Jewish Communal Organizations: The Early Years

Building a responsible, structured community.

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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.