When the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel, nearly two thousand years ago, they dispersed across many countries, fragmenting into small groups among widely divergent cultures and empires. Under Christian and Islamic rule, in the German ghetto or in the Polish shtetl; however, the Jews remained internationally united. The glue was an allegiance to a code of laws and rituals set forth in the Torah and Talmud.
But Judaism is more than a religion; it is a way of life experienced through the kehillah, the community. Forced to endure harsh conditions, without anyone to rely on for assistance but themselves, Jews developed a communal infrastructure that was uniquely Jewish. With an obligation in Jewish law to help the less fortunate, everyone in the community made regular contributions to the collection box, the kuppah. This fundraising system neither shamed nor glorified: both recipient and giver remained anonymous.
Community trustees divided the funds among a plethora of welfare providers. From the burial society to the soup kitchen to the dowry fund for poor girls, a communal organization existed to fit virtually every need. The kuppah, then, was the ultimate safety net for Jews who, throughout the centuries, lived through difficult times, from poverty to pogroms.
This system continued in the new country, as eastern European Jews, many destitute and illiterate, streamed into America's largest cities. They settled in Philadelphia's South Side, Boston's North End, Baltimore's South Side and Chicago's West End around Maxwell Street. New York's Lower East Side became the heart of the migration, with 330,000 Jews jammed into impoverished, dumb-bell shaped tenements.
As hard as it was, these Jews, for the first time, went about their business with relative freedom – and many immigrants became quite successful. They continued to be involved with human rights and now looked out for their less fortunate neighbors by creating a sophisticated philanthropic network that served the needs of the whole community.