Jewish Communal Organizations: The Early Years

Building a responsible, structured community.

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The period from 1881 to the outbreak of World War I marked a period of organization in general for the Jews in America. The sheer increase in Jewish population, with unprecedented social, religious, and economic needs, required a new model of communal leadership. The European autocratic model of community leadership would not work in a democratic society. The fragmented delivery of social services to the ballooning immigrant community led to duplication and contention.

Serving Communal Needs

With the turn of the century, aid came from a large number of philanthropic agencies, at first from those set up by wealthy, established Jews and later by Eastern Europeans who had begun to succeed in America. Once they felt established and comfortable in their new homeland, they united to help their newly arrived brethren. They created their own institutions in New York, including the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Beth Israel Hospital.

Outside New York, debates about servicing the needs of immigrants consumed Jewish communities throughout the country. To what extent were existing Jewish communal organizations responsible for the needs of newcomers? In Boston, the ability of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association to provide meaningful financial aid was quickly exceeded by the number of immigrants, which by 1900 had nearly tripled the city's Jewish population.

Working together, the established German Jewish population and earlier landed Eastern Europeans established agencies that cooperated with one another to aid new arrivals. The growing fundraising and coordination needs of disparate aid agencies led to the formation of the Jewish Federation movement in Boston (in 1895) and in other cities.

Helping Immigrants

The most prominent of the self-help organizations was founded in 1909. Branches of the organization opened in major cities, with HIAS representatives at the docks and train stations to welcome immigrants and guide them through the often confusing and sometimes dangerous bureaucracy.

David Alpert, the Boston BIAS director, cultivated good relations with the immigration officials, and in one year, 1913, reported that of 5,386 Jewish immigrants to Boston only 148 were excluded. The society provided safe temporary shelter, a kosher meal, and more importantly, the ability to represent newcomers before immigration authorities.

In New York, Reform rabbi Judah Magnes led the fight to "develop a real Jewish community." The name of the umbrella organization that eventually emerged was the Kehillah (the community), based on the kehillah model of many Eastern European Jewish communities familiar to recent immigrants. This attempt joined uptowners and downtowners in an uneasy alliance to provide a governance structure for the New York Jewish community.

Of prime concern at the time was the frightful condition of newly arrived indigent Jews from Europe, who came to America with dreams of better lives but found themselves instead in situations that imperiled not only their health, but their very survival. In 1917, after some initial success, particularly in reforming education and fighting crime, the Kehillah was absorbed into the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York.

Defining Jewish Identity

It was in the area of Jewish education that the Kehillah left a lasting mark by hiring educator Samson Benderly to direct its Bureau of Jewish Education. "What we want in this country," declared Benderly, "is not Jews who can successfully keep up their Jewishness in a few large ghettos, but men and women who have grown up in freedom and can assert themselves where they are."

Supporting the nearly universal view of the uptown founders of the Kehillah, Benderly urged parents to support the public schools and to consider day schools as a detriment to strengthening the Jewish experience in America.

In some ways, the New York Kehillah had drawn on the American model of Jewish community federations first organized in Boston. The purpose was to provide a single fundraising agency in each community to eliminate the duplication of efforts by disparate charitable and cultural organizations that had arisen over the years. The local federation not only reduced the fundraising costs of individual charities, but also led to the formation of an umbrella organization to coordinate the good works of separate groups.

All the local federations that formed throughout the country could do what no single agency could do; they could jointly examine the requirements and assess the services of all the participating agencies and assign the funds where the needs were most urgent and where the greatest impact could be made.

Early Federation leaders developed unique fundraising methods that relied on personal solicitation by friends and business colleagues--methods still in use today. Within decades, federations had become the "central addresses" for their respective Jewish communities.

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Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein is a writer, editor and teacher. A former school librarian in the Brookline, Massachusetts Public Schools, he has been teaching children's literature and history courses at Hebrew College for over twenty-five years. He is the series editor for the JPS Guides series published by the Jewish Publication Society.