back to their beds on Ralph Avenue.
By the years of the Great Depression, more and more children began to be boarded out with foster families in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. There were talks of merging the Brooklyn and Manhattan Hebrew Orphan Associations, which had not been on speaking terms since Manhattan’s rejection of Brooklyn’s orphans back in the late 1880s. This would save resources, and make the need for the Ralph Avenue facility unnecessary.
In 1939, the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum closed its doors forever, and in 1940, sold the grounds to the city. The old orphanage was torn down in October of 1940 by the New York City Housing Authority, and the site is now NYCHA housing. BHOA relocated to a small building at 150 Court Street, changing its name to the BHOA Children’s Services Bureau. Their literature read, “the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum did not close — only a building closed — and hundreds of homes opened.”
In 1960, all of the city’s Hebrew Orphan societies merged to become part of Jewish Family Services. What a long journey to protect Jewish children, by a group of dedicated people meeting at a small synagogue on Keap Street, those many years ago. Perhaps one of the Orphan Asylum’s alumni, Eden Ahbez, the composer of Nat King Cole’s famous 1947 song, “Nature Boy” said it best: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” GMAP
(Originally posted 3/24/11)