By Cheryl Kempler
The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Amelia Wolf was born in New York in 1868, remained single and worked for charitable institutions for more than 40 years. B’nai B’rith remained a constant in her life, from her parents’ involvement in “The Order,”—the abbreviated name for The Fraternal Order of B’nai B’rith, the organization’s 19th century name—until her death at the B’nai B’rith Home for the Aged in Yonkers in the 1950s.
During her later years, Amelia Wolf wrote her memoir, Reminiscence of a Full Life. Completed when she was 80, the 400-page typed manuscript came into the possession of her great-nephew John Thomson, who recently donated it to B’nai B’rith.
The author’s matter-of-fact prose does not impair her considerable story telling skills. Her introduction, a travelogue that whisks the reader through time and space, focuses on the architectural evolution of Manhattan, the outer boroughs and Westchester, to which she was a witness. She documents the transformation of the city from the 1860s, when “sleighing was good” on Fifth Avenue and tourists snacked on kernels of hot corn sold in paper cones, to the post World War II era, describing New York as a pantheon of “bright lights and hectic nights.”
Wolf began her career in the then new field of social work helping Jewish foster children in New York City. She then obtained a degree in nutrition from Pratt Institute. Combining her skills, she worked as a cook, nutritionist and housekeeper in schools, orphanages and hospitals, including several founded by B’nai B’rith in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis and New Orleans.
Working 12 or 14 hours a day, and sometimes around the clock, Amelia rescued children from broken homes in raging blizzards, traveled with them on boats and trains to meet their new guardians in faraway cities and waited for recalcitrant parents and caregivers on tenement stoops “This was pioneer work, no time clock to be punched,” she wrote. “I was always ready for whatever was in store. Much of my work would not be according to [the] calendar; hazard never stopped me.”
Plans sometimes were sometimes spontaneously formulated, particularly between the hours of midnight and sunrise. On April 18, 1912, when the ship RMS Carpathia, carrying the third class Titanic survivors, docked in New York, she learned that 27 of them would be housed at her place of work, the famed Hebrew Sheltering Aid and Immigration Society on the Lower East Side. Sending her staff into the night to knock on the doors of other Jewish settlement homes, she was able to procure enough bedding and mattresses to accommodate them. Arriving at 2 a.m., the unexpected guests, she recalled, were met by the “neighborhood…out en masse, the street was thronged, we had many visitors who offered their assistance, monetary and materially, many brought food and fruit. The survivors were not only Jews, but there were some Syrians.”
Wolf never leased an apartment or owned a house. In New York, she resided at the De Hirsch Home, a boarding house for single Jewish women, and, throughout her career, she lived either in dormitories, in group homes administered by philanthropies or in the institutions where she worked. She reveled in her unfettered life and freedom, as well as in the opportunities a transient life offered for making friends of all kinds. “Whenever it was possible for me when I was in a strange city,” she wrote, “I would avail myself of whatever residential domicile possible, not caring of what denomination it would be, and, in this way, I have met some very splendid women who…did all in their power to put the Spirit of the Home in the dwelling; one needs more than food and a bed to sleep on.”.
Ever seeking her next opportunity for work and advancement, she also loved going with her friends to hear lectures delivered by eminent rabbis, enjoyed attending concerts and delighted in her own activities as a choir singer. She frequently evoked her memories of pleasure in little things, like the taste of the fresh milk at the large farm in Washington, Connecticut, converted into a vacation home for single working women, where she took her summer holiday: “In the large hall at the entrance was a great open fireplace where corn could be popped in the evening,” she wrote “The attic, which was commodious, was used for dancing and tableaus,” referring to tableau vivants, a popular pastime where people posed themselves as figures in famous paintings or sculptures. Claiming never to have been “a suffragette,” she admits that her wages were poor, but that she took no interest in the acquisition of material possessions.
Wolf spent the last 20 years of her life at the B’nai B’rith Home in Yonkers. There she had no complaints, remaining active, helping others and recording her memoirs.
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Photos courtesy of the Leval Family
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