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.

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...

Changing Demographics

As previous generations have adapted to confronting the external challenges of their times, federations today have responded...

Strength Through Communit

Just as the Jews of Boston in 1895 combined their efforts to create a stronger Jewish community, federations today are working to bind Jews...


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...

  • Securing Financial Resources

    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 tzedakahand is the centerpiece of the federation fundraising effort; it provides unrestricted, general support monies to the communities...

  • 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...


Maimonides delcared 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.