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.