Born in Bavaria, but raised from the age of six in America, Nathan Straus made a fortune as the co-owner with his brother of Macy’s Department Store and the Abraham and Straus Department Store. But really he should be best known as a philanthropist extraordinaire. Not only did he donate the majority of his wealth to help a number of worthwhile causes, but he took an active role in making certain that his public health initiatives for the poor were implemented.
In addition to his mercantile success, Straus was involved in New York City politics. He served as the city’s Parks Commissioner and was president of the city’s Board of Health.
Noting the horrible infant mortality rates in New York City (and in other urban centers), Straus realized that the problem was that many of the cows in the city were sickly and that the raw milk transported in from farms was stored in old containers in conditions that promoted bacterial growth. With his own funds, he built a plant to produce pasteurized milk in sanitary conditions with sterilized equipment. In the neighborhoods where he created distribution centers to sell the milk at minimal cost, there was a shocking decrease in infant mortality. He also opened soup kitchens, built shelters and sold coal at highly reduced prices.
Straus was partnered in all his efforts by his wife Lina.
In addition to their public health work, the Strauses were ardent Zionists. They traveled to Palestine in 1912 and immediately began working to improve the poor living conditions that he found there. Because of their devotion to their charitable work in Palestine, they even delayed their return, leaving Nathan’s brother and sister-in-law, Isador and Ida Straus, to travel back alone aboard the ill-fated Titanic. Straus took this as a sign, and redoubled his efforts in his Zionistic charity work. The Strauses established a domestic science school for girls, a health bureau and a public kitchen. They supported the work of Hadassah, funded the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center in Jerusalem to serve all inhabitants of the city, and opened a milk pasteurization facility. The coastal city of Netanya is named in Nathan Straus’ honor. Straus also helped fund the American Jewish Congress and, in 1917, the Jewish War Relief Fund.
Nathan Straus passed away on January 11, 1931. His yahrtzeit is 22 Tevet.
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