Local Jewish federations were established at the end of the last century to support health, welfare, job training and educational services for Jewish immigrants, the Jewish poor and the Jewish orphaned.
But that mission broadened over time as Jewish agencies began taking money from the government and expanded their programs to serve people on a nonsectarian basis.
With budget battles in Washington promising serious cuts that threaten Jewish social services, the evolution of that government partnership and its consequent expansion have come into sharper focus.
At the time of their creation, the federations were seen as a natural expression of the historic Jewish commitment to communal charity.
Their coordinated planning and budgeting, through a centralized system, was designed to ensure that the funds would go where they were most needed and could be used most efficiently for the common good.
During the Depression, the federal government supplanted much of the Jewish community’s anti-poverty efforts with massive cash relief programs.
Still, the Jewish charitable enterprise continued.
But in the ’60s, a new pattern of partnership was established when the federation-sponsored human service agencies “turned to the federal pot” in a more systematic way, said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Services of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
When new government money became available to nonprofits, Jews had the social service infrastructure as well as the “entrepreneurs” to take advantage of it, said Harvey Newman, executive director of health and human services with UJA- Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.
“We were positioned to take and use the money more efficiently,” he said.
Taking federal money, of course, meant that services had to be available to all who sought it, regardless of race or religion.
These new requirements broadened the federations’ mission in a fundamental way.
“We developed language” indicating a commitment to “the values of inclusivity,” Newman said.
At the same time, he said, “by taking government money, our network could provide a broader array of services, which meant more services for Jews in a Jewish ambiance.”
By this time, too, Jewish demographics had changed.
There was less poverty, less immigration and “orphans disappeared as a social problem,” Newman said.
So, for instance, the professionals at the orphanages turned to foster care and residential treatment programs and began serving non-Jewish as well as Jewish youths.
But as this shift occurred, neither the agencies nor the federations “realized the consequences” of their dependency on public money, Bubis said.
And the laypeople, he said, did not understand the extent of it.
“I don’t think any board member, except the most sophisticated one, was fully aware” of the level of government funding of Jewish communal institutions, he said.
Federations, he suggested, may be having trouble coming to grips with the current federal budget drama in a systematic way precisely because the partnership with government simply evolved but was “never defined” as part of “their mission.”