ROCKY MOUNTAIN JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
North Denver Tribune – The Denver Sheltering Home: caring first for TB orphans
Fannie Lorber (second from right) and Bessie Willens (third from left) stand with
other founders of the Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish Children. As the home’s president for 51 years, Lorber was known for her perseverance and fund-raising abilities
c. 1907; photo courtesy Beck Archives, Penrose Library, DU
by Kathy McKoy
NORTH DENVER – A century ago, Denver’s west side witnessed the arrival of hundreds of desperately ill parents with children. Putting into practice the Jewish tradition of caring for the poor and sick, a small community of recent East European Jewish immigrants erected a sanitarium on
the west side that provided health care free of charge to poor people with tuberculosis. A few years later, they also founded a most unique institution just east of Sloan’s Lake to care for orphans and for children whose parents were too ill to care for them, named the Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish Children.
While the history of Denver’s Jewish community dates back to 1859, at the end of the 19th century the city had no orphanage for Jewish children. It was not atypical,
for compared to the 305 orphanages run by Catholics and Protestants in the United States in 1890, the number of the Jewish institutions for children was very small. The
first Jewish asylum in the country was the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum Society, founded in New York City in 1822. In 1855 two more institutions for Jewish children opened in Philadelphia and New
Orleans. In 1890, the country had only 9 Jewish orphanages.
Even in 1890, however, Jewish orphanages were distinct from non-Jewish institutions in a number of ways. First, large numbers of their children were foreign born
(nearly half in 1890). Second, Jewish orphanages were almost always coed. (While the majority of Protestant orphanages were coed, most Catholic ones were segregated by sex.) The medical care provided in Jewish
orphanages was also among the best in any orphanages. Unlike most Catholic institutions, which shunned public education, Jewish orphanages usually sent their charges to public schools. In the orphanage, however, the children were given religious instruction and customarily attended neighborhood synagogues. These characteristics of Jewish orphanages in the U.S. held true into the 20th century.
After 1890, the number of Jewish orphanages in the U.S. quickly grew, for between 1890 and 1917 over 3.3 million immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary and the Balkans. Like other immigrant groups that preceded them, the lives of newly arrived immigrants were often difficult.
An illness or loss of a spouse through death or desertion could quickly plunge such a family into crisis. Problems were compounded if one had no extended family to turn to for help. By 1923, the number of Jewish orphanages in the U.S. had more than quadrupled to 40.
Most American orphanages did more than simply house, clothe and feed children. In his book, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America, Historian Timothy Hacsi writes that Catholic and Jewish institutions in particular had a protective” function, meaning their children were carefully guarded from the outside
world in an effort to preserve an ethnic or religious heritage. Since many Jewish immigrants had fled Europe (especially Russia) because of religious persecution,
preserving their religion and culture was of utmost importance to the community, particularly the Orthodox Jews.
A century ago, it was unique local circumstances that led to the Denver Jewish community’s need for a home for dependent children. In 19th century America, tuberculosis held the dubious distinction of being the leading cause of death among the general population, wrote Historian Jeanne Abrams in her recent article, Children Without Homes: The Plight of Denver’s Orphans, 1880-1930 (Colorado History, No. 5, 2001). Abrams is director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society.
Many of Denver’s neediest children in the late 1800s and early 1900s were what Abrams calls “TB orphans.” Fresh air and sunshine were commonly prescribed for those suffering from tuberculosis. By the
1880s Colorado had a reputation, Abrams writes, “as a mecca for those suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments.” The majority of the Jewish tuberculars who came to Denver seeking treatment in the early 1900s were drawn to Denver because of the city’s two sanitoria of national repute. The city’s first sanitarium, National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives,
was established in 1899 at East Colfax and Colorado Boulevard. It was organized and funded mostly by German Reform Jews and admitted only patients in the early stages of TB. In order to aid TB patients in all stages of the disease, Orthodox Jews on Denver’s
west side established the Jewish Consumptives – Relief Society in 1904, located near West Colfax and Pierce. It served many poor East European immigrants, often from New York City or other large East Coast cities.
But this influx of people with TB (commonly known as the White Plague”) created several problems. First, what was to be done with children when their sole guardian was hospitalized, often for months at a time? Since Denver had no Jewish orphanage, children in need of homes either went to the Jewish orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio (which had close ties to Denver’s chapter of B’nai B’rith, a philanthropic organization); were made permanent wards of the state; or went to local Catholic or Protestant orphanages. While the latter institutions accepted children of any religion, many in the Jewish community felt their faith and cultural values would be undermined there. Dietary laws observed by Orthodox Jews, for example, would have been violated in a non- Jewish orphanage.
There was yet another problem. Few parents afflicted with TB had either sufficient means to take care of their children while hospitalized or the strength to adequately
supervise them once they returned home. Juvenile delinquency became a concern within the Jewish community. To address both these problems, in 1907 Fannie C. Lorber, Bessie Willens, and other reformminded women in West Denver’s Jewish community convinced those overseeing the National Jewish Hospital and the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society to establish a home principally for children of its patients. East Denver’s German Jewish Reform community also supported the move to establish
a home for Jewish children. In another article by Jeanne Abrams, The Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish
Children (American Jewish History, vol. 79, 1989-1990), she suggests the motivations involved in founding the Denver Sheltering Home were complex: These included sincere altruism informed by traditional
Jewish concepts of Tzedakah [charity, righteousness], realistic medical concerns, and finally, perhaps, a desire on the part of some of the supporters to impose middle-class Progressive social values on the Home’s inmates… as well as to Americanize the dependent offspring of the immigrants and turn them into model citizens. Many in the local Jewish community supported the home with annual contributions. Some donated food and gifts as well, especially for birthdays, holidays or the Sabbath. Others took the children on summer outings.
Incorporated in 1908, the Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish Children’s first location was in an 11-room house at 19th and Irving. After that house burned down in 1914, children stayed briefly at 26th and King then were moved to a house at 19th and Julian. By 1916, 31 children (ages 4- 14), a matron, a cook and janitor lived at the home. It was forced to close in 1916 due to an outbreak of diphtheria. In 1918 a handsome brick building (named after 2 Fannie E. Lorber) was erected at 19th and Lowell, designed to accommodate 50 children. Other buildings were built later, including a dorm for children of tubercular patients and a hospital. One unusual aspect of the 17.5-acre campus was that narrow underground passageways linked many of the buildings.
By arrangement with a Denver judge, Jewish kids who ran afoul of the law were sent to the Denver Sheltering Home instead of reform school, provided it was their first offense. Eventually, the home would accept children needing shelter for other reasons, along with those needing treatment for health problems. In 1920 an office was opened in New York City. In 1926 the name of the home was changed to the National Home for Jewish Children (NHJC) to reflect the fact that its children hailed from all over the U.S. Between 1908 and 1929, the home cared for 1,000 children.
Local Historian Phil Goodstein’s book, Exploring Jewish Colorado, cites two trends that led to a shift in the National Home for Jewish Children’s function after the 1930s. First, the threat of tuberculosis declined during the 1940s after the introduction of streptomycin led to an effective drug treatment for the disease. Second, child welfare agencies increasingly favored placing children in foster care over institutions. While the NHJC continued accepting small numbers of dependent Jewish children, most were children of divorce, rather than of parents with illnesses. The primary mission of the home changed and it became a special treatment center for children with asthma, renamed the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children in 1953. Alluding to the proselytizing activities Christian orphanages were known for, its slogan was “We prepare and prevent rather than repair and repent.” In 1957 the home’s name changed to the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital and again in 1973, to the National Asthma Center. In 1978 it merged with National Jewish Hospital. The West Denver facility was abandoned in 1981. A private developer bought the roperty, intending to build a high rise. Facing fierce neighborhood opposition and financial difficulties, the plan failed, but only after all the buildings had been demolished. Today the site of the orphanage is occupied by town homes.