Organized religion sometimes gets a bad rap for dogmatizing the found spiritual experiences of its ancestors, but the advantages of community are overwhelming. Judaism remains internationally united by its allegiance to alleviating the harsh conditions of Jewish life in hostile environments, be they under anti-Semitic national policies or facing the hardships of poverty, old age, sickness, and death. Kehillah, the community has always rallied to help those at these life cycle events, who are needy, bereft and alone. Maimonides rules of giving rank the highest form as being anonymous, from training someone for a job, providing help to the bride, soup kitchens, and loaning money without interest, to name a few. This help is written into the Jewish code of laws with the underlying consideration to not shame anyone at any time.
During the great migration of the late 19th century in America, the new arrivals needed everything and the Jews of Boston in 1895 found an organized solution in a central agency. This was to become the Boston Combined Jewish Philanthropies, (CJP) which grew to national proportions with almost 200 autonomous North American Jewish Federations across North America in nearly 800 Canadian and American locales with a population of more than 1,000. The national umbrella organization was renamed Jewish Federations of North America in October 2009.
For more information on the national organization see: http://www.jewishfederations.org/
This effort, dubbed Tikkun Olam, “fixing the world,” indeed was the model for the United Way of secular fame.
Earlier efforts centered on saving Jews from external forces like poverty, ill health, rescuing and rehabilitating Jews from political oppression Local efforts included vocational training, day camps, and education. According to the website:
“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.”
Now the demographics are changing and assimilation itself is a problem. There’s a large emphasis on Jewish education locally and nationally. CJP was part of the effort called “Me’ah,” which means 100 hours of basic Jewish study, a program that became nationalized and localized in synagogues. This secular remoteness began at Boston’s Hebrew College, an institution that was recently “rescued” from bankruptcy, a sad fate that ended many such institutions nationally. The richness of college Jewish Studies departments made Hebrew Colleges, once founded to education Jewish teachers, obsolete and bereft of funding.
At a recent rededication of Boston’s Hebrew College in Newton, wherein mezzuzot (doorpost signs with holy writings enclosed) were affixed to the doorposts, 150 attendees heard Hebrew College President Daniel Lehman refer to the miracle of “saving of the Hebrew College building, which the school had put on the market last year.
"Tonight," he added, "we not only celebrate our securing this sacred space, we rededicate ourselves to the sacred purpose of Hebrew College to enhance Jewish education and Jewish leadership throughout our community."
Plans to sell its building and lease space from neighboring Andover Newton Theological School. Lehmann thanked, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, trustees and friends of the college for their "support and sacrifice" in preserving the campus.
Sari Rapkin, chair of Combined Jewish Philanthropies addressed the crowd by stating that:
“CJP and Hebrew College share much in common—including volunteers, students and board members. Most importantly, we share a common goal: to provide our Greater Boston community with meaningful and relevant opportunities for lifelong Jewish learning.”
She also mentioned Hebrew College’s Prozdor High School, which CJP continues to support.
She recognized how CJP and Hebrew College “partnered to create Me’ah—an intensive, 2- year, 100-hour program has become a model for other Jewish communities around the country. We hear from participants about how much this class means to them--because of the friendships they’ve found, the incredible instructors, and the insights they gain from the texts. Since the first class started in 1994, more than 3,000 adults have completed Me’ah.”
Rapkin listed other programs including:
* Jewish parenting programs for families with young children and families with teens with more than 1,000 parents participating in “Parenting Through a Jewish Lens” classes, formerly known as Ikkarim.
* A new adult learning program targeted towards young adults, and
* The Boston-Haifa Early Childhood Connection, which helps to create long-lasting personal connections between early childhood educators, schools and communities in Boston and Haifa.
She urged the assemblage to use this collective rededication of the Hebrew College building as a model to address the challenges that lie ahead with more energy.
For more information about the history of the Federation of Jewish Charities and how it developed into an international organization, see: http://www.cjp.org/our-history.aspx