In honor of the final day of Jewish American Heritage Month, today’s Jewish Treat looks at the evolution of Jewish emergency relief.
On May 31, 1889, after two days of ferocious downpours, the dam on the Little Conemaugh River in Western Pennsylvania burst. Twenty million tons of water were let lose. As the water raged, it destroyed everything in its path until it finally smashed into Johnstown, a small but flourishing town. Over 2,200 people were killed.
Johnstown had only been founded in 1800 and had only begun to industrialize and prosper after the completion of Pennsylvania’s Main Line of Public Works canal and railroad system that connected Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. As the town industrialized, it attracted an increasingly immigrant population, including not a few Jews who had recently immigrated from Germany.
The 1889 Johnstown Flood is noted as the first disaster relief action of the newly formed American Red Cross. This organization brought food, clean water, clothing and medical supplies to the area, and set up shelters as well. And while disaster relief funds were collected around the country, the Pittsburgh Jewish community took special note of their own brethren. Enoch Rauh (1857 - 1919), a successful businessman turned politician, kept hold of the recorded notes of a meeting in which the distribution of relief funds was discussed specifically for the “Johnstown Israelites.”
Despite the terrible flooding and the loss of precious lives, the city rebuilt and a Jewish community did flourish. At its peak, in the 1940s, there were over 1,300 Jews in town. They had three synagogues. But, as was the situation in so many developing areas, the Jewish population was difficult to maintain.
Having been built at the intersection of two rivers (Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek Rivers), Johnstown continued to be plagued by periodic floods. The flood of 1977, which led to 84 deaths, made national headlines. The 1977 flood was far less devastating than the 1889 flood, but the reaction was much more organized. According to the JTA, over $100,000 was raised by the Jewish community for aid, and many organized packages were dispatched to the rest of the community.