American Jews Face ‘most Critical Period,’ Cjfwf Warned by Irving Rabb
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American Jews Face ‘most Critical Period,’ Cjfwf Warned by Irving Rabb

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Jewish federations, as major institutions of the Jewish community in philanthropy and community service, were today that American Jewish life “is facing a new type of crisis” and that the coming decades will probably be among the most critical in the life of the American Jewish community.

This warning was expressed by Irving W. Rabb, a Boston Jewish leader and philanthropist, addressing the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, now holding its five-day session here.

Pointing out that the Jewish federations have hitherto searched new frontiers and faced problems and challenges, Mr. Rabb said it is now important to look into the future. He called for “imaginative, creative and vigorous” communal planning by the federations, in order to be able to give positive and constructive direction to the general changes affecting the very future of the Jewish community.

“The coming decades,” Mr. Rabb said, “will probably be among the most critical in the life of the American Jewish community. The struggle for our Jewish identity in this land has, for the most part, been won. Anti-Semitism or the threat of it is no longer virulent enough to be a unified force. I cannot conceive of a repetition of the searing tragedy of the Hitler era. And, while we still exhilarate in the emotional upsurge of Israel’s rebirth, we find ourselves thinking more and more in terms of economic and fiscal growth.

“We face a crisis of affluence. We face a crisis of indifference. We face a crisis of silence or only lip service to the ideals of our heritage. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security by what we see of our community life today. There is, fortunately, a substantial core of enlightened and dedicated leaders. In every community, there is a broad base of contributors. Our agencies are by and large strong. Is this not the time to read properly the trends of the future?”


Emphasizing that the communities should be concerned about some of the current developments and their impact on the future of Jewish communal services, Mr. Rabb urged the leaders of the federations throughout the country to give “serious consideration” to where the Jewish community in this country is going and what the federation’s role may be in helping to shape directions to meet this impact. “We must move,” he said, “toward a realistic and constructive assessment of underlying forces and developments which are affecting fundamentally the structure, the support, the needs, the very way of life of our communal enterprise.”

The Jewish federations, Mr. Rabb declared, seem to have reached a plateau in their annual campaigns. “But,” he added, “we are well aware that, taking into account total contributions–annual gifts, endowments, capital fund gifts–the picture is quite different. All of us know that the total amount of philanthropic giving is on the increase. The sums contributed by our leadership to federations plus universities, plus synagogues, plus hospitals, plus centers, plus homes for the aged, plus institutions in Israel, are at an unprecedented height.”

He estimated that, in his own community, in Boston, 300 persons–the very ones that form the backbone of federation support, who contributed $2,500,000 to the Federation campaign last year–have commitments of one to three years to various Jewish institutions or Jewish-sponsored institutions in the amount of more than $15,000,000. This is outside their pledges to non-Jewish institutions, he said.


Pointing out that the federations are now confronted with a generation to ask questions, Mr. Rabb said that one of the problems which the federations will now face is the possible introduction of changes in the method of allocating funds. “There is a feeling, too often well founded, that our allocations are based too much on history, on vested interests, on influence, rather than on objective evaluation of needs and priorities,” he declared. But the younger generation, he said, searches for answers based on facts.

“They have not been touched,” he asserted, “by the living experience of our immigrant parents and grandparents. They have been spared the experience of personal hardships and the inhumanity of the thirties and forties. Many even lack a strong sense of identification with aspirations that are Jewish. They may react to emotional appeals, but they increasingly insist on intellectual validation.”

In order to gain greater understanding of the composition of the community, Mr. Rabb reported, the Boston Federation, as well as federations in other cities, have decided to undertake a research effort directed toward the total Jewish population. The goal of the projects is to establish who the Jews in the community are, where they are, how they participate in community life and why. Also why they do not participate, how they regard themselves as members of a community, how they regard the agencies affiliated with the federations, how the communities meet, and how they don’t meet, these needs.

“We hope to gain some insight into the place and the meaning of the synagogues, the Jewish schools, the Jewish centers, the various national movements in the life of our people, the forces that keep them close to Jewish life, and those which move them away from it,” Mr. Rabb said. “We run serious risks along this road of inquiry. We may find revealed basic forces that lie beyond the solution of any of our programs of organizational matters. We may find that we have to face a higher rate of intermarriage–a situation with which we are powerless to cope with tools now at our disposal. We may find that we have not given enough Jewish intellectual and spiritual nourishment to a generation oriented to a world of science and a cult of materialism.”

Mr. Rabb emphasized that it will take some time before these research projects are completed. He called for mobilization of federation leaders, rabbis, women’s organizations, educators and professionals to help in these projects.


Robert I. Hiller, executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, addressing another session, dealt with the changes in the American Jewish community. He pointed out that the characteristics of the Jewish community of 1963 are vastly different from those of one or two decades ago. The significant characteristics today, he said, are that the Jewish community is becoming a college-educated, native-born and above-average income group.

He pointed to the fact that recent studies indicate that, in a decade or two, more than 85 per cent of the community will be native-born American; also that 70 per cent plus, will have attended college. “The Jewish community is now a highly acculturated group in the American society, and will become even more so,” he said.

Speaking of the young generation of Jews in America today, he said they have less “Yiddishkeit” and some of them do not even know the meaning of the word. They may know about discrimination but possibly have not felt the physical “black eye” that went with it. This and other factors, he stressed, have removed the community a greater distance from the experience of “need” in its early social services connotation. The Jewish community today, and certainly that of the next decade, will have grown up with vastly different experiences than the communities of a generation or two ago, he declared.

“But human beings,” he pointed out, “have needs, and our Jewish community’s needs have changed and are changing rapidly. The concomitant to these is that the nature of our Jewish community services has changed, and will continue to change. Jewish communities today want better and more Jewish education, more culture work to enhance Jewish identity. They want institutions that will give Jews and others the finest quality of service. The current challenge is to get across to our community the nature of our changing needs which are as compelling as those of the past, and the nature of our dynamic Federation,” Mr. Hiller declared.

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