Jacob Schiff, philanthropist

Jacob Henry Schiff (born Jakob Heinrich Schiff; 1847 – 1920) was a Jewish-American banker, businessman, and philanthropist. Among many other things, he helped finance the expansion of American railroads. He was born in Germany and migrated to the United States after the American Civil War and joined the firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co on Wall street. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in September 1870

Mr. Schiff was the most well known and influential Jewish leader from 1880 to 1920 in what later became known as the “Schiff era”, grappling with all major Jewish issues and problems of the day, including the plight of Russian Jews under the Tsar, American and international anti-semitism, care of needy Jewish immigrants, and the rise of Zionism. He led many corporations, including the National City Bank of New York, Equitable Life Assurance Society, Wells Fargo & Company, and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Schiff supported many Jewish charities including relief efforts for the victims of pogroms in Russia, and helped establish and develop Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Jewish Division in the New York Public Library, and the American Jewish Committee. In New York examples include the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids, of which he was president, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association building and the Jewish Theological Seminary on Broadway and 116th Street. He was also involved with many secular American causes: in addition to serving on the Board of Managers of the New York Zoological Society, the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Fine Arts Society, American Geographical Society, and Barnard College; and a number of other organizations for civil rights and the disadvantaged, such as the American Red Cross, the Nurses’ Settlement (New York) and Tuskegee Institute. In 1895, he purchased a building for use by the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Henry Street Settlement is a not-for-profit social service agency that provides social services, arts programs and health care services to all New Yorkers of need.

On his 70th birthday, he distributed $700,000 among various charitable organizations and public institutions.  Schiff was actively concerned with the improvement of civic conditions in New York. He was a vice president of the New York Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Committee of 70 which resulted in the overthrow of the Tweed Ring.

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