Cite: Cohen, Lee Kaufer Frankel and American Jewish Philanthropy, 1899-1931

Cohen, Michael R. “‘A Scientific Humanitarian and a Humanitarian Scientist’: Lee Kaufer Frankel and American Jewish Philanthropy, 1899-1931.” American Jewish History 97.3 (2013): 207-233.





During the mission, Frankel spent approximately three weeks in Palestine, scientifically surveying the situation with an eye toward fostering the long-term sustainability of Jewish settlement there. Much of what he saw impressed him, as he recognized “the great work that Zionists have done”—particularly women in the area of health and welfare. Though he had previously been critical of women’s charitable work, he nevertheless applauded the “infant welfare stations and milk stations in the old and new city” established by Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America. He also praised the organization’s “high caliber of work and the application of the most modern methods of preventative medicine.” He noted that in the case of Hadassah, “the health education work in the clinics followed by home instruction through trained nurses had all the marks of advanced and scientific procedure,” and observed that the organization “has undoubtedly done a distinct piece of pioneer work and its effect on the population, both Jew and Arab, has been most pronounced.” Frankel’s assessment of Hadassah’s work was thus much more positive than his assessments of most other Jewish women’s philanthropy he had encountered.


There is no question that Frankel’s guiding hand helped to shape the American Jewish philanthropy of his era, but what was his legacy? He played a critical role in guiding the interwar reconstruction of Eastern Europe and the development of Palestine—two of the most important philanthropic initiatives of his lifetime—and his impact on the life insurance industry was transformative. His emphasis on science and the professionalization of social work also left a lasting footprint, with Lowenstein suggesting that Frankel’s work “has resulted in the creation, throughout the country, of a large group of influential and valuable social, public health, and other communal workers, who owe much of their inspiration and success to his example, encouragement and support.” Frankel’s scientific approach to health care still remains influential in governmental decisions about social welfare programs as well, though the accompanying tension with emergency relief still lingers.

But Frankel’s desire to create systemic change by transitioning American Jewish philanthropy from its focus on immediate needs to a focus on the eradication of the root causes of social problems does not characterize the typical fundraising approach of Jewish federations today. Perhaps Frankel’s calls for proactive social change during the economic boom of the 1920s fell on deaf ears during the Great Depression, when scores of Jews needed the most basic of essentials. The destruction of European Jewry and the immediate needs of the State of Israel—particularly in 1948, 1967, and 1973—may also have necessitated emergency aid in ways in which Frankel could not have envisioned.Nevertheless, though he was unable to foster the larger systemic change he desired, his approach helped to define American Jewish philanthropy of his era.

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