Detroit Ladies Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans

Supporting Widows and Orphans in Their "Darkest Hour"

It was in 1863 that the rabbi of Temple Beth El, Abraham Laser, gathered together a few benevolent ladies to form one of the first Jewish charitable organizations in Detroit, "The Detroit Ladies Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans," which also became popularly known as "Die Frauen Verein" (The Women's Society). At the time, Temple Beth El was Detroit’s first and only Jewish congregation. The Society, which also was thought to be the first of its type in Detroit, was preceded by a Jewish women's organization, known as Ahabas Achjaus (Sisterly Love), an auxiliary society of Congregation Beth El, organized a few years earlier in 1859. It was the Detroit Ladies Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans though that became best known throughout the community for its good work.

The first president of the society was congregant Dr. Louis Hirschman, but the rest of the charter members were women: Mesdames Fanny Heineman, Rosalie Frankel, Betty Butzel, Fanny Lambert, and Caroline Friedman. Their goal, as the name implied, was to provide succor to the “poor widow when in her darkest hour.” Further, their intent was to “eventually erect an orphan asylum in the city of Detroit so as to give these orphans a proper Jewish and general education.”

At one time, membership included 180 ladies who paid annual dues in the amount of $4. The society provided for women and children throughout the Civil War. Later, responding to the medical needs of the increasing number of immigrants, the Detroit Ladies Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans working with the newly formed United Jewish Charities, opened Detroit's first Jewish free medical clinic for the needy in the offices of Dr. Hirschman.

Fanny Heineman, who often conducted soirees at her home for poets, writers, and artists, served as president of the Detroit Ladies Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans for some thirty years. Her appointment was not without controversy. According to author Robert Rockaway (Jews of Detroit: From the Beginning 1762-1914), Beth El’s male congregants questioned the ability of “any woman” to manage the charity and its finances. Heineman and other female officers and leaders succeeded in proving the assertion to be false.

Learn More: Temple Beth El, Emil and Fanny Heineman, United Jewish Charities