Steuart Street entrance to the S.F. based Jewish Community Federation
Steuart Street entrance to the S.F. based Jewish Community Federation

What is a Jewish federation, anyway?

With the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation consolidating their operations, we’ve been getting into the nitty-gritty of it all. But let’s take a step back for a minute and ask: What is a Jewish federation, anyway? Why do they exist? How have they changed?

A Jewish federation is a community-wide nonprofit that raises money to fund local grantees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as well as grantees in Israel and Jewish needs around the world. That’s the most general definition.

In the sense that its primary focus is the local Jewish community, federations may be seen as inheritors of kehilla, Hebrew for “community,” the central Jewish communal structure in Central and Eastern Europe through the early 20th century. The kehilla, however, controlled many aspects of local Jewish life, such as kashrut and mikvah, institutions that federations are not involved in.

Historically, Jewish federations in this country have moved from an initial focus in the early 20th century on serving the basic needs of impoverished or disadvantaged Jews in their local communities, to a broader focus that also supports Jewish education, builds Jewish identity and ensures a strong Jewish future. Today they also help surrounding non-Jewish populations through services provided by Jewish organizations, such as Jewish vocational agencies.

The first federation in North America was founded in Boston in 1895. Other cities with significant Jewish populations quickly followed, including Cincinnati (1896), Chicago (1900) and St. Louis (1901). All were along major immigration routes to the West.

In 1932, all of the existing local federations came together under the aegis of the National Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. In 1939, the United Jewish Appeal was founded to funnel donations to pre-state Israel. In 1999, those two organizations merged to create the United Jewish Communities, today called the Jewish Federations of North America. There are nearly 150 federations in this network, representing the nation’s largest Jewish population centers, along with some 300 smaller communities.

So how do federations operate? They maintain professional staff which, together with armies of volunteers, run annual campaigns to raise funds for their chosen grantees. Jewish education is typically a main focus of federation largesse, along with Jewish community centers, Jewish family service agencies, homes for the elderly, Hillels, Jewish community relations councils and Jewish vocational services. In some cities, these organizations raise their own funds and are no longer “arms” of their federation.

The San Francisco Bay Area has always been different, and that is true when it comes to federation life, too. As Jews moved west following the Gold Rush of 1849, early pioneers formed the Eureka Benevolent Society to settle new Jewish arrivals, support widows and orphans, and pay burial costs. Building upon that structure, in 1910 the Federation of Jewish Charities was created to fundraise and distribute donations among the various social service agencies that had sprung up within the city’s Jewish community. Eventually one umbrella organization was formed: the Jewish Welfare Fund.

Over the years, the JWF broadened its services beyond the needy to encompass Jewish education, culture and identity building. In 1981 it changed its name to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties to reflect its growing geographic service area, and by then was serving non-Jews as well through its sponsorship of Jewish-run service agencies dealing in shelter, clothing, food, medicine and job training.

In 1984, the S.F.-based Federation became the first in the nation to establish its own permanent office in Israel, to which it directs its Israel dollars instead of funneling them through a national agency. Located since 2014 in Kfar Saba, this office issues grants and hosts Bay Area visiting groups as part of its mission to support Israel as “a pluralistic, democratic, and just society with equality of opportunity for all its citizens.”

Another offshoot of the federation system is the endowment fund. San Francisco’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund was established in 1975 to receive the bequests of individual donors and family funds. Today it manages around $2.1 billion in total assets.

The San Francisco Bay formed a natural boundary between the city and the East Bay, specifically Oakland, where Jews had lived since before the Gold Rush but where the community grew exponentially after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1918, the Jewish Welfare Federation was created in Oakland to meet local Jewish needs and send money to needy Jews in Europe.

The Jewish Federation of the East Bay’s endowment fund self-incorporated in 1988 to become the Jewish Community Foundation, an independent entity. Today it manages $136 million in donor-advised funds, supporting foundations, legacy funds and endowments. The East Bay Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation together help support some two dozen Jewish organizations working in the East Bay such as Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah and Moishe House, as well as synagogues, day schools and two JCCs. This will change, of course, as the East Bay and S.F.-based operations consolidate over the coming months.