Helping Others in Need: A Brief History of the Federation System

When the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel, nearly two thousand years ago, they dispersed across many countries, fragmenting into small groups among widely divergent cultures and empires. Under Christian and Islamic rule, in the German ghetto or in the Polish shtetl; however, the Jews remained internationally united. The glue was an allegiance to a code of laws and rituals set forth in the Torah and Talmud.

But Judaism is more than a religion; it is a way of life experienced through the kehillah, the community. Forced to endure harsh conditions, without anyone to rely on for assistance but themselves, Jews developed a communal infrastructure that was uniquely Jewish. With an obligation in Jewish law to help the less fortunate, everyone in the community made regular contributions to the collection box, the kuppah. This fundraising system neither shamed nor glorified: both recipient and giver remained anonymous.

Community trustees divided the funds among a plethora of welfare providers. From the burial society to the soup kitchen to the dowry fund for poor girls, a communal organization existed to fit virtually every need. The kuppah, then, was the ultimate safety net for Jews who, throughout the centuries, lived through difficult times, from poverty to pogroms.

This system continued in the new country, as eastern European Jews, many destitute and illiterate, streamed into America's largest cities. They settled in Philadelphia's South Side, Boston's North End, Baltimore's South Side and Chicago's West End around Maxwell Street. New York's Lower East Side became the heart of the migration, with 330,000 Jews jammed into impoverished, dumb-bell shaped tenements.

As hard as it was, these Jews, for the first time, went about their business with relative freedom – and many immigrants became quite successful. They continued to be involved with human rights and now looked out for their less fortunate neighbors by creating a sophisticated philanthropic network that served the needs of the whole community.

The First Federation

A multiplicity of Jewish relief and welfare groups struggled at first in these cities to "take care of their own," feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, securing jobs, and treating the sick and elderly. In 1895, the Jews of Boston created a centralized, communal organization - later to become the Combined Jewish Philanthropies – which brought together under one umbrella all the different local fundraising groups. It offered the first one-stop philanthropy ever formed on this continent. Each welfare agency maintained its full independence and gained proportionate representation on the CJP board of trustees. It was the perfect marriage of heritage and innovation: the Jews adapted to their new situation by revising the old European fundraising model.

Jews in other cities quickly recognized the genius of the Boston federation, for it allowed the community to raise more funds at less expense and distribute them more wisely to meet greater needs. Today there are nearly 200 federations across North America – one in every city with a Jewish population of more than 1,000.

In the early years, federations devoted themselves almost exclusively to local concerns – health care, child welfare, assistance for the handicapped, and homes and housing for the aged. In addition to looking after the immigrants' physical health, federations opened Jewish community centers to offer cultural and recreation activities, and education programs for adults and children. Cultural assimilation, another priority, prompted federations to offer vocational training, day camps, and community development programs. It's no wonder that the new Americans broke through anti-Semitic glass ceilings to become successful in all areas of the professions, arts and business. The Jewish immigrant had become, in a word, Americanized.

External forces in Europe, meanwhile, put Jewish lives on the line. By joining forces in the 1920s and 1930s with overseas agencies – the United Palestine Appeal and the Joint Distribution Committee – federations embarked on a massive campaign to rescue and rehabilitate Jews living in conditions of discrimination and distress. In response to the 1939 Kristallnacht pogrom in Nazi Germany, the United Jewish Appeal was formed, combining the national fundraising efforts of the UPA and JDC. Working together with the UJA, federations provided the bulk of the funds to settle the survivors of Hitler's concentration camps and helped refugees create new lives in Israel. Federations also assisted the dislocated Jewish communities of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and other countries.

Rescues have continued unabated in recent times, with the dramatic airlift of the Ethiopian Jews, the return of the Lost Tribe to their homeland after thousands of years, and the release and resettlement of Soviet Jews, resulting in the largest mass exodus of Jews since the turn of the 19th century.

"Rescue" means more than paying for and distributing plane tickets. It entails creating a network of human services that allow refugees to rebuild their lives. It also means watching out for those affected by other external factors, like natural disasters. Over the years, federations have rushed to provide emergency assistance to communities stricken by floods and earthquakes. In 1992, in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew, federations around the U.S. collectively raised $2 million (the Miami federation raised $1.25 million alone) to help provide support services and rebuild south Florida for its victims, Jews and non-Jews alike. The system raised another $2.5 million after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. Caring Jews, through their local federations, carried out these extraordinary missions in the spirit of tikkun olam.

The Core of Federations' Success

Jewish communal fundraising has grown more sophisticated today than in the days of the kuppah, yet the principles remain the same. Individual commitment to the greater good of the community drives the federation system. Volunteers – women and men with passion for improving the conditions of Jews in their city and around the world – donate countless hours for the cause. These "lay leaders" determine community priorities and raise funds. Working with other members of the community through federation activities is a meaningful experience. Leaders in the Women's Division, for instance, are not only enormously effective policy makers and fundraisers, they also empower themselves, gain political clout, and nourish their Jewish spiritual needs. The Annual Campaign is the central fundraising mechanism of the federations. By writing a single check for the Annual Campaign, the donor both fulfills a religious duty and contributes to the well-being of the community at home, in Israel, and around the world.

Revitalizing Jewish Life

In its first hundred years, federations saved persecuted Jews around the world, helped Israel grow from a vulnerable, developing country into a vital nation, and assisted people in rebuilding their lives in North America. Today, as federations enter a new phase, the commitment to tikkum olam remains as strong as it was in 1895. The landscape however, looks different.

The great rallying cries of the past are vanishing. Approaching is a day when all Jews overseas who need to be rescued will have been saved and anti-Semitism will be but a bad memory. As a result, the Jewish community finally needs to address an issue that has long been swept aside: Jewish affiliation and identity.

Once integrated into North America culture, generations of Jews have become enormously successful as entrepreneurs, in culture and the arts, in commerce and the professions. Individualism has become an important trait of the Jewish people, serving them well in their ability to explore bold, risk-taking ventures and thoughts. However, this individualism has made it difficult for many Jews to maintain their heritage and continue working toward the collective good.

The tension between Americanism and Judaism first exploded in 1969 at the General Assembly, the annual gathering of the local federations. In a year of student unrest at campuses around the country, a group comprised primarily of graduate students arrived in Boston with pickets and placards. They demanded a redirection of funds from non-sectarian causes, such as hospitals and social service agencies, to Jewish institutions offering educational, religious and cultural services. The only way to get young Jews excited about being Jewish, they protested, was to educate them about their heritage and their religion.

The student protest exemplified the prescient words of Rabbi Tarfon who, the Talmud recounts, was asked which was greater: study or practice? "Study is greater," he answered, "for it leads to practice." His students then responded, "Study is greater, for it leads to action."

The protesters had a profound psychological impact, but they were ahead of their time.

Changing Demographics

The significance of the students' message took shape in 1990, with the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey. The survey showed that:

There are over 5.5 million Jews in the United States, representing 2.5 percent of the population.
Half the Jews in the U.S. were born in 1955 or later, after the Holocaust and World War II and after the establishment of the State of Israel.

There is a clear inter-generational pattern of assimilation with increasing remoteness from Judaism in each generation of American Jews.

Jews in the Northeast and Midwest are increasingly moving to the Southeast and Southwest, geographical locations where Jewish infrastructures tend to be new.

The percentage of Jews marrying non-Jews is now at 52 percent, up from nine percent in 1965.

Sobered by these findings, federation leaders realized that Jewish affiliation could no longer be taken for granted. Because of the reduction in anti-Semitism, high mobility rates (especially among younger generations) and looser social networks, maintaining Jewish community and Jewish identity had become precarious.

And so, as previous generations have adapted to confronting the external challenges of their times, federations today have responded to the internal challenges of fostering Jewish continuity – for children, teens and adults. The findings and analysis of The National Jewish Population Survey 2000 will provide further insights for federations to refine their activities.

Strength Through Community and Pluralism

Just as the Jews of Boston in 1895 combined their efforts to create a stronger Jewish community, federations today are working to bind Jews together in new partnerships. Lay leaders, professionals, affiliated agency leadership, rabbis, educators, parents – all are participating in the difficult yet inspiring task of meeting the challenges of our times.

Jews in North America comprise a unique Diaspora community. Having lived in a pluralistic society, they have found acceptance. Having lived in an individualistic society, they have made important contributions and been recognized for them. These very strengths of the North American Diaspora have produced ironic challenges to Jewish continuity.

In an accepting environment, what is the positive basis for Jewish identity? In an environment of individualism, changes in family life and increased mobility, what is the basis for sustaining Jewish community? As Jews confront these questions, they may also provide guidance to others who are also grappling with issues of identity, family and community.

A Paradigm of Change

The issue of Jewish continuity and identity is merely one of four strategic concerns facing the federation system. The other three – maintaining social policy and human services, securing necessary financial resources, and redefining the Israel-Diaspora relationship – also require focused energy and innovative responses.

Maintaining Social and Human Services

Prior to the passage of the New Deal legislation in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s, the federations already had an established network of social services. As government funding became available, these monies were combined with federation dollars, resulting in an expansion of services to meet growing needs in local communities. Over the years, Jewish agencies' reliance on government funding has increased. Today, for example, Jewish nursing homes derive 76 percent of their annual budget from government funding. The government funding of family service agencies and vocational services has also grown to keep pace with increased needs. As a result, the cuts at the federal and state levels threaten to change the way services are provided and how federations can support their beneficiary agencies in the next 100 years.

No matter what solutions federations generate, the budget shake-up calls into question the imperative for involvement in the delivery of health and human services. Now that anti-Semitism has subsided – and Jews have been welcomed at hospitals and community-based services across the continent – should the federation system continue to support these services? What makes them "Jewish" in the first place? And, even if the federations decide that the services are not innately "Jewish," do Jewish ethics nonetheless obligate the federations to continue delivering these services? How can the federations work most effectively with government leaders so that people in need are not left out in the cold?

Securing Financial Resources to Meet Increasing Needs

The federation system has raised billions of dollars since its inception. More than just a charitable gift, the Annual Campaign fulfills the Jewish obligation of communal tzedakah and is the centerpiece of the federation fundraising effort; it provides unrestricted, general support monies to the communities. However, while Jews give generously to religious, secular and political causes, fewer are contributing to the federation's Annual Campaign.

The pattern of gifts to the Annual Campaign illustrates a clear generational shift. Most Jews born before 1925 - the GI Generation - peel out their checkbooks each year without a second thought. They vividly remember the pain of the Holocaust and the days of persecution and hope leading to the establishment of Israel. In contrast, members of the Boomer Generation, those 30 to 50 years old, lack that same attachment to Israel or the memory of the Holocaust. As a result, they are less likely to be affiliated with Jewish organizations and more likely to give to secular causes. Furthermore, Jews in this generation have higher rates of intermarriage, which has also had an impact on Jewish philanthropy: research shows that Jewish households where both partners are Jewish are four times more likely to give to federations.

With less government funding available, the Annual Campaign takes on greater importance. A growing Annual Campaign is the key to long-term financial stability. Together with endowments, specifically earmarked gifts and "once in a lifetime" or extraordinary contributions, the Annual Campaign provides philanthropic opportunities for a wide range of contributors. Thus, more dollars will be available to meet the growing needs of the Jewish community as we move into the next century.

Israel-Diaspora Relations

Israel's changing fortune – from a fragile, dependent entity to a prosperous country – has greatly altered its relationship with Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Today, Jews in North America are challenged to relate to Israelis and the future development of Israel in new ways. Israelis also need to adapt to changes in Israel and in the Diaspora.

There is a new emphasis on strategic investment in Israel, support of culture and the arts, and the creation of new philanthropic models. Underlying all these mutual efforts will be a joint response to these historic questions, which can only be answered together: What is the Jewish meaning and future role of the bond between Israel and the Diaspora? Can that relationship contribute to the development of the meaning of Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning of being an Israeli?


Maimonides declared that there are eight degrees of tzedakah, each one superior to the other. The person at the highest level, he said, "is one who enters into a partnership with a Jew reduced to poverty, or finds work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people." Helping another human being become self-sufficient, according to Maimonides, is the most elevated form of charity.

Over the last century, through its vast network of social services, through rescues and special campaigns, the federation system has helped millions of people around the world. To continue and enhance this role, however, federations must confront new issues and make new choices while still maintaining the essence of their responsibility to the Jewish people and the world.

The changing landscape forces the federations to struggle, once again, to move in new directions. It will not be easy. But then again, it never has been easy. The past, however, offers reassurance.

The heritage of the federation system is a remarkable one. Its work over the last century has literally transformed the world. Millions of volunteers and professionals at federations across North America have marshaled the necessary energy and resources to break down impenetrable barriers and to accomplish the impossible.

Each generation has changed, tackling the insurmountable problems of its times. As the new century beckons, this generation will do the same.