Ask Eileen Sklaroff for a tour of the offices of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (FHBS) and she'll invite you to her see her home and ask you to stay for dinner. That's because this organization, which was founded in 1819, is committed to raising money for poor Jewish women in the Philadelphia area with a minimal amount of overhead. In fact, under Eileen's steady leadership, annual dollars raised now top $10,000.

Some women didn't even have firewoodWho is Eileen and what is the FHBS? 1819 was a particularly cold and harsh winter in Philadelphia. Hannah Levy and Mrs. Aaron Levy, members of Mikveh Israel (the third oldest congregation in America) learned that there were poor Jewish women in their midst. The two Levys were shocked that some women didn't even have firewood to heat their homes. They were further dismayed to discover that there was no Jewish communal organization in Philadelphia to help these people. Sadly, only Christian missionary groups were available to lend a hand – but not without a dose of proselytizing included.

It was then that the FHBS was founded by these women as a Jewish response to poverty. Quickly, they drafted Rebecca Gratz as their first secretary. The philosophy of the organization was shaped by her eloquent writing. The new society divided the city into quadrants and found out what was needed in Jewish households. Then, they did what needed to be done. If a particular family needed meals, then the FHBS cooked them. If a family needed a bill to be paid, the FHBS did that as well.

"What is significant about the FHBS," says Eileen, "is that it is the first community organization founded by Jews to help Jews in Philadelphia. And it is the oldest Jewish charitable organization in continuous operation in the United States." The FHBS doesn't visit homes any more. Most referrals come through social workers. The vast majority of the women need something immediate: payment of rent, a mortgage or a utility bill. "Sometimes we even buy supermarket certificates for our clients," explains Eileen, "and we give out many camp scholarships and have even paid for gravestones." Basically, the FHBS steps in and fills a need wherever they see one.

Among others, the clients of the FHBS are victims of domestic violence, single mothers, widows who are the sole support of young children and women with chronic illnesses. Most of these women are living on some sort of public entitlement, yet, sometimes that money is not enough. An emergency arises, and the FHBS steps in.

None of these acts of chesed – kindness - would be possible without the leadership of Eileen Sklaroff. It is she who volunteers upwards of twenty hours a week on tasks such as handling correspondence, paying bills, writing thank you notes, developing grant proposals, doing telephone intakes with clients and soliciting funds. "In Philadelphia, there are a disproportionate number of Jewish poor. Across the board it is a working-class city," says Eileen. "Jews are no exception. They are undereducated and underemployed. In the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), G‑d tells us that there will always be poor among us and that it is our responsibility to help them. So, I don't feel as if it's our job to eradicate poverty – but to help those in need, with sensitivity, caring and respect. We need to make it as easy as possible for our clients to get help while preserving their dignity."

"It feels great to perpetuate a tradition that is 186 years old"How did a nice, upper middle class Jewish woman become involved in helping the most needy in her community? About fifteen years ago, Eileen received a telephone call from Mrs. Bert Braude, the widow of her maternal grandmother's first cousin. The Braudes' and Eileen's grandparents lived in the same West Philadelphia neighborhood as newlyweds and maintained a friendship throughout their lives. Mrs. Braude had been a particularly good friend to Eileen's grandmother, especially when she became ill and needed to be placed in a nursing home. Thus, when Mrs. Braude asked Eileen to attend a meeting and become a board member of the FHBS, she couldn't refuse.

"I didn't want to be involved in this," recalls Eileen. "I was busy raising my kids and volunteering at their schools. But I just couldn't say 'no.' When I arrived at the first meeting, it felt pretty weird. The women were all very formal. They were wearing hats and white gloves. I was only in my mid-thirties and they were all in their seventies and eighties." At first, Eileen's involvement was only peripheral. But then, a year and a half after her first meeting, Mrs. Braude announced to Eileen that she was the new treasurer.

Then sadly, Mrs. Braude's mental and physical health began to decline. "I called her daughter, Ruth," remembers Eileen, "and asked her if we could make her mother a president emeritus." Ruth agreed and decided to become involved on the board in her mother's place. Mrs. Vera Bloomfield, herself in her eighties, took over the role of president. Then about fourteen years ago, Mrs. Bloomfield arrived at an FHBS meeting with a letter for Eileen written on a piece of crisp, white monogrammed stationary. In it, she explained to Eileen that it was now her turn to take over the reigns of the FHBS. Since that time, Eileen has lived and breathed the FHBS.

"It is my privilege to be able to do this and bring it to this level of giving. I am honored to guide and develop this organization. I've learned not to be judgmental and to just do the work. It feels great to perpetuate a tradition that is 186 years old," waxes Eileen. "It's also a good feeling to be part of something where other Jewish agencies work together. None of us care what denomination the women belong to – as long as they are Jewish and need our help."