The Southern Dispensary for the Medical Relief of the Poor opened in 1816 on Shippen (Bainbridge) Street. | Photo by Steven PeitzmanFor history buffs, mentions of Jewish anarchists often conjure images of political activist Emma Goldman’s fiery speeches or assassination attempts.
However, many influential members of Philadelphia’s close-knit Jewish anarchist community in the 19th century have flown under the radar due to their relatively quiet occupations: providing health care to underserved communities.
“In Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a large group of professionals who practiced medicine or pharmacy as a livelihood, while committing great energies to the anarchist movement,” labor activist and historian Robert Helms wrote in his Clamor Magazine article “Doctors and Druggists Among the Early Philadelphia Anarchists.” These professionals, many of whom were Jewish, treated patients, provided public health education and contributed financially to political causes.
Anarchist health care was rooted in immigration and labor activism. In the late 19th century, Russian Jews flocked to the United States to escape deadly pogroms and anti-Semitic laws.
Many settled in South Philadelphia, which was also home to Italian and Irish immigrants and African Americans.
The new immigrants, most of whom were poor, took jobs in the factories that grew during the rapid industrialization of American cities. The government imposed little to no regulations on these businesses, which resulted in starvation wages and hazardous conditions for workers. In his memoir, Philadelphia Jewish anarchist, Yiddish orator and labor activist Chaim Lein Weinberg recalled seeing Jewish bakers at union meetings who were so exhausted after their 16-hour shifts they fell asleep in their chairs.
Anarchism, or the political theory that deems governmental authority