Being strangers in a strange new world, the immigrants turned to their coreligionists for help and assistance. With the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to America,
, mutual benefit societies composed of individuals who had come from the same community in the Old World, were organized. Hundreds of thousands of foreign-born Jews belonged to
organized and named after the place of birth or Old World home of the members.
In the bewildering atmosphere of New York the
were a fixed point for the newcomer. At its meetings he could speak his own language, and be a man with a family and a history and not just another “greenhorn” struggling with the difficulties of a new language and making a living.
were also clearing-houses for jobs and housing. They were places where one might raise money in an emergency; they helped immigrants find relatives and acquaintances; and they organized committees to call on the sick and bury the dead.
With a heritage steeped in a sense of responsibility for the unfortunate, the members of the Jewish community took it for granted that they were in some way responsible for the welfare of the poor. The community responded by creating conditions and agencies which would facilitate the adjustment of newcomers to their environment.
It is estimated that ten to twenty percent of the Jewish population received assistance from one agency or another. In addition to providing economic assistance, the United Hebrew Charities was instrumental in organizing homes for chronic invalids, establishing industrial schools for boys and girls, developing a visiting nurse service, organizing a Central Refugee Committee, and establishing a legal aid society.
During this period, fraternal and community organizations such as B’nai B’rith and the Young Mens Hebrew Association were organized to meet the needs of the immigrants in the community by providing various civic and Jewish cultural programs and activities.
Despite all the help they received, the Russian Jews found that for the most part they had to help themselves. The gap between the Russian Jews and the German Jews, who had come to America in the 1840s, was wide. Although the German Jews employed many of the Russian Jews, they felt that the new immigrants should forget as quickly as possible the ways of the Old World and become Americans.
The older inhabitants expected the Russian Jews to understand English rapidly, and drop Yiddish. Yiddish, although punctuated with German words, had flourished in the East European area for centuries. In the New World, it became the cultural medium for hundreds of thousands of East European Jews. Yiddish was the language of the street, the home, the shop, the factory, and the synagogue.