The Jewish support network: The Philanthropy of the Jewish “Middle class”
The headstones of Herman and Deborah Fox in Carnmoney Cemetery provide a window into the intricate support network within the Jewish community, and the contribution of many Jewish families to charities in what is now Northern Ireland and in the UK. I hesitate to use the term “middle class” but it is important to differentiate these families from the wealthiest strata of German Jewish merchant families and the eastern European Jewish tradesmen who were usually significantly less well off.
The headstones read: “Deborah Fox, Founder and President of the Hebrew Benevolent Society” and “Herman Fox, Honorary President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation and President of the Belfast Board of Guardians”. They died on the 22 September 1923 and 10 August 1932 respectively.
To anyone who has studied civil marriage records during the early to mid twentieth century the name Herman Fox will indeed be familiar; he was a witness to a multitude of Jewish wedding ceremonies. Along with his wife he helped to organize the Belfast Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Belfast Hebrew Board of Guardians. These organizations are incredibly elusive to those searching for any written record regarding their organisation. Yet amongst those members of the Jewish community who witnessed their work their legacy is resolute. Mr. Harold Ross and Dr Jonathan Lewis both testify that these societies were a response to the influx of poor eastern European Jews into Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular. The more established and wealthy German Jews organized a support network (independent of the state Poor Law Guardians), which provided interest free loans or small gifts to Jewish families to enable them to “find their feet” and establish small businesses in their trades. These charitable organisations were run by families from the Hebrew Congregation, and were busiest at times of cyclical unemployment or the arrival of a large number of poor immigrant families. Administration was minimal because of the natural interaction between the Jewish families that organized the collection and distribution of this aid. The response from the Jewish community to provide for families in need was usually immediate and achieved without the hard sales pitch that we associate with charitable organisations today.
We can see from the wills and testaments of Herman Fox, Albert Cohen, Sophia Cohen (both buried City Cemetery) and a multitude of others that these charitable organisations were supported by individual gifts bequeathed in wills or donated seasonally, like the Passover Relief Fund. Herman Fox’s will is a valuable resource which testifies to the philanthropic generosity of this man, and not only towards the Jewish community. Mr. Fox left gifts to the Royal Victoria Hospital and Mater Infirmorium Hospital. Indeed it is characteristic of the wills of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, Albert Cohen, Sophia Cohen, Harris Sergie and Samuel Freeman to bequeath generously to the local hospitals.
Herman Fox also left gifts to the Belfast Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society and the unusually named “Herman Fox Lodge Seal of David No. 95”. At first I was admittedly stumped as to what precisely this organisation was, but thanks to the help of Harold Ross I discovered this to be a Hebrew Friendly Society. Friendly Societies, for those unsure of their nineteenth century social and economic history, were originally mutual associations providing sickness benefits, life assurance and pensions on payment of weekly or monthly contributions. Herman Fox’s will reveals to us that his society was “for the relief of distress”; and like the Hebrew Belfast Board of Guardians helped to provide a support network within the Jewish community for its poorest members in their times of need. It is worth noting that it was not only working class Jews that contributed to Friendly societies. Herman Fox was, a considerably wealthy merchant, had policies with the Maccabean Friendly Society and the Bnei Brith Friendly Society – both Jewish varieties of these popular organisations. The Jewish support network is a fascinating insight into the self-help ethos that existed in Britain before the evolution and birth of the Welfare State after the Second World War. Before state provision of welfare low-income families had to rely on the inadequate and uneven provision of the Poor Law, supplemented with the support of their family and local church. In Jewish society the synagogue formed the pivot around which a multitude of family run support groups worked to keep the heads of immigrant Jews above water in times of crisis.