Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Not Kars For Kids Or Ron Hershco – But Baron de Hirsch, an Early Philanthropist
Charitable giving is one of the foundations of Judaism and a firm part of Judeo-Christian societal norms. The evidence is everywhere: from Moore, Oklahoma, where strangers offered money to other strangers left homeless by tornado devastation, to the winter coat giveaway by car donation charity Kars For Kids after Hurricane Sandy. Giving is a part of us forever.
Some of us, however, are more blessed than others and therefore give beyond the everyday abilities of most. In this category are people like Baron Maurice de Hirsch, for instance, who in his 64 short years donated an estimated $100 million to educational initiatives and for the establishment of agricultural colonies (mostly in Argentina) to help improve the lives of the poverty-stricken Jews of Eastern Europe.
Moritz Hirsch auf Gereuth, born December 9, 1831 in Munich, Bavaria, was the grandson of the first Jew of Bavaria allowed to own land. Hirsch’s grandfather was an international trader while his father was a banker and his mother came from a banking family. As a boy, Moritz, known as “Maurice,” was given both religious and secular education and was considered bright enough, but not a scholar.
While there are many who give – from entrepreneurs like Ron Hershco to the Bill Gates Foundation, here’s an interesting tale of one such special philanthropist.
In fact, Hirsch made his feelings about academia well known in a statement he made to Theodore Herzl in which he voiced the idea that Jewish woes came from being too caught up in cerebral prowess and academic success. “We have too many intellectuals, my aim is to discourage this tendency to push among Jews,” said Hirsch.
At 17, Maurice dabbled in investments including on the commodities market, experimenting with copper and sugar trading. At the age of 20, Maurice began to work at the Brussels banking firm known as Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt and married the daughter (Clara Bischoffsheim) of the bank’s major share holder four years later. Hirsch went on to nab the concession to build a railway from the Balkans to Constantinople in spite of naysayers who thought the project a pipe dream. As a result of his success with this venture, he earned a name as a courageous business visionary. Funding for the Oriental Railway came by way of Maurice’s family inheritance combined with Clara’s wedding dowry.
As a result of Hirsch’s involvement with the Oriental Railway, he came face to face with the impoverishment of Oriental Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire who were both uneducated and lacking in marketable skills. Hirsch made donations to existing trade schools in European Turkey through the organization known as the Alliance Israelite Universelle. He went on to fund field hospitals during the Russo-Turkish Was (1877-1878) which treated victims of both warring sides. Ten years on, Hirsch made a gift of 500,000 pounds to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph for the express purpose of building primary schools and trade schools throughout Galicia and Bukovina.
Hirsch encountered an obstacle when it came to funding the poor Jews of Russia. At first, he pledged to give the Czar 2 million pounds to found a secular school system for Jews living in the Russian Empire, who, at that time, were only allowed to live in the Pale of Settlement, and thus had few means by which they might support themselves. The Czar was ready to take Hirsch’s gift, but was not inclined to allow a foreigner to determine how that money would be used. Hirsch found this an unacceptable condition.
At some point, Hirsch came to the conclusion that the only way to help Russian Jewry was to get them out of Russia. To that end, Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891, with the goal of helping Jews leave lands where subsistence was forcibly meager. As Hirsch put it, the aim of the association was, “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia – and principally from countries in which they may for the time being be subjected to any special taxes or political or other disabilities . . . and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America and other countries, for agricultural, commercial and other purposes."
Hirsch spent a great deal of money purchasing land in Argentina on behalf of his association, some 11 million pounds sterling, all told, making the association the most generous benefactor of its time.
Hirsch believed that farming was part of the Jewish DNA, inherited from biblical forefathers, and that in agricultural pursuits, Jews could become financially independent. In addition to the colonies he founded in Argentina, Hirsch also established agricultural colonies in Brazil, Canada, the United States, and Palestine. Hirsch, however, refused Herzl’s invitation to become a political Zionist. Hirsch thought of Zionism as a deranged hallucination.