Today’s post is written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Several years ago when I first started my genealogical research, I only knew a few sentences about my great great grandmother, Ida (Gross) Cohen: she immigrated to America (Philadelphia to be exact) from Russia by herself with her family’s locket stitched in her skirt to prevent it from being stolen (this locket is now under my mother’s guardianship); she sang in the Yiddish Theatre (still trying to prove this one); and she died from an abortion — her four children becoming orphans. The term “orphan” usually refers to someone who has lost both parents, but it has changed to encompass children with only one deceased parent. Even though Ida’s husband was still alive at the time of her death, he could not provide care for the children and admitted them into a Jewish orphanage.

Orphanages have been a part of American history long before the country declared its independence. Nuns founded the first orphanage in 1729 after many adult settlers were killed in the Natchez Revolt located in modern-day Natchez, Mississippi. [1] In response to illness, poverty, urbanization and immigration, more orphanages were established in the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to that, there were reformatories known as poorhouses or almshouses which sheltered everyone who had suffered from poverty including criminals, the sick, and orphans. Because of the poor conditions and the minimal rations of food, diseases spread quickly. Another option that was considered in handling the cities’ orphans was the orphan trains where children were transported from overpopulated cities on the East Coast to the Midwest and picked by potential foster parents. Orphans were usually given to Christian families, so if the child was Jewish then conversion was inevitable. [2]

This leads to the reason Jewish orphanages were created: to help foster and preserve the children’s Jewish heritage. For this very reason, Rebecca Gratz (a well-known Jewish Philadelphian and philanthropist) co-founded the first Jewish orphanage in America: the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum. Later known as the Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans, it’s this same orphanage where my great grandmother and her siblings were admitted in 1927.

By now, you might be wondering: how does a researcher continue tracing their family history if an ancestor was an orphan? For my personal research, the first document I came across was the 1930 Census which confirmed that my great grandmother and her siblings lived in an orphanage, and it identified where in Philadelphia it was located.

Another place to start is to look at local histories or city directories (which sometimes have mini-local histories in them) and learn about how the poor, specifically the children, were being taken care of. In the slideshow below, is a local history on Philadelphia from 1868. While the Jewish orphanage isn’t mentioned (perhaps it wasn’t known by the author at time of publication) there are quite a few other homes mentioned in the text along with illustrations of the different city buildings and business ads, which are always fun to see.  

For city directories, you might just get a confirmation of the address. In the case of my family, the 1927 Philadelphia City Directory lists the orphanage in the business pages at the back of the directory under “Homes, Asylums, and Day Nurseries” in the second column (second image below). It’s also listed in the alphabetized section under “Jewish” (third image below).

Apart from local histories and directories, Sutro Library has other resources that can help get you started on your search. While we don’t focus on one particular orphanage, we do have works on a variety of different institutions and sometimes we are the only library in Northern California, or in some cases all of California, to have a copy, which means these are ineligible for InterLibrary Loan and can only be viewed in the Reading Room.

Some examples include:

After you’ve exhausted your search at your local genealogical library or online through a genealogical site, the next best place is to identify local history organizations where this orphanage was located and which repository might have the original records. If it does not come up in a google search or by searching through archival finding aid (aka inventory) catalogs like Online Archive of California or ArchiveGrid, then the local genealogical and historical societies may be able to point you in the right direction. In my case, Temple University houses the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection which has the records of the orphanage my ancestors grew up in.

The next part of this post will show examples of the different types of records that may be available to you once you are able to locate them:

  1. Admission and discharge records – Ledgers from the home can contain information on when the child was admitted, their birth date, reason for admission, and date of discharge from the home.  Along with these admission records are court report summaries which provide similar information as the ledger, only the main difference is it gives the address of where the father lived, and presumably where the children lived prior to admittance in the home (first image below).
Summary of court report committing Dorothy and her siblings to the orphanage. It also lists an address of where they lived prior to admittance into home. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)
Orphanage’s admission records were not tiny. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)
Page in admission ledger that listed Dorothy Cohen and her siblings along with birth and discharge dates. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)

2. Annual reports – While these may not provide information of genealogical value, these will provide contextual information and allow you to understand the current state and goals of the institution. Keep in mind that one of the functions of an annual report is to increase funds so it might not provide the most accurate representation of the home.

3. Newsletters – Records may also exist from the perspective of the residents of the home. The Jewish Foster Home offered many clubs for their children, and some of these clubs created records of their own. For example the Journalism Club published a newsletter. The content of these newsletters included pages on the occurrences within the home from new residents and birthdays to interviews with the staff or even gossip columns. If your ancestor is no longer in the home during the time of publication, there’s a chance they might be mentioned later on because this newsletter often provided updates on residents who had been discharged from the home.

4. Personal accountsAnother way to understand life in the home is to hear it, or read it, straight from them. Maybe even from someone who lived in the home with your ancestor? Oral histories, or even published accounts, may exist. In my case, I had the opportunity to interview my great Aunt Essie (the youngest daughter of Ida and eldest member of my family at the time). Another helpful source was an account of the home written by another alum, Jules Doneson in his Deeds of Love: A History of the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia — America’s First Jewish Orphanage.

Dvorah interviewing Aunt Essie about her life, especially in the home, while eating some lox, cream cheese, and pumpernickel bread. (Spring 2012)

Alongside annual reports and newsletters, memories of the home make it possible to analyze and compare the ideals of the home with the realities and help to contextualize my family’s experience.

5. Alumni recordsResidents often kept in contact long after leaving the home and even created an alumni organization to stay in touch after they were discharged. For the Jewish Foster Home, it went by a few different names: Home Guys; the Pop Weiser Group; and 700 East Alumni Association. The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection recently made their finding aid available for this collection and in it includes a roster, mailing list, correspondence, video and photos from the home etc. Whenever I return to Philadelphia, this is definitely a collection I’d want to consult!

6. Other relief organization recordsSimilar to many immigrants during this time, my great great grandparents struggled to support their family. Fortunately, organizations existed to help immigrants. If your ancestor ended up an orphan, there’s a chance they or their parents needed financial assistance prior to admittance into an orphanage. Because of this, it’s important to look into other aid organizations that might have existed during this time. The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection also houses these records for the local Jewish relief organizations. For my ancestors, it was the United Hebrew Charities. In one of their collections was a case file relating to my family that is nine pages long and is one that I constantly go back to and reread as it has tremendous genealogical value. It was created when concerned neighbors (or perhaps family or friends) requested the UHC to get involved and provide assistance. Meticulous notes were taken documenting each time the agent interacted (or tried to) with the Cohens.

Whenever a name was mentioned, an address was often tagged along with it. On the first page of the file (see image on the left), I find the addresses of family, an employer, and a landlord. There are more included in the rest of the file. All of these names allow me to expand Ida’s “FAN Club.”

This is a term coined by renowned genealogist and author Elizabeth Shown Mills and means:

  • Family/Friends
  • Associates
  • Neighbors

When we expand our search to include the above list of associated people, we often find out more information about our ancestors. For example, the summaries written on 4/27/20 and 4/28/20 of this case file mentioned an aunt by the name of Mrs. Israel in Camden, New Jersey. Because this document is dated for 1920, I then searched the 1920 census hoping to find a match, and I did! The address in the census matched the address in the blurb for 4/28/20. This find, like many others from this file, led me to other documents regarding Sarah’s relation to Ida.

Finding this case file as well as other records might not have happened if I hadn’t consulted with the archivist of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection. On my own, it was hard to wrap my head around all of the mergers and name changes that happened between the various relief organizations. Because of this, many different finding aids exist. The archivist (or librarian in some cases) will help you navigate their finding aids and may be able to point you to what other collections may be of genealogical value. Similarly, the librarians at Sutro Library are here to assist you in any way. Feel free to reach out to us via email at or give us a call at (415) 469 – 6100.

To summarize, here are the steps to researching your orphan ancestor:

  1. Start your research with the census, especially if your ancestor lived at an orphanage during a census year;
  2. Find a city directory or local history and learn more about how the children were cared for;
  3. Once you have identified the orphanage, try googling or searching archival catalogs like ArchiveGrid, in order to locate the orphanage’s records;
  4. Contact local genealogical and historical societies if you need further assistance;
  5. Once the records have been located, don’t just look at admission records. Also look at records that may not be of immediate genealogical value like annual reports and newsletters;
  6. There’s a high probability other relief organizations provided assistance to your family prior to your ancestor becoming an orphan so consult with your local archivist to identify those records too.

All of these examples are just a few of the records you may be able to use when researching an orphan ancestor, leading you one step closer to learning more about them and the place they once called home.

Share in the comments below what resources you have found helpful in your own orphan ancestor research!

For further reading on:

  1. Tracing orphan ancestors, check out Jessica Naeves blog post “How to Research Your Orphan Ancestors”

2. The history of orphanages in America – Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America by Timothy Hacsi (1997)

3. Jewish orphanages – These are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880 – 1925 by Reena Sigman Friedman (1994)

4. The Jewish Foster Home (later known as Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans) in Philadelphia:

5. Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection at Temple University:

Please note: If any of the Sutro Library’s materials state the location is in the “Vault,” we ask that you please give us at least 2 business days advance notice before your visit by emailing us at or calling us at (415) 469 – 6100.   


[1] Orphanages: An Historical Overview by the Family & Children’s Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (March 1995)

[2] Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America by Timothy Hacsi (1997)

Citations for images:’s United States Census Collection

1927 Philadelphia City Directory on Microfilm located in Sutro Library Reading Room (MF290). This year is not available online through’s City Directory collection.

Temple University’s Special Collections and Research Center Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection:

  1. Association for Jewish Children Records SCRC 37 (orphanage records)
  2. Jewish Ys and Centers of Greater Philadelphia, Neighborhood Centre Branch Records, SCRC 22 (UHC case file)

3 thoughts on “A Place to Call Home: Researching Your Orphan Ancestor

  1. Such a terrific post on genealogical research, Dev. My grandfather never forgave his father for leaving him and his brother at Boy’s Town in Omaha after his mother died in 1928. Your advice for discovering family history for these situations is great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Craig! It’s definitely not an easy topic to research and/or talk about with family so hopefully this post helps. Now I am wondering how life at the Omaha home compared to life at this Philadelphia orphanage.


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