About Us
Skip Navigation LinksHome > About Us > A Brief History of the Federation System
A Paradigm of Change

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 to meet growing needs in local communities. Over the years, Jewish agencies' reliance on government funding has increased. Today, for example, Jewish nursing homes derive 76 percent of their annual budget from government funding. The government funding of family service agencies and vocational services has also grown to keep pace with increased needs. As a result, the cuts at the federal and state levels threaten to change the way services are provided and how federations can support their beneficiary agencies in the next 100 years.

No matter what solutions federations generate, the budget shake-up calls into question the imperative for involvement in the delivery of health and human services. Now that anti-Semitism has subsided – and Jews have been welcomed at hospitals and community-based services across the continent – should the federation system continue to support these services? What makes them "Jewish" in the first place? And, even if the federations decide that the services are not innately "Jewish," do Jewish ethics nonetheless obligate the federations to continue delivering these services? How can the federations work most effectively with government leaders so that people in need are not left out in the cold?

Securing Financial Resources to Meet Increasing Needs

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 tzedakah and is the centerpiece of the federation fundraising effort; it provides unrestricted, general support monies to the communities. However, while Jews give generously to religious, secular and political causes, fewer are contributing to the federation's Annual Campaign.

The pattern of gifts to the Annual Campaign illustrates a clear generational shift. Most Jews born before 1925 - the GI Generation - peel out their checkbooks each year without a second thought. They vividly remember the pain of the Holocaust and the days of persecution and hope leading to the establishment of Israel. In contrast, members of the Boomer Generation, those 30 to 50 years old, lack that same attachment to Israel or the memory of the Holocaust. As a result, they are less likely to be affiliated with Jewish organizations and more likely to give to secular causes. Furthermore, Jews in this generation have higher rates of intermarriage, which has also had an impact on Jewish philanthropy: research shows that Jewish households where both partners are Jewish are four times more likely to give to federations.

With less government funding available, the Annual Campaign takes on greater importance. A growing Annual Campaign is the key to long-term financial stability. Together with endowments, specifically earmarked gifts and "once in a lifetime" or extraordinary contributions, the Annual Campaign provides philanthropic opportunities for a wide range of contributors. Thus, more dollars will be available to meet the growing needs of the Jewish community as we move into the next century.

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.

There is a new emphasis on strategic investment in Israel, support of culture and the arts, and the creation of new philanthropic models. Underlying all these mutual efforts will be a joint response to these historic questions, which can only be answered together: What is the Jewish meaning and future role of the bond between Israel and the Diaspora? Can that relationship contribute to the development of the meaning of Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning of being an Israeli?


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.