With regard to the Jewish poor, the state of the early modern period was present only through the exercise of pressure. Because the social welfare and poor relief system was borne by the Christian churches or by city institutions such as hospital foundations, the state saw no cause to become active with regard to Jews. Integration or re-socialization of the poor by the state was at best pursued through prison or the workhouse, in which the poor were supposed to be trained to industriousness. Poverty was considered a moral stain; the structural causes of poverty, in general, clearly recognizable in the 18th century, were not accepted by the state (or by society). The principle of help as self-help, meaning help for the poor in overcoming their poverty by themselves, goes back to the Enlightenment. One of the earliest institutions of this kind was created by the Patriotic Society Patriotische Gesellschaft (founded in 1765) with its Paupers’ Institute Armenanstalt, started in 1788. In contrast to the existing practices of poor relief, it relied strongly on the principle of solidarity and providing the able-bodied poor with the means of self-help. The Jewish community remained excluded from the general social and poor relief system. It also made no claims on state or society. Although, because of the numerous special taxes levied on the Jews in the second half of the 18th century, the increasing poverty of Congregation members became manifest. In the care of the poor, the Jewish community was self-reliant, solving this problem in the framework of traditional and obligatory charitable giving (Tzedakah), in which individual congregations raised donations for the poor or for the erecting of poorhouses for wandering Jewish beggars.
The announcement by the authorized Superintendents of the Poor recalls the existing Hamburg Tzedakah tradition: at Purim the poor “humbly” begged, that is customarily at the homes of the better off, and were “generously” rewarded, so that at Passover, approximately four weeks later, they could “sustain themselves and their families” reasonably well. This was repeated at Rosh Hashanah. At other great holidays and with family occasions, such as weddings and funerals, the poor received donations.
Notwithstanding this individual begging, the Triple Congregation had a strictly organized poor relief system directed at the top by the “authorized Superintendent of the Poor,” who also exercised control over individual begging. In the general discourse of the Enlightenment, the nature of Jewish begging, especially as it was practiced in the territorial states, fell under scrutiny, involved in this critical discussion were also some Maskilim, who also produced suggestions for improvement.
In Hamburg, the Jewish poor relief system was put under intense pressure in 1788 by the Patriotic Society’s Patriotische Gesellschaft establishment of the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeinen Armenanstalt. Although this institution was based on a private initiative, given the prestige of its initiators, it exerted great influence on city policy. Because the Institute for the Poor Armenanstalt took over care of paupers, begging had been forbidden by an act of the City Council. The Jewish poor relief system did not come under the authority of the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeinen Armenanstalt but was nonetheless affected by the ban on begging, so that “the paupers concerned were [now] put in a difficult situation.” Soon after the edict banning begging, the Superintendent of the Poor viewed it as a “duty to support our poor so that they are not left wholly without hope.” The restructuring of the Jewish poor relief system oriented itself to the organization of the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeinen Armenanstalt. Thus, in November 1788, there were established lists in which a donor could register with a monthly gift, a donation that a pauper and his family members would receive, “as long as he belonged to the congregation or was one of the long-time resident foreign Jewish paupers, who presently begged their bread at homes or on public streets.” The circle of eligible paupers was thus quite broadly defined, although they had to have resided in the city for a long time. In principle, the congregation kept careful watch so that no foreign Jewish beggars were included. Congregation members were warned against giving a place to sleep to foreign Jews who lacked transit or legitimation papers from the Aliens Commission. The pauper authorities established a “community room” with counseling hours, during which paupers could sign in. Those who did not do so were excluded from receiving provisions. In this respect, the general disciplinary character of the Jewish Institute for the Poor was clear; it was also characteristic of the public poor relief system, a consequence now inspired by Enlighted reform. Eligible paupers received a “certificate” which qualified them to receive support from the congregation.
In Altona, the restructuring proved especially difficult for the care of the poor. A special collection in 1789, because of an extreme cold wave, ran successfully in the Hamburg community, but it bestowed no aid for the poor in Altona although there, too, a collection had taken place. Because the greater part of the poor lived in Altona, they remained in a difficult situation. An appeal was made to Hamburg, urging a special tax, on the basis that “we constitute one Congregation.” The yield was supposed to be used to provide heating fuel for the poor. It was adduced that the situation of the poor of Altona was all the more precarious, compared to those of Hamburg, because in Altona tribute had to be paid to the sovereign, the Danish king. The part of that sum owed by individual paupers was deducted and held back from their weekly support. The Superintendents’ appeal for funds, so seemingly matter-of-fact but so pressing, did not dispense with a religious component, for example: “The Almighty will shield us from all adversity and suffering and let our wealth and welfare flourish.
The desired goal of completely banning begging in the streets in accordance with the state ordinance was not attained by the Jewish Institute for the Poor – nor was it by the public Institute for the Poor Armenanstalt. Again and again Congregation members lodged complaints that despite their contributions they were being accosted. In addition to the contributions for the poor, the better situated members also donated during services in the public synagogues, among other times, when being called upon to read from the Torah or at the yearly festivals, when it was traditional to pay a thaler. The erection of numerous Klaus [foundation] synagogues, in the divine services of which the wealthy participated, reduced revenues so that the Executive Board issued a ban on attending these synagogues. The appeal of the congregations was repeated again in the 1790s, this time also with reference to state penalties. Understandably, the invocations refrained from criticism of the ban; indeed, they supported it, as the beggars who were in conflict with the officials were denied any help. An important role in the care of the Jewish poor of the Congregation was the concern for heating fuel, for which a collection was begun as early as July. Not a single pauper, but rather “the Director of the Association for Distribution of Peat to the Poor” “went around (in the Congregation) collecting the usual contributions.” Alongside the pauper officials of the Congregation, an “Association” for the Support of the Poor, that had been formed at the time of the Triple Congregation. We cannot tell from the sources the exact composition of this association, but it can be determined that it acted as a social welfare organization within the Jewish community, having characteristics formed from an engaged enlightened philosophy and analogous to those of the larger society. It was a sign of the acculturation of the Jewish minority to the structures of the larger society; a process that was initiated by the Jewish exponents of the Enlightenment, the Maskilim, among others. In the Triple Congregation there was no Jewish Enlightenment circle, as was traditional in Berlin or Breslau; also lacking were contacts to non-Jewish Enlightenment society, nevertheless there were acculturation tendencies.
The leadership of the Triple Congregation strived for acculturation in the sense of Dohm’s calls for the “improvement of the Jews” as a precondition for their Emancipation. The Aide-Mémoire of 1811, addressed to the honorable State Councilors Count Chaban and the Chevalier Faure, approved by “the Great Committee of the Triple Congregation” testifies to this aim. In it, the authors emphasized the Congregation’s care of the poor, above all, for the education of their children, to which end “useful institutions” had been created. The aim was to establish other ways of earning a living besides dealing in second hand-goods. Moreover, the Mémoire lamented the “increasing number of the poor,” for which the “Congregation treasury, administered by one of our own without pay,” could scarcely suffice any longer. After the boom in commerce of the 1790s, resulting from the closure of the Dutch ports during the Wars of Revolution, Hamburg and its neighboring communities fell into a severe economic crisis, first because of the blockade of the Elbe River after 1802 and then through the French occupation of the Elbe cities in 1806. This had negative consequences on the willingness of propertied members of the Congregation to make donations.
All in all, the development of the Jewish poor relief system in Hamburg between 1788 and 1818 presents a positive image. It weathered severe crises, such as the expulsion of paupers in 1813 and 1814 and the famine crisis of 1817. The members of the Congregation showed in this period a strong sense of social engagement, which remained typical of the development of the Jewish social welfare system during the 19th century. In place of begging in the streets by Jewish paupers, which was the rule until 1788, there was initiated in these 30 years a modern, Jewish social welfare system.
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Arno Herzig, Prof. Dr. phil., born 1937, was until his retirement in 2002 professor for German history at the University of Hamburg. His focus of research is: protest movements of the working class in early modern times and the 19th century, German-Jewish history, confessionalization in the early modern period.
Arno Herzig, Appeal for the Poor of the Triple Congregation (Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek) of March 7,1789 (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 15, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-122.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].