JELF’s history is one of twists and turns and opportunities seized, which in many ways is a reflection of the dynamic and growing Jewish presence in the Southeastern U.S. over the past 130 years.
1876: Grand Lodge Convention of B’nai B’rith’s Fifth District
It all began at the 1876 Grand Lodge Convention of B’nai B’rith’s Fifth District, which at the time included Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. It was there that Simon Wolf submitted a resolution to finance a Jewish orphanage. He and a group of like-minded individuals were concerned about the increasing number of immigrant children in the district whose families could not care for them for any number of reasons.
1889: Hebrew Orphans’ Asylum Opens
After a decade of hard work and perseverance, the Hebrew Orphans’ Asylum opened its doors on Washington Street in Atlanta. For the many that had been involved in this development, the Asylum symbolized an emerging Jewish community in a region of the country that was developing apace with a nation in the midst of rapid change.
The Asylum benefited from the financial and material support of the Atlanta community, B’nai B’rith, and several organizations formed specifically to support it. In 1899 B’nai B’rith relinquished its official control of the Asylum and the name was changed to the Hebrew Orphans’ Home, though B’nai B’rith members remained independently involved in the Home’s funding, operations and volunteer leadership.
The Home’s first endowment fund was established in 1901. Its mainstay, the Simon Wolf Endowment Fund, was chartered in 1916 in Goldsboro, N.C. The fund’s charter was to “use and devote the income of the fund, any and all funds which may be donated to the corporation, for the maintenance of the Hebrew Orphans’ Home for the care, instruction, education and support of inmates of said home.…”
1929: A Period of Transformation from Orphanage to Foster Care Placement
In 1929, a new supervisor of the Home was hired who responded to the changing sentiment of the times. He saw to it that every child in the Home was placed with a family, preferably relatives or observant Jewish families. In 1930, with all of the children now living with families, the orphanage closed its doors. Throughout the 30s and 40s, the Home became a subsidizing organization, funding and overseeing foster home placements and special care placements of Jewish children throughout the Southeast.
In order to preserve the endowment for direct welfare programs, the Home asked its affiliated communities to pay a modest stipend toward operating expenses in exchange for receiving services.
1948: Responding to Post-World War II Social Challenges
Though the Home’s caseload eased in the early 1940s as welfare boards increased, it swelled again at the end of World War II with a new wave of European immigrants. The war also left the Home facing a broader social problem – a significant rise in the number of unwed mothers, particularly near the military bases of Tampa, Jacksonville and Savannah. Many of these young women needed medical care and adoption services, which the Home began to provide. This continued until the 1960s.
In 1948, the Home officially changed its name to the Jewish Children’s Service (JCS) to reflect its new responsibilities. During the 1950s, JCS concentrated on serving affiliated communities in Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia, emphasizing its role as a regional agency. Its program of direct services included placements in foster homes or special care institutions, in-home supervision, services to unmarried mothers, and adoptions. All beneficiaries of the JCS enjoyed access to medical and dental care, vocational guidance and psychological counseling.
1961: College Education and “Interest Free” Take Center Stage
JCS underwent major changes in 1961 when it became evident that other welfare organizations provided similar or overlapping services. The organization’s focus shifted from the delivery of direct services to helping college students with the financial challenges of funding their education. The JCS board combined some assets from the Simon Wolf Endowment Fund with JCS’ scholarship fund to meet these needs. A scholarship committee was formed to establish guidelines for educational loans and, in exceptional cases, direct grants.
It was decided that JCS loans were to be interest-free and need-based. Loan applicants would be referred by local agencies within the affiliated communities. Throughout the next few decades, with more than 90% of college-age Jewish youth seeking higher education, demand for JCS loans increased. In addition to loans, JCS offered camp scholarships for needy children and continued to support a single foster child with developmental disabilities for whom it had cared since infancy.
1989: The JELF Name is Adopted
In 1989, the goals of the organization were once again re-evaluated. To reflect its new mission, JCS changed its name to the Jewish Educational Loan Fund (JELF). JELF’s first priority was college-age Jewish youth at undergraduate institutions. Through the years, this support was extended to students outside of affiliated communities (though within the five-state region), graduate students, students seeking post-secondary vocational training, and even older individuals in the workforce seeking to enhance their skills or make a career change.
2016: The Legacy of the Hebrew Orphans’ Asylum
Today, through its outstanding loan portfolio of $5.1 million, JELF continues to meet a critical need in the Jewish community. The JELF board and staff are active in supporting students and their families, and in attracting the financial resources JELF needs to meet an ever increasing demand for loans.
In the spirit of l’dor v’dor, JELF encourages those who have received a loan and since graduated to support the organization as volunteers and donors. Each time a former recipient makes a donation to JELF they become a member of JELF’s Full Circle Society. Having once benefited from the generosity of others, these “alumni” have made their mark on JELF as volunteers, donors, board members, and even board presidents.
Though JELF remains committed to its current mission, it continually looks outward to ensure it is fulfilling the vision of Simon Wolf and the many dedicated volunteers and financial supporters who have guided this great organization for nearly 130 years.
We believe Simon Wolf would be proud.