The Federation’s Founder
An orphan who became a rabbi, David Lefkowitz worked for the betterment of all Dayton citizens
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Rabbi David Lefkowitz had served Dayton’s B’nai Jeshurun Congregation (now Temple Israel) for 10 years when he arranged a meeting to improve the quality of life for Dayton’s Jews.
On May 8, 1910, he brought together merchants and businessmen from his German-Jewish Reform congregation to lay out the reasons and benefits for organizing Dayton’s Jewish charities into a federation.
Those present at that first meeting included F.J. Ach, Joseph Schwartz, I. Yassenoff, S.G. Kusworm, A.W. Schulman, N. Feinberg, S. Margolis, S. Brown, Harry Lehman, Stanley Krohn, and David Cohen.
They unanimously moved to organize a central body to be known as the Federation of Jewish Charities of Dayton. At the same meeting, they debated and adopted a constitution.
The stated purpose of the Federation was simple but vital: “The collection and apportionment of contributions, membership dues, donations and legacies among Jewish charities and Jewish philanthropic organizations.”
At the next meeting of the Federation, on May 22, 1910, Lefkowitz refused the nomination to serve as the Federation’s vice president, but accepted a seat on the board and the chairmanship of the relief committee.
The minutes from that first decade show Lefkowitz as the guiding force behind the Federation’s key decisions and the subtle hand that helped the Federation’s leaders navigate politics in the Jewish and general communities.
According to the American Jewish Archives, David Lefkowitz was born in Eperies, Hungary in 1875. His widowed mother brought him and his two brothers to the United States sometime around 1881. Their mother was unable to support the family, and she abandoned Lefkowitz and his younger brother at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York. Lefkowitz lived there from 1883-89.
American Jewish Archives records also indicate that he later worked for the asylum to pay for his schooling. Lefkowitz received his bachelor’s degree from the College of the City of New York in 1894 and the University of Cincinnati in 1899. He was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1900. The same year, he accepted the pulpit at B’nai Jeshurun in Dayton.
From 1899-1905, he also served as part-time rabbi of Congregation Ohev Zedukah (now Temple Sholom) in Springfield, Ohio.
In 1901, the young rabbi married Sadie Braham of Cincinnati. They had four children: Lewis, Henry, Helen, and David Jr.
In a dissertation about Lefkowitz for the University of North Texas in 2000, Jane Bock Guzman wrote that Reform Jews ran the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and that “they taught the young boys in their care to become model American citizens. David Lefkowitz spent his entire life carrying out this charge.”
Boston’s Jewish community was the first in America to establish a Jewish federation, in 1895. It didn’t take long for the concept of efficient, centralized fund-raising to take hold in Jewish communities across the country.
The Dayton Federation’s first order of business was to name the beneficiaries of its annual campaign, based on the most pressing needs of Dayton’s Jews. In 1910, these were:
• The Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland
• The National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives, Denver
• The Jewish Consumptive Relief Association, Denver
• The Sir Moses Montefiore Kesher Home for Aged and Infirm Jews, Cleveland
• The Babetta Schwartz Sewing Guild;
• Associated Jewish Charities of Dayton
Under Lefkowitz’s advisement, the Federation then established the structure and standards for providing Jews in need with loans and tangible relief such as food, clothing and coal. He personally handled the most difficult cases.
By 1912, the Federation entered an agreement with the Industrial Removal Office in New York to settle eight Jewish immigrant cases a month, two of which would be families.
Also in 1912, the Federation invited officers of the Wyoming and Wayne Avenue synagogues (Beth Jacob and Beth Abraham respectively) to send representatives to sit on the Federation board.
Two years after the Dayton flood of 1913, when Jews in Dayton were still unable to repay loans which the Federation had issued to them for flood relief, it was Lefkowitz who urged the Federation to set aside those loans “on which payment would be a hardship.” He urged the loan committee to “act on its best judgment.”
Lefkowitz also served as the first board chair of the Dayton Chapter of the American Red Cross when it was established in 1917 and was active in municipal issues including government corruption and playground associations.
The one dream project that Lefkowitz and the Federation board of the ‘teens weren’t able to bring to completion was the establishment of a settlement house, “where the immigrant can be temporarily properly cared for; where a widowed mother may leave her babe in safety while she earns a livelihood; where classes in citizenship for immigrants can be conducted; where sewing may be taught children; where domestic science and domestic economy may be taught the immigrant mother; and where various classes in elementary English grammar, arithmetic, reading and writing can be obtained.”
During that decade, the board couldn’t find a suitable, affordable location for a settlement house in the East End.
In 1922, the Federation purchased a house at 59 Green Street to serve these purposes.
In 1920, after 20 years in Dayton, Lefkowitz and his family moved to Dallas, where he would serve Temple Emanu-El until his retirement in 1948. In Dallas, he led the local Community Chest, served as an officer with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1929-31. Lefkowitz died in 1955.
His son, David Jr., was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in 1937 and served as assistant rabbi to his father for three years. In 1940, David Jr. went to B’nai Zion Congregation in Shreveport, LA, where he served until his retirement in 1972. He died in 1999.