Charities founded by Transylvanian Jewish women

Women’s charities in the context of feminist movements

The period covered in this article – the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth – corresponds to the years when ideas associated with the first wave of feminist movements spread across Europe. The suffragette movement in the United Kingdom, which enabled women to gain the right to vote, sparked a heated debate about their rights and responsibilities, as well as their physical and mental abilities. Feminist movements can be viewed from a variety of perspectives.

To approach the establishment of women’s charities in the context of feminist movements, we turn to the theory of Celia Amorós, a Spanish philosopher. She claims that in the social structure, there is a hierarchy between private and public space. Throughout the centuries, men dominated the latter, which was defined by more visible and appreciated activities such as politics, creative arts, and the economy. The private space occupied by women was the area of reproductive work, the unpaid labour that is frequently overlooked and undervalued: parenting, household chores, emotional labour, elderly care, and so on.

In this context, the feminist movement can be viewed as women’s vindication of public space: they want to be involved in making public decisions that affect them. At the same time, women want men to accept responsibility for what happens in their personal space, which concerns them.

The existence of women’s charities is a good example of a possible approximation between public and private space, in the name of equality rather than uniformity. The women who founded these organisations were aware of the issues that frequently arose in the private sphere, as well as of the need to make them visible in the public sphere. They wanted to find resources to address those issues in the community, such as by establishing elderly care facilities, orphanages, soup kitchens, or schools. These women were able to manage tasks in the public space while also paying attention to the private space. Many things have changed in our society since then, and women can now hold important positions in most countries around the world. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, even the idea of forming a women’s organisation was revolutionary.

Background image: old photograph of Cluj. On the right side, you can see the first theatre of the city, where the famous actor and director of Jewish origin Jenő Janovics worked (in the place of this building, on Kogălniceanu street, today is the State Philharmonics).

The activity of Jewish women’s charities in Transylvania

In the second half of the nineteenth century, in Transylvania and the rest of the Kingdom of Hungary, a lot of associations, societies, groups and clubs were founded, especially in the big cities. Jewish people were allowed to live in cities only after 1840, and the freedom of association was officially granted for them in 1867, the year which marks their emancipation in the Kingdom of Hungary. After 1867, Jewish people could engage in commercial activities, as well as in the cultural life of the communities they were part of, making a significant contribution to the progress of Transylvania. Most of them chose professions in trade and industry, and some of them gained financial stability by the beginning of the twentieth century, becoming members of the urban middle class. Many Jews were less lucky and were living in humble conditions or in poverty.

In this context, women’s charities aimed above all to support vulnerable people, for example, orphans or poor children, to organise educational activities, contributing to the dissemination of modern ideas. The charities were usually founded by women who came from well-to-do families, having the privilege of financial stability and of free time, as well as that of a quality education. The following examples are rather meant to illustrate than to sum up the activity of these charities, because such organisations existed in many places, even in small towns or villages.

Background image: old postcard from Timișoara. The names of the characters refer to Charlotte Fischl and Therese Rechner, members of the Jewish Women’s Charity of Fabric, Timișoara.

Oradea: feminists in the city of culture

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Oradea had 35 charities, two of which were founded by Jewish women. Nagyváradi Jótékony Célú Izraelita Nőgylet (The Charitable Association of Jewish Women from Oradea) was founded in 1871, and the rule book was finalised in 1888. According to this document, the organization’s goal was to assist poor people, particularly women living in a precarious situation, as well as the sick, people with disabilities, widows, and orphans. It is noteworthy that the members of this charity stated their intention to support women seeking financial independence by helping them to learn a profession and to find work so that they could earn their own money. Oradea used to be a modern city with a thriving cultural life. Women’s emancipation seems to have been a popular idea in this context, and Jewish women were pioneers of the cause.

The Charitable Association of Jewish Women from Oradea raised funds for an orphanage, which they opened in 1905. The institution welcomed 15 young girls and provided them with lodging and daily meals. The girls could learn a profession in the local schools, and once they finished their education, the orphanage assisted them in finding jobs or putting them in touch with families who hired them as domestic servants.

Background image: old postcard from Oradea; at the left side is the “Black Eagle” Palace.

The Charitable Association of Jewish Women from Oradea had generous resources at its disposal. As a result, in addition to the above-mentioned orphanage, it could contribute to other good causes. For example, every year, the charity donated winter clothing and shoes to poor children regardless of their religion.  The organisation had a special fund from which they provided dowry to poor brides; according to the customs of the time, women could not get married unless they received a dowry.

The fundraising method used by the Jewish women’s charity in Oradea was one of the reasons why it was one of the most prosperous societies of its kind. They organised concerts, plays, and balls. People attended these events not only because of the charitable causes associated with them, but also for the quality of the shows, as the program and the artists were carefully chosen. For the charitable concerts, the association invited singers and musicians from the opera houses of Budapest, Vienna, and Dresden. The festivities took place in Oradea’s magnificent “Black Eagle” Palace.

A Népkonyhát Fenntartó Ortodox-Izraelita Nőgyesület (The Society of Orthodox Jewish Women for the Public Soup Kitchen) was another charity run by Jewish women in Oradea.  The group’s name encompasses their activity. According to the funding document, these women wished to provide at least one warm meal per day to poor people at a very low cost, or, if sufficient resources were available, completely free. The public soup kitchen opened in 1895, but the society was officially established in 1901. The meals were served to all people living in impoverished conditions, regardless of their religion. During the winter, this soup kitchen was the only place in town where people without a home or those who couldn’t afford firewood could stay warm.

The soup kitchen was funded by donations and was occasionally supported by the local council. In the 1900s and 1910s, the Jewish women of this charity served lunch to 100-200 people every day, or at least several times per week, depending on resources. These resources were frequently uncertain, and fundraising required a significant amount of effort. Whip-rounds were most effective in the winter, when well-to-do people empathised with those who did not have a roof over their heads.

Timișoara: hard times will always reveal true charity

In Timișoara there were several charities run by Jewish women. The one of Fabric neighbourhood and the one of downtown were established in 1846, while the one of Iosefin neighbourhood in 1871. In 1883, the city saw the establishment of a women’s society that provided dowry to poor Jewish brides. WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) local groups were formed after WWI.

Between 1825 and 1848, Hungary implemented a series of reforms to modernise the state, including the development of the industry, economy, and educational system, as well as the abolition of serfdom. However, the instability following the 1848 revolution, and the 1848-1849 wave of antisemitism, hindered the activity of the first two charities. Even in the face of adversity, they resumed their activities, aided by local business owners and shopkeepers, both Jewish and Christian. The latter were ready to contribute to the funding of Jewish women’s organisations because, unlike Oradea, Timișoara had only a few charities. The majority of Christian religious organisations were prayer circles or educational societies. The locals recognized Jewish women’s efforts and offered resources to support their initiatives, demonstrating the region’s multiculturalism and that each group, regardless of ethnicity or religion, was eager to contribute to the community’s well-being in different ways.

Timișoara’s Jewish women’s charities were invaluable in times of natural and humanitarian disaster. For example, following Banat’s 1863 drought, these charities ran three public soup kitchens, one downtown and the other two in the Fabric and Iosefin neighborhoods. Timișoara was one of the cities that received refugees after the Tisza river flooded and damaged most of the buildings in Szeged in 1879. Jewish women’s charities assisted in providing food and organising a whip-round to send clothing and provisions to Szeged. During WWI, members of these charities worked as nurses, assisting wounded soldiers in Timișoara’s hospitals.

Background image: old postcard from Timișoara with the Fabric New Synagogue on the right side.

Later, the Jewish women’s charities of Timișoara opened the elderly care facility in Mező street (currently 26 Micu Klein street). The structure included a kitchen, bathrooms, and numerous storage areas, and it housed four men and twelve women over the age of 60 who were sick and had no income.

Cluj: charities and cultural societies

The Jewish Women’s Society of Cluj was founded in 1895. Its members devised an ingenious method of involving the entire community in fundraising. Each member invited five people to tea and asked for a small subscription to help them with their charitable work. They also suggested that their guests invite five people to their homes in order to continue fundraising and spreading the word about the charity. Many people’s small contributions resulted in significant outcomes.

With the funds obtained, the Jewish women of Cluj opened a nursery school in 1918, providing education and daily meals to poor and orphan children. After 1921, this institution was located in Külmagyar utca 32 (currently Bulevardul 21 Decembrie 1989), the society’s official residence. The estate was later purchased by the state for the purpose of constructing a school, so the Jewish women’s society relocated to Pap Street (currently Paris street). In 1931, an elderly care facility for Jewish women was established near the nursery school.

Aside from regular charity programs, the Jewish Women’s Society in Cluj-Napoca also performed community service on an as-needed basis. For example, prior to the opening of the local Jewish Hospital, wealthy members purchased fabric and set up a sewing room in one of the nursery school’s halls to produce the bed linen required for future patients.

Background image: the Jewish Hospital of Cluj.

The Jewish women of Cluj-Napoca were involved in cultural projects in addition to their charitable activities. These were frequently associated with the Zionist movement during the interwar period. The “Jehudit” cultural society of local Jewish women aimed to strengthen the sense of national belonging. The group’s name is the Hebrew translation of the name Judith, which means “woman from Judea.” In 1927, the local WIZO group was founded.

Between continuity and new beginnings

After reading about the Transylvanian Jewish women’s charities, you may be wondering what happened to them and their noble causes after the period described above. It is enough to look at the twentieth century chronology to understand what came after these years.

WWII drastically altered the course of history, and Jewish communities were severely impacted: the majority of Transylvanian Jews were deported and murdered, only a few survived the Holocaust, and many of them chose to leave their homeland. The priorities on the social agenda and those of feminist movements were revisited in light of wartime events. On the one hand, while their fathers, brothers, and husbands were  being taken to battle, European women demonstrated their ability to face any challenge, and as a result, they gained the right to education, work, financial independence, and equality. On the other hand, because many women faced domestic violence or gender-based discrimination, they continued to fight for their rights, ushering in the second wave of feminist movements.

Background image: the Sebestyén Palace in Cluj, built by Jewish entrepreneur Dávid Sebestyén.

After WWII, Transylvania was again under Romanian administration. Soon after, the communist regime was established in Romania. In theory, the state was in charge of all social and healthcare services, as well as of the systematic education of all citizens. However, under the blanket of this safety, there was a brutal oppression against any form of dissidence or individual initiative, and the quality of the aforementioned services was sometimes deplorable. Freedom of association was severely restricted, and many groups, regardless of their intentions or goals, were deemed a threat to the state’s stability, accused of conspiracy, and dissolved. Simultaneously, the communist state benefited from all pre-existing structures. The elderly care facility founded by a Jewish women’s charity in Timișoara, which was nationalized in 1950, and the Jewish Hospital of Cluj are two examples of institutions that were taken over by the state.

When we shift our focus to the present, we can see that many problems in our society have become less relevant. There has been progress in many fields: it is no longer considered scandalous for a woman to support herself through her own work or to run for office. There are now numerous social services available to women in times of need. Other issues, however, resurface, albeit in a different form than in the 1900s, as a result of crises and conflicts that cause poverty and have a negative impact on education and healthcare services. Looking back allows us to appreciate the efforts of those who made numerous sacrifices in order for us to be where we are now. At the same time, learning about the solutions they discovered in times of adversity is inspiring.


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Orsolya András graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj. Since 2012 she works as a freelance translator. Between September 2021 and February 2022 she was museum assistant at Muzeon.

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