Jewish Women


Lillian Wald, American Jewish Success


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Lillian Wald

By Jacob B. Krain

Perhaps one of the most influential women in the past century was a Jewess by the name of Lillian Wald. Although not a suffragette, nor a feminist, she, in her manner, became a legend to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants who streamed to the shores of the United States in the late 1890's and early 1900's. Through her individual act of kindness she enriched the lives of new immigrants to New York.

When the exodus of Jews from the Eastern European countries began in the 1890's, the new immigrants were totally unprepared for life in a new world. Work and living conditions in the New York tenements were intolerable at best and murderous at worst. Several families crammed into small apartments taking borders to help pay rent. Husbands, children, and mothers searched New York for work. Working conditions were severe, twelve to fourteen hours a day was not unheard of. Wages were often insufficient.

Community help and social services were non existent. Crammed into the tight quarters, without knowledge of the native American culture, many families succumbed to diseases and due to the filthy cramped conditions, illnesses were rampant. The death rate in the tenements was almost twice that of the rest of New York.

Lillian Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1867 to a wealthy Jewish family of German descent. The German Jews had immigrated to the States earlier and were well established. She was educated at Miss Cruttenden's English-French Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies in Rochester, New York. She received little or no Jewish education. She wanted to enter Medical School, but instead enrolled at New York Hospital's School of Nursing.

It was there that she picked up those skills that together with her caring nature were to make her the legend of her time.

At one point in her early career, she opened a class in home nursing for women in the East Side. During this time, a young girl asked her to come to help treat a very sick person in their apartment. Following the young girl, she got her first view of the cramped living quarters and impoverished living arrangements that the immigrants had to make do on their meager wages. It was from this first visit that she decided to dedicate her life to improving the living condition of these wretched immigrants.

She began working when there was no one else willing or able to work. She did not do this out of idealistic or humanitarian philosophy, but because there were people who desperately needed help and there was no one else there.

She recruited another nurse and began working out of a fifth floor apartment at 27 Jefferson Street. They made themselves available to anyone who needed help. They charged very little for their services and gave freely to those who could not afford to pay. In addition to being a competent nurse, she won the confidence of the new immigrant.

At first she operated with no program or plan, just dispensing aid to those who needed it. She kept herself alert to other situations in which she could help. In addition to medical services, she instructed the new immigrants how to properly live a sanitary life. During her visits, she encouraged and taught the tenement dwellers how to keep their apartments clean, and to burn refuse and impressed upon them the importance of cleanliness.

Her tasks were endless, un-guaranteed measles, ridding bedding of vermin infestation, helping pregnant mothers obtain nourishing food, preventing the spread of typhoid, influenza, or pneumonia and convincing frightened and suspicious immigrants to seek proper medical treatment in the city's hospital. Many times they would spend the night with a sick patient who had no one to aid him. Often they would fetch surgeons to come when a patient was too ill to be moved. In other cases, they would stay to provide after hospital help.

In addition to her unending work, she managed to find time to solicit the financial aid of many of the German Jewish community leaders. Jacob Schiff, one of the wealthiest Jews of that time, took an interest in Miss Wald's projects. He funded her for many years.

She had a direct style for fund raising. She simply told the people of the German Jewish community exactly the conditions that she saw, in all detail. "Have you ever seen a starving child cry?" she would ask. The German Jewish community responded generously and gave her the financial backing that she needed to expand her services.

Her original partner, Mary Brewster, quit due to being over worked and in poor health. But she hired more and more nurses that were dedicated with the same goals and resolve that she had. Some even returned to Miss Wald the $15 a month salary.

She began to look for larger quarters and soon found a house at 265 Henry Street. This was to be called the Nurse's Settlement House, but the name was changed to the Henry Street Settlement house. By 1898, she employed a staff of eleven full time workers; nine of them were nurses. In 1906 she had twenty-seven nurses and by 1916 she had more than one hundred nurses working for her. Yet with all this large staff, the visiting nurse program never lost the personal touch.

As her program succeeded, and as she won large recognition from the local population, she became politically savvy. She persuaded the city to begin a program of public nursing. She persuaded the Board of Education to put nurses into the public schools. She constantly sought out more money to enlarge her programs of help. She became the charmer of the millionaires. She spoke out against the popular movement to restrict the immigrants; she viewed the immigrants' culture as a valuable contribution to the American way of life. She was appointed to several governmental committees, and at the same time worked to advance the living conditions of the tenement dwellers.

She worked with others to found the National association for the Advancement of Colored People. She worked as a representative of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control for the Cloak, Suit and Skirt Industry, calling for fire safety and sanitation measures. She labored for better conditions for pregnant workers and to abolish child labor.

The new immigrants began trusting her intimately and many times her council and wisdom was used to settle workers demands and domestic quarrels. She had special skills to make links between the German Jewish world and the East European world.

By her seventieth birthday, the New York Governor Lehman, Mayor LaGuardia, and President Roosevelt recognized her for her contributions to public heath. She was given an honorary degree and presented with the key to the city.

Lillian Wald died at the age of seventy-three in 1940. She never married; her work occupied her life. Her greatest living memorial the Henry Street Settlement still stands on New York's Lower East Side now serving the neighborhoods Asian, Negro, and Latino population.

"Nursing is love" she was want to say, and her life was a testimony to that dictum.


from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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