The act of matanot le’evyonim (gifts for the needy) has been part of the Purim celebration ever since the instructions for the holiday were spelled out in the Scroll of Esther 9:22.
Reform synagogues in United States in the 19th century carried out that injunction. Members of those institutions were among the largest contributors from the Civil War through World War I, benefiting the Jewish poor, newly arrived refugees and American Jewish institutions.
One reason they gave to fellow Jews was because they feared that Jewish poor would provide a negative image feeding into antisemitism against all Jews. Besides individual giving and giving through such institutions as federations of Jewish charities, they transformed matanot le’evyonim into a format that would generate funds. Purim Balls became major social events bringing together Jews and non-Jews that generated substantial funds for charity through entrance fees.
When living in Delaware during the 1970s, I worked with members of the Wilmington community to establish a Jewish Historical Society of Delaware, now celebrating its 45th anniversary. We created the Delaware Jewish Archives to preserve the documents and artifacts that were discovered for the January 1976 Jewish Bicentennial Exhibit. In my research, I learned about the first Purim Ball held by Wilmington Jewry at the Grand Opera House on February 27, 1880.
“It was a mammoth success. Webster’s Academy on the second floor of the Grand Opera House on Market Street was packed. The Grand March was stunning, with 50 couples, a few from Philadelphia participating.”
This Purim Ball followed in the spirit of the New York Purim Ball Association, established in 1865. Dr. Philip Goodman z’l, a published authority on the Jewish holidays, told me much about American Jewish observance in peace time and wartime.
Working for the chaplaincy division of the Jewish Welfare Board during World War II, he sent the American Jewish press monthly “tales” of the American Jews as they fought and celebrated the Jewish holidays. Money raised at the Wilmington Purim Ball was used to refurbish a room in the downtown area to be used as a synagogue.
I HAVE found evidence of Purim Balls in the late 19th century in 20 American cities in the North, South, Midwest and West. San Francisco held an 1864 Purim Ball in the Academy of Music with the mayor in attendance. The 1913 Los Angeles Purim Charity Ball organized by the Ladies Auxiliary, was well attended, since “this society is well known and much appreciated among charity circles.”
At San Francisco’s Beth Israel Synagogue in March 1896, 123 religious schoolchildren presented the “Cantata of Esther.” The “thousand dollars raised will be used for the benefit of the Sabbath school.”
Matanot Le’evyonim was collected and distributed even during the Civil War. Balls were frequently held under the auspices of men’s organizations, but women typically did much of the work.
The Baltimore Jewish Times published interesting statistics a week before Purim 1943 about Jewish fundraising during the war. Ironically, on that page was an advertisement for the comedy You Can’t Take It With You, about to open at the Maryland Theater. In the adjoining column, a headline read: “Palestine Jews Contribute $5,615,210 in Three Years.” The story read, “The Jewish community of Palestine has contributed a total of $5,615,210 in the three years from 1940 through 1942 to the various funds and institutions in the Jewish National Home, according to statistics released here by the United Palestine Appeal.”
How could this be?
“Despite the fact that the salaries and incomes of Palestinian Jewry are low in comparison to every major Jewish community in the world, the Yishuv has set an example in fundraising for ‘the advancement in every activity in the country to increase its absorptive capacity and to improve its economic, cultural and general institutions, the UPA Bulletin declared.’”
THERE HAVE been few studies of what the inhabitants of Palestine contributed for their needs during World War II. These sums – $1,442,360 in 1940; $1,561,827 in 1941; and $2,611,023 in 1942 – are quite amazing. Where did this money come from? There was no Jewish Mandate budget for Jewish institutions, because Britain ruled. These funds came out of Palestinian Jews’ pockets.
I would suggest two motivating factors.
One, the Yishuv was awaiting a very large aliyah, even though that they knew immigration doors were largely closed and massive numbers of Jews were being murdered by the Nazis. They contributed to boost the Jewish Agency, but also underwrote the unemployment fund, war needs, the Jewish Relief fund and middle-class settlers’ aid fund, as described in the UPA story. Little is written about solicitations in the eight or nine newspapers existing in Eretz Yisrael during the war. The statistics underline the fact that our sisters and brethren, who lived in the Holy Land, recognized their responsibilities.
Let us compare the amount raised by United Jewish Appeal in 1941 in the United States and Canada with the funds raised by Palestine Jewry. That year, 600,000 Jews lived in Palestine, whereas five and a half million resided in USA and Canada. North American Jewry raised $15,895,697, while Palestinian Jewry raised $1,561,827. One US archive has the names of every contributor to the UJA in 1941. Unfortunately, in Israel, we have none of the names – only the total sum donated.
Atlanta Georgia hosted the annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations of USA and Canada in 1941. Some 25 major American Jewish leaders spoke, plus the Palestinian Jew, Dr. Dov Yosef, who was the mayor of Jerusalem during the siege of 1948. The celebrity guest was the beautiful actress Deanna Durbin. Atlanta Jews, who numbered 14,000, were inspired by the presentations. The goal for Atlanta’s annual Federation drive was $135,000 (about $2.5 million in today’s dollars). At the end of the actual drive, Atlanta was $35,000 short of its goal.
Southern Israelite, the local Anglo-Jewish newspaper, encouraged the community to work harder.
“How can anyone bargain with tragedy? Give generously for Jewish Emergency and Preservation. This is our crisis!”
Mathematically, we can say that Palestinian Jews gave less than Atlanta Jews. In 1941, 600,000 Jews in Palestine raised roughly $1.5 million dollars ($2.50 per person), while 14,000 Jews in Atlanta raised $100,000 ($7 per person). In terms of per capita giving, Palestinian Jews were giving relatively small sums. However, it is unbelievable that they could give at all. How could such large sums of money be raised in Palestine despite “low salaries and income?” Purim’s matanot la’evyonim provided the focus for giving.
When you hear the Megillah this year and see plates or baskets at the evening service, reflect that money is contributed casually now, but during World War II days such “matanot” were essential. We can only imagine what the financial status of the majority of the Jews in Palestine in the 1940s was. Although help was required and received from abroad, even the people here in difficult straits did their share.