The biggest mystery of my childhood was the question of how my father had survived his. Though the details were fuzzy, the facts seemed clear: an auto accident outside Trenton, in which his parents were seriously injured; orphaned, not long after, in South Philadelphia in the depth of the Depression, ultimately raised in foster homes . . . and yet, by 18, off by streetcar to engineering school and, after the war, to life in the middle class.
What had made it possible? The most intriguing explanation involved something he called the Agency. "Once a year," he would say, "the Agency took us to get a suit—one pair of long pants, one pair of knickers." Or: "The Agency even paid to get my teeth fixed—before antibiotics, so you had to go once a week to get the root canal drained so it wouldn't get infected." Or: "Even though it was the Depression and everyone was poor, my sister would insist on getting off the streetcar a block away from the Agency, so when we went to see the doctor no one would know we were getting charity."
In a thousand ways, the world of my father's childhood amid the row houses of South Philly—a world where fish were kept alive in the bathtub so they'd stay fresh, where teenagers enjoyed classical music, where sunflower seeds were the junk food of choice—is as gone as any European shtetl. But to me, the Agency was the most distant part of it: my own father, it appeared, had been raised without parents and without the support of public funds, under the auspices of a charitable organization. Though recent talk about how "faith-based charity" should have a role in "social-service delivery" has made my father's experience seem a little less outlandish, the mystery haunted me. I wanted to solve it, both as a personal matter and a policy one. What exactly was the Agency? How did it compare with its successors? And—here's the personal part of the query—what effects of its work have I, unknowingly, lived with myself?
My father provided the crucial clue. Once a month, he recalled, an older woman, connected with the Agency, would arrive in a chauffeur-driven black Cadillac to check on him. Her name: Mrs. Sternberger.
I found her traces a few blocks from Independence Hall, at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which houses the records of Philadelphia's myriad Jewish charities. On the founding board of directors of the Juvenile Aid Society, I discovered, was a woman named Matilda K. Sternberger. And looking through the Juvenile Aid Society's pile of typed case records, I turned up the March 2, 1934, proceedings of its Placement Committee's monthly meeting—which took up the case of Bernard Husock and his elder sister Sylvia.
It is a powerful thing to come across such a record only minutes before library closing time. It is sobering to read about one's own family as the object of intervention and help— especially when you're used to identifying with those providing the help, and even more especially when such records contain powerful revelations, as these did. I learned that my father's parents had not died at the same time; his father had outlived his mother and become a single father, responsible for two young children, aged five and ten, in the early years of the Depression. I learned that in June 1932, three years before the Social Security Act became law, at a time when state and local governments provided only short-term emergency relief, my grandfather had first turned to private charity for support. So my father and his sister were not, as I had believed, simple examples of orphans cared for by charity. Their situation was more like that so common today: a single-parent family in search of help, a family for which outsiders were deciding whether help was deserved and, if so, what form that help should take.
By the time it considered the case of my father, the Juvenile Aid Society had been making such decisions for more than 20 years. It grew out of the Young Women's Union, which was part of a movement, beginning in the 1880s, in which (as Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent later wrote) "the noxious tenements of South Philadelphia were invaded by an unlikely little army of well-bred, carefully nurtured Jewish young ladies from the safely upper-middle-class environs of Spring Garden Street." Led by banking heiress Bella Loeb Selig, the union began to move from children's recreation and nursery programs to an effort its members called "baby snatching"—by which they meant persuading the Juvenile Court (founded in 1901) to release children in trouble into their custody. To handle these kids, the union gave birth to the Juvenile Aid Society in 1911.
By 1932, it was a big organization, paying for the care of 350 children in any given week (rising to 450 in the high-immigration early 1920s) with an annual budget of $100,000, almost all raised from private donations. It was part of a larger system of some 80 private nonprofit and religious organizations, which cared for the vast majority of abused, abandoned, or orphaned children in Pennsylvania—many more than the 600 or so children housed in five state institutions at a cost of around $150,000 a year.
Through the Juvenile Aid Society, the wealthy German-Jewish women on its board expressed their sense of responsibility for the children of poor "Russian" immigrants, their generic term for eastern European Jews. So it was that women named Deutsch and Guckenheimer—members, many of them, of the city's grand Moroccan-style Reform temple, Congregation Rodeph Shalom—came to take some responsibility for children named Lazarowitz and Katz, then piling into South Philadelphia and crowding it with what ultimately would be more than 200 small, dark synagogues, squeezed in among the row houses.
These charitable women can be thought of as Jewish Victorians, combining a religious impulse with the Victorian commitment to "child saving." They were moved by the Talmudic injunction that "the blessed man is the man that brings up an orphan boy or girl until marriage has given him another home," and—fearing that the Russians would abandon Judaism as they acculturated to America—they required all children they assisted to attend religious schools, known formally as Jewish Education Centers. For them, religion was the guarantor of the bourgeois values and the self-discipline they cherished. "Moral behavior," the Agency's literature observes, "is the result of right habit and daily practice. . . . Cultivate the child's natural desires for leadership, for justice, for independence, for self-respect, for hero-worship. Morality is an inner driving force. Religion is an inner light and revelation. These cannot be forced from without. Open the windows of the soul through which the inner splendor may shine."
Their religion was a far cry from the religious-sounding goal of so much Jewish philanthropy today—the notion, drawn from the Protestant social gospel, that religion has a duty to set right the injustices of society. These women would have met with incredulity the pronouncements of today's influential "child protection" advocates, who assert (in the words of Peter Pecora, James Whittaker, and Anthony Maluccio's standard The Child Welfare Challenge) that "social workers must become involved in advocacy and social action, to help resolve systemic or societal problems. . . . There is ample evidence of a high correlation between entry into out-of-home care and social problems such as poverty, deprivation and racism." The Agency did not engage in advocacy at all, whether to improve housing conditions, raise wages, or even reduce anti-Semitism. It was by no means an organization akin to today's Children's Defense Fund, say—advocating social policy but not itself directly helping individual children.
On the contrary, the Agency saw itself as a retail helper, so to speak, intervening with individual families, not to change the social system but to help children find a place in it. Its leaders were willing not just to support foster homes but to make a personal commitment; to sacrifice leisure (although monthly meetings did take the form of luncheons at the Locust Club, the Warwick Hotel, Snellenberger's Restaurant, or even the Rydell Country Club); to visit children themselves and assess foster families; to form personal bonds with those being helped. Their meticulous early records note the name of the child and the name of the visitor: Miss Baum visiting Rose Hymowitz on North 6th; Mrs. Loeb visiting Benjamin Chernicoff on North 15th; Mrs. Zucker visiting Meyer Bachin on North 31st. They were a small group taking on a big task: there had been 15,000 Jews in Philadelphia in 1880; by 1920, there were 200,000.
The Agency's main strategy was child "placement"—foster care—which it championed as a preferred alternative to life in orphanages. Children in bad circumstances would be taken in by loving families, fairly paid for their effort. As a 1919 Russell Sage Foundation report put it: "Child-placing in families was the most important development in child welfare work during the latter half of the 19th century." But controversy over it still raged during the Agency's early years. Advocates of institutional care remained powerful and were quick to note that institutional care allowed for large-scale recreation and education programs, for cleanliness and efficiency, and for ease of inspection by those paying the bills. By contrast, wrote Superintendent R. R. Reeder of the New York Orphan Asylum at Hastings-on-Hudson in 1918, "The most secluded institution in the world is the private home. It is ten times more difficult to find out what takes place behind its closed doors than it is to probe the methods and secrets of institutions."
The Juvenile Aid Society's solution to the inevitable danger of child abuse in private homes—a problem that plagues those involved in child protection in our own era of widespread foster care—rested on the personal efforts of the Agency's own home-finding and placement committees. These volunteers, complemented by a small paid staff, personally reviewed each family history, inspected potential foster homes, and paid monthly visits to children in their care at the homes in which they'd been placed. Its home-finding committee rejected twice as many potential placement homes as it approved: it required Agency children to have their own rooms. Each board member visited 30 to 40 children each month.
Agency reports make clear that its representatives understood what a difficult task they were imposing on foster mothers—at times even recommending higher than the normal $4.50 per week board payment for the placement of difficult children, presaging the "special needs" consciousness of our own time. The Agency readily increased its payment to the foster mother of the "mischievous" Bass boys, ages 8 and 13, from $22 to $25 a month, for instance, and it granted an increase as well to Jack Ginsburg's foster mother, in view of his mental retardation and bed-wetting.
Twenty-three years after the Agency's birth, founding director Matilda Kohn Sternberger first visited Bernard Husock and his elder sister, of 2328 South 3rd Street. The heiress to a fortune her mother's family had made selling Civil War uniforms to both sides, Mrs. Sternberger was by then widowed and had given up the grand mansion on 15th Street, where she'd lived with her husband, to share an apartment with her sister Dorothy, also widowed, at 250 South 17th Street, just off Rittenhouse Square. Then, as now, it was among Philadelphia's best addresses, boasting a doorman and, out front, four cast-iron hitching posts. Throughout their more than 40 years of widowhood, both sisters wore black, a grandnephew recalls; often it was black bombazine, which crackled when they moved. Both were "forces of nature," the grandnephew says; they were "a stiff set— strong-willed, formal, and Victorian." They were "T.R. Republicans, not liberals; F.D.R., to them, was the antichrist." Both were avid trout fishermen; Mrs. Sternberger directed that her ashes be scattered over her favorite fishing spot on Lake Placid, near her summer home.
There were days, one can imagine, when Mrs. Sternberger came out of 250 South 17th Street to go to lunch at the Sun Dial Tearoom next door—other days when she would call for her driver to take her to South Philadelphia. To judge by Agency records, this woman of means was devoting far more time to home visits to foster children than to lunch at the Tearoom, however. She routinely supervised 30 children and sometimes reported more visits than that in a given month. By the time she met my father and his sister, she had been engaged in such visits herself for more than 20 years and, not unjustifiably, had by 1935 come to list her occupation in city records as "social worker." Her special interest, Agency records show, was adolescent girls.
The chain of events that brought their lives together, a young brother and sister and Mrs. Sternberger, began with a private drama in the Ukrainian village of Brzne, where in 1910 my father's mother, Leebe Przkylnik, gave birth to a baby girl. Still alive today at 89, my father's elder half-sister all but acknowledges her own illegitimacy. Although she refers to her mother as "divorced," she says, plainly, "My mother was impregnated by the son of a wealthy family, who then left her." Need can arise from acts of God or personal mistakes—both causes seem to have led to my father's predicament. His mother left the Ukraine in 1912, leaving her young daughter with her own mother. She was put in touch with a man from Brzne, then living in Philadelphia—40-year-old Abraham Chusid (sometimes Husick or Chased, and ultimately, Husock), a widower with two older children. By 1920, these two slightly shopworn characters were married.
He was a presser in clothing plants on Philadelphia's Arch Street, which housed dozens of small, family-owned firms in four- and five-story buildings—Jaffe Brothers, Canter Brothers, Sol Glaser and Co.—and which today houses similar firms employing Chinese immigrants. Though he spoke only Yiddish, and could not read or write even that, my grandfather was part of Philadelphia's $1-billion-a-year textile industry, largest then of any city in the world. His small share of that wealth could support a lower-middle-class life in the part of North Philadelphia called Strawberry Mansion. There in 1921, with one child, a daughter, already born to them, Reba and Abraham Chased (as they were listed) purchased their own unadorned, plain-front, tan brick row house—2639 North Myrtlewood Street—financed with a $1,400 mortgage from the United Producers Building and Loan. And there, in 1925, my father was born, literally in the house.
It was a tiny street, little wider than an alley, with 40 attached houses on the two sides. Its modest residents—small grocers, produce dealers, a tinsmith—were far from Philadelphia's poorest. When my father was born, just over half had their own phones, though not my father's parents. But the household had its elements of gentility and ambition. My grandmother encouraged her eldest child—my father's half-sister, who was finally brought to America—to attend the city's normal school for teachers, rather than its trade school for secretaries. There was a piano and piano lessons for my father's full sister (five years older)—I'll call her Sylvia, since she doesn't want to be named "like those TV talk shows"—who remembers running down Myrtlewood Street to tell her mother about her good report card in the fourth grade, around 1929. Her mother was, at the same time, teaching her to read and write Yiddish.
By 1930, Abe and (now) Lena Husick, as the city address directory listed them, did have their own phone. Abe would later boast of having earned $125 a month. And as important as anything were the small dignities and proper appearances of a striving, middle-class life. Among my father's only memories of his mother—and it is filled with wistfulness—is that of her serving him poached eggs for breakfast, arranged with triangles of toast around the yolks. Little things must have mattered a lot to Lena Husick, to take such care in presenting breakfast to a five-year-old boy.
The descent, when it came, was rapid. There had been domestic fights, dishes broken in anger, accusations that my grandfather was not bringing home the money he was earning, and, especially after 1929, spells of unemployment. To my father's sister, their mother was "the pusher, a higher class than he—and that's what caused the terrible turmoil." My grandmother paid an unending price for that terrible mistake in Brzne, that ill-fated affair that had left her with a ne'er-do-well as a husband.
Suddenly, with the Depression under way, there were no prospects: only children and a husband who did not make a living. "Where will I get bread?" she asked, Sylvia now recalls. Abe's earnings had fallen from $125 to $10 or $14 a week—when he was able to find work—the Juvenile Aid Society's records would ultimately show. At the same time, my grandmother accused him of having a wandering eye, even of wanting her dead. "When I'm gone you'll be a frei vogel," a free bird.
Her decline began with a car crash outside Trenton, on a trip to see relatives in Boston, a crash from which she was carried away, bloodied, on a stretcher—my father's other significant memory of her. Soon thereafter came a breakdown, and she was taken to a place called Byeberry—officially, the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases—a "spotlessly clean, white and airy" place, housing 1,800 men and 2,000 women, according to a Juvenile Aid Society report. One must honor this massive public effort to help the mentally ill, rather than leaving them to roam the streets, in the name of compassion. And it is by no means impossible that Lena might have returned to North Myrtlewood Street, though the odds were long. Manic-depressive disorder was well recognized in 1930, though treatment was limited. For some patients, episodes would pass and not recur—and, if protected from themselves during those periods, they could return to their lives.
But my father's mother did not return. Here's how the records of the Juvenile Aid Society put it: "Since the death of their mother, 9/20/30, after two months in the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, where the diagnosis was Manic Depressive Psychosis, death being caused by a cardiac and kidney complication, [Bernard and Sylvia] have been shifted from one home to another."
By 1932, the names of Lena and Abe Husick had vanished from the phone book. The United Producers Building and Loan had taken the house on Myrtlewood Street, and city records listed the former owner as "unknown." Once his wife was gone, Sylvia recalls, my grandfather was "helpless"—unable even to prepare his children's meals. He would pace the house, muttering: "Die kinder [the children]—who will take care of die kinder?" Was it an acknowledgment of the burden of responsibility or simply of his own inability to care for his progeny? Or was it the statement of a straightforward problem: who could he get to take care of them? Ultimately, his state of mind and work habits would matter; the Juvenile Aid Society would not hesitate to come to its own conclusion about them.
When he first "requested a plan" in June 1932—20 months after his wife's death—the Agency was sympathetic. It regularly provided widowers with support, even with a housekeeper, to hold the household together, and it readily approved his request. But he did not use the money to keep his household together. For a period on Myrtlewood Street, after his wife's death, he had tried that route: he'd hired a Hungarian cook to prepare the meals. But he did not have the money then to keep the cook for long, and another woman, lured into the house by romantic promises, did not stay long, either. By the time he began to receive money from the Agency, perhaps even before he applied for aid, he had left Myrtlewood Street behind.
He had re-married sometime before the end of 1932—whether officially or not, I can't determine—and he had moved his children to the home of his new wife, the former Mrs. Bernstein, in South Philadelphia, a step down in the world from the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Presumably, the money from the Agency, once it approved his request for a plan, helped to pay expenses there. His daughter, Sylvia, for her part, has never forgiven him for asking for help. "He was always someone who was looking for something for nothing," she acidly remarks. What he did not know was that he was opening himself to a scrutiny he would never otherwise have faced.
Those members of the Agency's placement committee who reviewed my father's case included Emma Loeb, wife of the developer Arthur Loeb, whose firm had constructed Philadelphia's Broad Street subway line; golf-playing and blue-serge-suited Rosa deYoung, one of Pennsylvania's first elected woman state legislators; and agency co- founder Bella Selig, who was married to the head of a firm called Moss Rose Manufacturing—and who would eventually leave most of her considerable fortune to the Agency. They met twice a month to sort through the families asking for help. We think of immigrant Jews as having been a middle-class-in-waiting; but the records of the Juvenile Aid Society tell stories of greatly troubled families, a group of poor Russians whom these German Jewish ladies with Victorian values were determined to set right, even if it took harsh measures.
There was illegitimacy, as in the case of the five Rosenthal children, whose mother had "led an immoral life," according to the placement committee, having never married the children's father. Unable to keep the kids together, the committee placed two with their grandfather, and provided him with a housekeeper. But when he didn't give them "the supervision and interest they need," the Agency moved them to foster care with strangers.
There was crime. A Mr. Lerner, in Holmesburg Prison, "has never done any legitimate work and was forced to move . . . from New York because he had served three prison terms there and a fourth offense would mean life imprisonment." The "extremely unhappy, neurotic" Mrs. Lerner "has given the children very inadequate care. . . . [They] have never received the love which was their due. Mrs. Lerner hoards her money, even depriving her children of necessities. Miss Baum asked whether Susan could be placed in a finer type of home without fear of over-placement and the worker thought this could be done."
There was desertion. "Mrs. Cautin had deserted the family because of the acute financial situation and the crowded quarters. We learned, however, that this was not her first desertion. . . . Mr. Cautin is genuinely interested in his children and expressed the desire to have them remain with him. It was suggested that, if Mrs. Cautin could be found, the home could be reestablished with the help of the agency."
It was a similar story that the Agency's board considered on March 22, 1934, when it revisited the case of Abe Husock and his children, two years after first approving his plan. The record of that meeting tells the story of a period in my father's life so bleak that he still finds it hard to discuss. He speaks of himself in the third person: "That was a scared little boy." The Agency's records make clear why. "Mr. Husock's third wife had turned them out of the home, because he was unemployed and she was unwilling and unable to care for his children. Both children were very unhappy in the home of their step-mother, who mistreated them." All three, the 55-year-old father with his 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, wandered around, with the children boarded, presumably with money from the Agency, in a series of different homes: the Segals, the Spivacks, the Gurewitzes on Cantrell Street—a house with a porch and kids nearby to play with, and a funeral, right there in the house, when Mrs. Gurewitz's father dropped dead helping to carry a refrigerator. Mrs. Gurewitz even came to school to meet my father's teacher when he was having problems in the first grade, in a new school in the new neighborhood.
At other times, Abe Husock apparently did not place his children anywhere. Did he try to make the Agency money support all three of them? Did he have hopes of reconstituting their own household—though he had done little toward that end, having frittered away the $1,100 insurance settlement he ultimately received from his late wife's automobile accident? In those times, all three of them shared a single room. "It was Depression time; he couldn't get a job anywhere," my father recalls. "I remember the crowds of people, `Who wants to work for 25 cents an hour? Who wants to work for 20 cents an hour?' " Despite it all, my father remembers his father warmly from those times as a man who told him stories and took him to synagogue, and for whom he recalls rolling cigarettes, father and son using the rolling machine together. One of those cigarettes smoldered one evening in Abe Husock's mattress in the boardinghouse where he and his children were staying. When the mattress caught fire, only Sylvia awoke, leading her father and brother, as in a dream, to the street and saving their lives.
There were worse times, when the children did not know where to go home at night at all, including the night when Sylvia led my father across the Walt Whitman Bridge to Camden, New Jersey, where their elder half-sister—by then, a married schoolteacher— would at least provide a meal and a place to sleep. (Had there been no available charity, one wonders, would the half-sister have taken in the two children?) It was a time my father remembers thinking when he awoke in the mornings that it all might turn out to be a child's bad dream, from which he would wake up back on Myrtlewood Street, with his mother serving him poached eggs with triangles of toast.
Instead, his situation came to the attention of the Agency's Placement Committee, meeting in room 209 of the Jewish Federation Building on 9th Street, in March 1934. The report of the proceedings of that day is a harsh indictment of my grandfather, written by a group willing to judge people unsentimentally—and, backed by laws dating from 1825, to take their children away. Not for them today's doctrine of "family preservation"—trying to keep biological parents and children together at almost all costs. The Agency had already tried that; its board members were fed up with the ways in which my grandfather had been wasting their money.
"Placement is now being requested," reads the report, "because Mr. Husock has proven to be a shiftless, irresponsible person and it is necessary that a permanent plan be made for the children" to give them "a measure of security." Had Abe Husock not frittered away the insurance settlement from his wife's car accident? He had "claim[ed] that this money had been used up in paying the funeral expenses and supporting the children," the report notes—and the operative word here is "claim." It recurs. "Although Mr. Husock claimed to be unemployed, his wife informed us that he works irregularly. . . ." He was supposed to have contributed toward the children's support, the report continues, "but he has not adhered to this plan. It is felt that even if he were working steadily, he would not pay toward the children's support, unless a court order is placed upon him." The best thing for the children, the Agency decided, was to take them away and put them in a foster home.
The Placement Committee believed that it could differentiate among the wide range of supplicants it saw—and, because it was spending private funds, it had the discretion to make such choices, to put the needs of the children first, without unduly worrying about the feelings of the parents or about what today's social workers would call the goal of "implementing more culturally sensitive child-protective services." The Agency did not kid itself that Abe Husock was leading some different, but still valid, way of life.
It viewed him instead as having failed his children—about whom committee members were knowledgeable, indeed enthusiastic. The Agency's assessment sang with praise of my father's sister: Sylvia "is an attractive, extremely intelligent girl," who "does brilliant work," the report gushes. "She has always carried a great deal of the responsibility for Bernard, who is shy and dependent on her." When all else had failed, it was she who had "arranged for Bernard and herself to live in the home of a school mate, where they have made a fine adjustment." This was the Bleischman family, which would take them in and be paid for its trouble by the Agency. Abe Husock's custody of his own children was at an end.
Even after their placement, Sylvia and Bernard continued to visit their father. On New Year's Eve, 1935, the day he died, Sylvia found him, unconscious, on the floor of the rooming house in which he was living above a butcher's shop at 4th and Wolf, in South Philly. He had complained for a while, my father recalls, of rectal pain. When the 15- year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother worked their way through the bureaucracy and corridors of the Philadelphia General Hospital the next morning, someone would explain to them in Yiddish that he was tot—dead. But the brilliant girl would overhear the doctors and remember 60-plus years later: prostate hypertrophy, leading to the inability to urinate, with blood poisoning the result—just as it was indicated on the death certificate. One can only wonder whether, had she and her brother been living with him still, they might have saved him—the condition was surgically treatable, even then—and whether there would have been no burial on New Year's Day, 1936, in a pauper's grave, with costs paid for by the burial society to which he belonged. Such was the fate of the shiftless and irresponsible in 1935.
As for me, my middle name is Abel, in memory of Abe; whatever his failings, my father did not fail to honor him, as Jewish custom would have it. And Abe's death provided a warning for me more than 60 years later. Because a physician dutifully listed prostate hypertrophy as the cause of his death, I was led to consider whether that swelling could have been owed to cancer—and to seek the tests that identified my own prostate cancer at the earliest, most treatable stage.
By the time of Abe's death, the agency had arranged a long-term placement for Bernard and Sylvia at the home of a barber and his wife, Louis and Miriam Grisbord, who owned a corner row house at 3rd and Fitzgerald Streets, near the southern edge of South Philly. One factor that made the Agency's placement system work was the fact that low-income Philadelphians commonly weren't apartment dwellers but instead lived in—and owned— row houses. They had mortgages to pay off and, with the Depression, were willing to rent rooms to a variety of comers, foster children included. At the Grisbords, my father fondly remembers a fellow boarder named Martin, an out-of-power Democratic committeeman in a Republican-machine city, who would always dress well and always first demur, when asked if he had plans for dinner, before joining the others.
In keeping with Agency rules, my father and his sister had to have their own rooms, a luxury at the Grisbords, where a married couple with a child boarded together in a single room. My father took advantage of his tiny room to have a desk at which to study and even set up a chemistry set. In other respects, he and his sister were better off than their street-corner peers who were not in the Agency's care. The Agency provided medical care and psychological testing: my father can recall being much affected by hearing the psychologist who tested him, at age ten, remark: "This is a pretty smart kid." There was an arrangement for the children to make annual visits to Hanover Shoes. The Agency sent its wards eggs and milk, beds and bedding, and it paid for two weeks at the Jewish Federation's summer camp. My father's memories include the names of the cabins—each named for a different college, including D for the Drexel Institute of Technology, to which he would eventually take the streetcar from the Grisbords' to attend.
One of the most profound consequences of Sylvia and Bernard's formal placement was the new, far deeper personal relationship that Sylvia developed with Mrs. Sternberger. "I called her my fairy godmother," Sylvia recalls—and sure enough, not only did she visit Sylvia in South Philly, but she spirited her, Eliza Doolittle-style, to 250 South 17th, as well, where German maids waiting at table introduced her to foods and decorum she'd never known. Mrs. Sternberger threw open a closet filled with old clothes that had belonged to her nieces and told Sylvia to pick out what she liked. There were trips to the symphony and to Congregation Rodeph Shalom to be introduced to Jewish society.
Mrs. Sternberger's hope was to lead the children she supervised up the social ladder. For that reason, she didn't like placing children in foster homes where they would get room and board in exchange for domestic work. "I tried [that]," the minutes of a January 1933 board meeting quote her as saying, "but never was successful." And if Mrs. Sternberger made Sylvia a protégé, Sylvia in turn transmitted the values of upward mobility she was learning to her younger brother, urging him to do his homework so that he would not "end up like Poppy." As my father recalls: "That was her big thing with me, `You'll end up like Poppy; you'll end up like Poppy.' " My father's strongest memory of Mrs. Sternberger's talks with him in the Grisbords' front parlor was her urging that, when he succeeded as an adult, he must always remember his own charitable obligations. "She would recite all these other cases that she had had—other people who had been like me, who had now made it and were big contributors." Her own charities weren't limited to South Philly's kids: at the same time she was meeting with my father, she was making special donations to the Agency to bring Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to foster homes in Philadelphia.
When my father thinks back about what made the difference in his life, though, he doesn't name the Agency first, or even Mrs. Sternberger. "If there's anyone who rescued me," he says, "it was Mrs. Grisbord," the foster mother with whom the Agency placed him. She scrubbed him thoroughly when he arrived in the household. "I remember saying, `Gee whiz, my fingernails are white.' I never remember having white fingernails before that." She took him to South Street to bargain for a bar- mitzvah suit. ("Let me make a living," the clothier would say. "You don't deserve to make a living!" she would reply.) And she held together a boardinghouse-style household that contributed mightily to his sense of security, even to his ultimate livelihood. Mr. Grisbord, who operated a barbershop in the room fronting the street, brought my father along in the trade, helping him get his license and finding him good-paying work at other shops when he graduated from the South Philadelphia High School for Boys ("Southern") and the Agency no longer contributed to his support. One of the Grisbords' own children, whom Sylvia sought out in later life and regularly took to lunch, remembered my father's childhood laughter as having helped light up her home.
Very much a working-class family—although Mrs. Grisbord subscribed to the Literary Digest and Mr. Grisbord listened to opera on the radio—the Grisbords respected, even deferred to, their academically oriented wards. No doubt the Agency had informed them of Sylvia's "brilliance"—dramatically confirmed when, not yet 16, she graduated second in her class from the elite Girls High School and went on scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania—as noted on page one of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, which pointed out that the Juvenile Aid Society had assisted her to this pinnacle.
Beyond the Grisbord household, the neighborhood was a rich resource—safe, friendly, and peopled by watchful adults, who congregated up the block at Lazowick's drugstore and who relayed the daily number in loud voices down the street. "Once I had ringworm," my father recalls, "and the woman next door would come and put iodine on it every day—just a neighbor." He was part of a group that played stickball and kick the can in the street and awarded benign nicknames: he was Jupiter, for his interest in astronomy and in Mozart's 41st Symphony. The larger Philadelphia community abounded in institutions that played key roles in his development. His South Philadelphia High School teachers introduced him to the Mozart he still loves and urged him on in Latin and in his "declamations" of Longfellow and the Gettysburg Address. They prepared him for a career requiring him to be at home with calculus, the sciences, and public speaking—with the Agency regularly reviewing his report cards. And the Franklin Institute, a science museum founded through a bequest from Benjamin Franklin, was an inspiration to a boy who followed, as a career, Franklin's own interest in electricity. So it would be possible to understand my father and his sister as having been saved not only by the Agency but also by what Thomas Sowell would call the accumulated cultural capital of the neighborhood.
Still, the Agency was the key to it all, the institution that made everything else possible. Sylvia recalls seeing prostitutes on the street and considering the thin margin between her fate and theirs. Looking back, a generation later, I can't help feeling a debt of gratitude and believing the world would be better if organizations like the Agency still operated today, despite the vast changes between my father's childhood and the present.
The idea that a private philanthropy, largely staffed by volunteers, should take on the delicate task of "child protection" would seem quaintly antique to today's experts, with their now-instinctive belief that the proper response to need should be public, not private. Such experts view the private good works of the Victorians as outworn evolutionary stages toward a world in which "human services" are, rightly, a state responsibility. In the experts' social democratic view, a world of private philanthropy fails the key test of universalism. Back in the Agency's world, they would say, chance and caprice played too great a role in determining which children got which sort of attention. Only a system that gives no child a greater claim on assistance than any other can be just or legitimate.
Moreover, where would a world of private philanthropy leave the minority kids who are today's most usual candidates for help? And why should upper-middle-class blacks intervene in the lives of these children, for whose plight the entire society is, in this view, responsible? For Mrs.Sternberger and her colleagues, who didn't blame America for the condition of immigrant Russians, it seemed logical to take charge of the children of their poorer brethren. "When they heard of someone in trouble," Mrs. Sternberger's grandnephew recalls, "they would automatically ask, `What can we do?' They couldn't conceive of government playing such a role." But blacks, not illogically, have taken the opposite view—and historically, have lacked the financial resources to take on such an effort, anyway. Their biggest attempt in this direction—the Urban League's effort to shape itself as a mass immigrant aid society to acculturate rural blacks to urban life—ended in failure after World War I. With all these impulses pushing toward publicly funded, universally available social-service programs, it's no wonder that the powerful child- oriented nonprofit agencies of today—above all the Children's Defense Fund—are not themselves providers of services but rather advocates for greater public funding of child- welfare services.
Yet in practice, the replacement of private charities with public departments of child welfare has been far from an unmitigated improvement. The child protection these agencies provide is universal only in theory. Horror stories of child abuse and neglect unchecked by publicly paid social-service providers raise the question of whether the public system can ever offer the benefits that come with the individual, charitably motivated interest of a Mrs. Sternberger coming to the parlor. Any big-city tabloid almost any week prints the by-now familiar litany of children burned, beaten, starved, or killed by parents, foster parents, or mothers' boyfriends in households supposedly under the supervision of public agencies that have repeatedly failed to conduct the required home inspections—or didn't understand what they were seeing when they did. It hasn't been demonstrated that public institutions are capable of providing the effective inspections that the reformers who originally pushed for foster care understood as key to the system.
If the goal of universalism in child protection is a chimera, no matter how much money we pour into our public systems—if no public system can provide the oversight that private, often religiously motivated, groups, operating on their own rather than through government contracts, provided in their day—perhaps it's time to consider whether we could, and should, return to a Juvenile Aid Society approach to assist the children of today's minority urban poor. Perhaps we could resuscitate the powerful philanthropic and volunteer impulses, and the institutions of civil society, that an expanded welfare state has stifled.
How practical would such an approach to child protection really be today? For the first time in American history, blacks have accumulated significant wealth, and Michael Jordan has set the example of endowing a foundation for children in Chicago. Well- established mega-churches could organize volunteers, much as Congregation Rodeph Shalom did for the Juvenile Aid Society. For example, despite a national foster-home shortage, a Chicago program called "One Church, One Child," in which ministers appeal for foster parents from the pulpit, has been dramatically successful in finding homes for formerly hard-to-place black children.
Organizing such efforts by race or ethnicity suggests itself because, historically, ethnic group members have been those most motivated to take care of their brethren. But these efforts could be organized by locale as well, with towns taking care of their own through local foundations. A true inheritor of the Juvenile Aid Society tradition would need only embrace the idea of the affluent giving their time and resources to uplift poor children—to teach them "moral behavior" through "right habits and daily practice," as the Agency put it. It would stress the personal nature of the transaction, as well as the discretion to withhold or condition support. Nor would such non-public efforts have to be small or local: consider the Red Cross, which does not receive government funds but which, with its tacit government franchise to do disaster relief work, has a vast capacity to raise private donations and mobilize volunteers. The fact that we have taken the public route in approaching child protection does not mean that the choice was inevitable—or that the broader welfare state is an historical inevitability that cannot be undone.
From the libertarian side, one could object that any large-scale intervention in the lives of the poor—whether with private or public funds—entails an inevitable danger of dependency. But it does not undermine the market to use charity and volunteers to help prepare people—particularly, children—to take their place in a market-based society. As the Victorians understood—whether in their crusades against drink or promiscuity—civic leaders have a responsibility to help prepare the poor, particularly those not accustomed to urban life, for the trials of the market, rather than simply to let the market discipline their efforts and foreclose opportunity for their children. When the children realize their potential, the whole society benefits.
What this responsibility does not imply, however, is a professional class of publicly funded social-service workers. In fact, the involvement of the successful in assisting the striving guards against the tendency of social-service professionals to blame "the system" for misfortune and to deliver that self-defeating, passivity-inducing message to the poor. In my father's case, that was left to the neighborhood socialists, of whom there was no shortage. He ultimately rejected them; whether with Mrs. Sternberger's advice in mind or not, I cannot say.
For my father, his sister, Mrs. Sternberger, and the Agency, there is a coda to the saga, and not an entirely happy one. Trial and tragedy leave a residue that doesn't evaporate. My father and his sister both went on to successful lives in the upper middle class: my father became an engineer; his sister was a technical and scientific writer who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and married a candy and tobacco wholesaler who became a successful investor. But brother and sister drifted apart, perhaps because they reminded each other of the trials they had jointly endured, and they have seldom spoken to each other since those hard years. My father went to engineering school on the GI bill— but not until, before entering the navy, he paid his crucial first-semester tuition bill with a private $100 loan from Mrs. Sternberger. He had nowhere else to turn for the money and so went to 250 South 17th to ask for it.
Mrs. Sternberger, for her part, tried to stay in touch with Sylvia—even visiting her at her new home on Philadelphia's Main Line, where, Cinderella-like, she had arrived as a married woman in the late 1940s. But Sylvia, rebuffing her efforts to remain close and to find in her, perhaps, the child the old widow never had, gradually cut off contact, not wanting to be reminded of the past. "I was very cruel to her," Sylvia says today. And my father, notwithstanding his sister's entreaties, never did get around to paying Mrs. Sternberger back the $100, although he had saved enough in the navy to do so. Perhaps he viewed the loan as his due; anyway, he reasoned, Mrs. Sternberger didn't need the money.
Still, as a child I was always struck by the energetic effort he put in each year— uncharacteristic for a man uninvolved in local affairs or institutions—to raise money for the Cleveland Jewish Welfare Fund. Nor did Sylvia entirely forget the advice of her benefactress, either. Even today, in her late seventies, she continues to volunteer, traveling to South Philadelphia to teach English to new Asian immigrants—often passing by the Grisbords' old house on her way. Nor did she fail to attend Mrs. Sternberger's funeral in 1950 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, where she remembers the reading, presumably at the onetime friendly visitor's own request, of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," a perfect poem for a Jewish Victorian who had lived its message of a life guided by religious duty:
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far;
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
The Juvenile Aid Society carried on for some years after dealing with my father's case. Chairwoman Bella Selig, one of its founders and main benefactors, passed the torch to Mrs. Lessing Rosenwald, married to the son of Sears magnate and renowned philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. But ironically, largely through the efforts of its limited but always-present paid staff (predominantly eastern European rather than German Jews), the Agency became an advocate of the forces that ultimately diminished its usefulness. Even when funds were scarce, it contributed monthly to the American Association for Labor Legislation, a key lobbying group promoting passage of the Social Security Act; the Agency's executive director, Gertrude Dubinsky, received personal thanks from I. M. Rubinow, one of the nation's leading advocates for social insurance and the nascent welfare state. The Agency's minutes reflect a faith that as an expanded public sector subsumed efforts such as its own, social services could only improve.
By 1942, the Agency had been merged into a Philadelphia-wide Association for Jewish Children, and ultimately it became part of the Jewish Children's and Family Service, provider of a great range of assistance to many—including 325 children it places, under county contract, in foster care. Some things have changed but little: the rabbi from Congregation Rodeph Shalom sits—as always—on the board of directors, and there are board members whose families have been playing a similar role for four generations, including a nephew of Mrs. Sternberger's. Because the Agency has chosen to obtain only a third of its $9 million annual budget from government contracts, it can continue to emphasize sectarian services for Jews in most of its programs. It even continues to receive funds from the estates of some of the board members of my father's era— including, as recently as 1993, $23,000 from the sale of utility stock that had belonged to the estate of Matilda K. Sternberger. The money, Mrs. Sternberger dictated, should go toward the purchase of radios, televisions, books for the blind, or other recreational devices—for the infirm elderly. One can only speculate whether her lifelong interest in children had waned because of what might have been her own lonely last years, her friendly visiting days over—or whether she was saddened by the unwillingness of her protégés to let her play a role with their own children.
Mrs. Sternberger had anticipated the Agency's future emphasis; today, it assists some 4,000 Jewish elderly each year and employs some 500 volunteers as friendly visitors to them. But it no longer uses volunteers to visit the 325 children (only ten of them Jewish) for whom it cares, and it must not incorporate religion into its approach to those children. Family Service executive vice president Harold Goldman, warm and enthusiastic and well versed in his agency's history, believes that volunteers would have little to offer the black and Hispanic children of drug-addicted mothers for whom the Agency's paid staff now cares. "The cultural barriers are just too great," he says.
Perhaps so. But one wonders whether they are any greater than those that separated two orphaned children in South Philadelphia from a woman arriving in her black Cadillac 65 years ago.