While over the course of history, the members of the Mendelssohn family had various faiths, from Judaism to Protestantism and Catholicism, there is one conviction that the diverging branches of the family share: their obligation to an enlightened civil religion, that of civic responsibility.
The history of the Mendelssohn family as sponsors and donors begins with the gift made by their progenitor Moses, who donated a Torah curtain to a small Berlin synagogue made from his wife"s wedding dress. In particular the founder of the Mendelssohn bank, Joseph, set new standards for the second generation. In the early 19th century, he donated a sculpture to the new Berlin Stock Exchange. He contributed to social projects within the Jewish Congregation and, until the revolution of 1848 began gaining momentum, projects pursued by the city of Berlin. He promoted the first Berlin popular theatre, the Volkstheater, as a financier. His brother Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy contributed his work, as an unpaid city councilor, to social services for the disadvantaged. Those of the family members who had converted to Christianity nonetheless continued to uphold the Jewish tradition of charity, zedaka. It is in this sense that in the 1829 Christmas season, on the eve of their silver wedding anniversary, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy invited twenty-five needy Berliners to a festive meal.
In regarding the third generation, it is interesting to note that the brothers Georg Benjamin and Alexander Mendelssohn, who had chosen different faiths for themselves, collaborated in establishing and promoting welfare institutions. In Horchheim near Koblenz, a Catholic region in which their family owned a summer residence, they funded the establishment of a hospital run by nuns, and in Berlin-Charlottenburg, they contributed to the construction of a municipal hospital. Following their father"s death, the heirs of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy created the first German prize for young musical talents by establishing a foundation in Berlin. The bankers of the fourth and fifth generation collected art, sponsored museums and generally promoted progressive cultural politics.
In the late 1920s, the Mendelssohn family, headed by representatives of the bank, supported the anniversary edition of the works by Moses Mendelssohn. During National Socialist rule, this edition was interrupted. The establishment of a foundation in Dessau for the promotion of the liberal arts, during the Weimar Republic, was sponsored by the Mendelssohn bankers in Berlin. The exact financial scope of the family"s contributions to the public interest has as yet not been researched. However, the number and variety of the projects and the many years over which they were promoted bear witness to an exceptional sense of civic responsibility that imbued these five generations of an extraordinary family.