Ask the Expert: Organizations for All Jews

Who are the major players in worldwide Jewish life?

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Question: As Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews are so divided in so many aspects (like Torah from Sinai, and "Who is a Jew" among others), which are the most important institutions that bring together all the Jews to defend collective rights and provide for the needs of the Jewish community?
--Yosef, Spain

the expertAnswer:
Despite our many differences of opinion, Jewish communities are usually pretty good at coming together to ensure that the community as a whole is taken care of, Yosef.

The biggest transdenominational Jewish organization in any given place in North America is likely to be the Jewish Federation of that area. Federations are umbrella organizations that collect and distribute funds to smaller organizations in the Jewish community. A Federation might underwrite part of the costs of a Reform pre-school, ensure that low-income Holocaust survivors have access to adequate food and health care, subsidize the childcare costs of  ultra-Orthodox families, and support many other causes. Most Jewish federations have a three-pronged approach, allocating resources to local Jews in need, local Jewish education, and Israel.

Outside of North America, the Jewish Agency acts as a connection between many different sectors of the Jewish community, and supports a variety of smaller groups in each area. However, the Joint Distribution Committee (often referred to as "the Joint), is probably the closest thing to an international Federation-type organization. The JDC focuses on bringing relief to Jews in need, helping to renew bonds to Jewish identity and Jewish culture, and helping Israel overcome the social challenges of its most vulnerable citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The Joint also provides disaster relief and long-term development assistance in poverty-stricken countries around the world.

Hillel International is another transdenominational organization. It aims to enrich the lives of Jewish university students around the world,, no matter their affiliation. You can find Hillel houses and Hillel programming everywhere from Ole Miss in Mississippi, to Dublin, Ireland, to Belarus.

In terms of defending collective rights, that can be done by a variety of organizations. The largest and most well-known organization devoted to dealing with Anti-Semitism is the Anti-Defamation League. Founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all," the ADL today aims to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defend democratic ideals, and protect civil rights for all . Most of the work the ADL does is through education, legislation, and advocacy. Unfortunately, Abraham Foxman, the National Director  of the ADL is a polarizing figure. His detractors think that the ADL tends to overreact and find anti-Semitism where it doesn't really exist, unnecessarily calling out leaders and organizations for bigotry.

I consulted with Professor David Elcott, the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at New York University, about whether there are any other big organizations that provide for the needs of the Jewish community, and he took issue with the word "need." He said, "What does it mean to help Jews? Helping Jews used to mean taking care of the widow, the orphan, the poor, the needy, the endangered. That's not our whole world anymore. Organizations that provide meaning in the lives of people, organizations that provide opportunities for Jews to do good in the world--these are new ways of helping sustain people as Jews."

In America, at least, there are dozens of niche organizations helping people enrich their experience with Judaism in whatever way makes the most sense for them. Concerned about social justice? Get involved with Jewish Funds for Justice. Passionate about environmentalism? Check out Hazon. Want support for an interfaith family? Try InterfaithFamily.com. There's something for everyone, these days.