Jewish federations are often described as umbrella organizations that connect and protect the entire Jewish community. But frankly, the phrase “umbrella organization” does not tug at heart strings. Which is to say that, for example, were I to send a donation to Doctors Without Borders, I’d imagine my money would be used to help support a selfless physician providing aid to people in a conflict zone. But the image of an “umbrella organization,” or even a federation, is not so evocative. It tells me nothing about what my dollars might support.
I was a fairly new staffer at what was then the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County when, one rainy afternoon, I was introduced to a man who showed me exactly the value our Jewish federations offer to people in the community.
A man named Ben, z”l, had stopped at our office for a meeting. By the time it was over, what was a gentle rain when he arrived had become a deluge. Ben did not want to venture out into that mess and neither did anyone else, so he started to tell us about his background.
All his life he had known he was adopted in a nearby city by a couple who lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and that he was able to attend a Jewish day school thanks to scholarships. Then, for his 60th birthday, his children gave him a book filling in the details; details they had pieced together from records at the Jewish organizations in the city in which he’d been born.
In fact, Ben’s biological mother had been born into one of the city’s wealthier families but had been banished once her parents learned that she had become pregnant out of wedlock. She was taken in by the city’s Jewish Orphanage and Sheltering Home and gave birth in the city’s Jewish hospital in the care of Jewish doctors and nurses — free of charge, because she was indigent.
However, she died in childbirth, not uncommon in those days, and the Jewish burial society provided a grave and a proper burial. Her healthy infant was sent to the Jewish orphanage where he was named Ben, Hebrew for son, and he became a child of the community. He was adopted by Jewish parents who sent him to the day school thanks to scholarship money designated for children in need.
He left the shelter of the community when he went to public high school, which he said was a jolt. He worked his way through college, eventually beginning what became a large, successful business and — with his wife — built a tight-knit family.
Unbeknownst to him, all those years Ben had benefited from the umbrella of care provided by the city’s federation and its partners. The umbrella’s ribs are all the organizations in the community, every federation partner, whether local — such as the family and children’s services, the synagogues, and the schools — or in Israel and wherever else Jews live by the federation’s overseas partners, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Their federation-supported programs and services form the umbrella’s fabric, protecting the young, the aged, Holocaust survivors, people with special needs, the lonely and alone, and those overwhelmed by life. The federation itself is the pole that supports the ribs underpinning the fabric. What holds it all together are dollars donated by everyone and anyone, in amounts large and small.
The situation today is in many ways the same as it was when Ben was growing up. While most Jewish hospitals — founded because the other hospitals refused to supply kosher food and placed quotas on Jewish doctors — have merged with the very institutions that once scorned them, and although most orphanages have closed, people still need refuge, solace, and safety.
Today, our community’s issues reach the ears of elected officials because of effective federation advocacy. Our synagogues and Jewish institutions are safer because of the federations’ Secure Community Network, local security task forces, and interaction with local and national law enforcement. Our elderly enjoy Kosher Meals on Wheels. Our children receive free books from PJ Library and scholarships for life-changing experiences at Jewish summer camps and in Israel. All of that and so much more is available thanks to donations to federation.
That rainy afternoon, Ben said he’d been giving to our federation for years because he felt somehow connected to all the people it helped. But once he learned the facts of his life, he felt that he had somehow been guided to give specifically to it because of all he had received and because the federation’s umbrella offers the Jewish community shelter in an uncertain world.
Ben’s example may be extreme. But none of us exists in isolation. We are linked, and our community can thrive, thanks to the shelter of an umbrella.
JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations and JFNA, Jewish Federations of North America, and is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education.