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Philanthropy and social justice

There is a Jewish tradition of giving called tzedakah (Hebrew for “righteousness”), which is based on a religious commandment (mitzvah) enjoining Jews to do right by others and support them when they are in need. It is a form of social justice and a central tenet of Jewish life. 

As Jews became increasingly integrated into German society, perhaps motivated by Jewish tradition and the patterns of philanthropy among wealthy Germans, the religious and organizational differences between Jewish and Christian philanthropy became less pronounced. The secular Christian concept of Menschenliebe, which is translated into English as “philanthropy”, came to play an important role in Jewish approaches to giving – even for Orthodox Jews, who were wary of Christian models. In addition, the growth of the urban poor resulted in a system of public welfare, changing who was eligible for resources and how those resources were donated and distributed. Jewish voluntary societies continued to provide material relief for the Jewish poor and sick into the 20th century.

Over time, the wealthy and assimilated Jews continued giving back to society. In addition, the scope of Jewish giving widened to include financial support for artists. In the late 19th century and 20th centuries, successful Jewish businessmen supported artists, intellectuals, and cultural projects, from museum-building to archeological excavations.

Family Stories

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln


Looking to Egypt rather than the US to purchase cotton not only made James Simon wealthy – his travels also introduced him to the European fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and history. Most famously, James financed the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt’s excavations in Egypt, which led to the discovery of a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in Amarna in 1912. Simon donated most of his art collection, including the bust, to the Berlin State Museum – although he later asked that it be returned to Egypt. His passion for art and his generous donations, but also his participation in German colonial practices, reveal not only James’s philanthropic energy, but also the extent to which Jews had become part of German society.

For more information about Glückel of Hameln see Shared History Project:

From economic to political participation

Second half of the 19th century

Felix Warburg House...

Felix Warburg House...

Oppenheim painting a self-portrait: with a portrait of Gabriel Riesser, 1840. Leo Baeck Instittue, 78.455.


Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's life reflects the new possibilities opened to Jews by emancipation. Born in the Hanau ghetto, near Frankfurt, he was raised in a strictly Orthodox home, but his parents raised no objections to their son's artistic aspirations. Oppenheim received his art training in Hanau, Frankfurt, Munich and Paris. From 1821 to 1825, Oppenheim lived in Rome, then the European art center. Having obtained the patronage of Adolph Rothschild on a trip to Naples in 1823, Oppenheim's career was launched. After his return to Frankfurt, his clientele included the five Rothschild brothers and, through Goethe, the protection of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar. 


Learn more about Oppenheim in the Leo Baeck Institute’s collections here.

The New Jewish Hospital, Hamburg, 1841. Leo Baeck Institute, 78.1624.

The hospital was built in 1841 in honor of Salomon Heine's wife, Betty. Salomon Heine was a banker in Hamburg.

Portrait of Felix Warburg by Hermann Struck, 1928. Leo Baeck Institute, 84.390.

The banker and philanthropist Felix Warburg was born in Hamburg in 1871. He was a leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, established to help the Jews in Europe following World War I.

Felix Warburg House. Public domain.

The mansion is located on 1109 Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street in New York/ Manhattan. Felix’s widow, Fried Schiff Warburg, donated the house as a permanent home for the Jewish Museum New York, which opened in 1947.

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