Together We Build: The Origin Story of Jewish Federations

Dear Friends,
I think the idea of a Jewish Federation began thousands of years ago, in this week’s Torah portion.
To explain the concept of a Jewish Federation, I often begin with CJP’s origin story as one of the first federated charities in the United States, established nearly 130 years ago. Jewish immigrants came to this country and did what Jews have done across the globe for thousands of years: build community. They created institutions — cultural, human services, educational, religious — and they powered those institutions with people and tzedakah (charity). The leaders of this community realized that their giving would be more effective, and their impact would be greater, if they joined forces to raise annual funds as part of an entire community. The idea of collective, community giving is that one plus one can equal three. We can serve more, build more, and make a bigger difference when we do it together.
But to really understand a Jewish Federation, we must go back much further than the late 19th century, to the first Jewish collective building project, which took place right after the revelation at Mount Sinai. As the Israelites prepared to travel through the wilderness to the Promised Land, how would they preserve the sense of connectedness that they experienced at Mount Sinai? How would the 12 tribes not just live alongside one another, but rather be one People, with one heart, bound in a covenantal relationship to God and to one another?
One powerful way to understand the Torah’s vision of community and Peoplehood is found in the building of the mishkan (tabernacle), the portable sanctuary that stood at the center of the 12 tribes. The mishkan would serve as a central place of sacrifice, worship, and ongoing revelation, and would be deconstructed and reconstructed wherever the Israelites traveled and encamped. Its very presence represented the aspiration to build a holy community, worthy of the Divine dwelling in its midst.
There are so many ways that this original building project resonates with the work of CJP and our lives today, and I want to share two of them.

First is the inclusive and collective process by which every person contributed something, whatever they could, to the endeavor. It mattered less what or how much they gave, but rather that they chose to participate, and that they gave from the heart. Giving is an act of identification with a community, its story, values, and aspirations.
Second is the metaphor of the mishkan, and the well-known verse: “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham — And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them.” This building project was never about the physical structure itself. Surely God does not literally require a material home to be present among us. The mishkan represents the radical idea that we human beings — through our actions, our service, and our building — are actually making the space for the Divine in our lives. When we give, we actualize the holy potential in each of us (“I will dwell within them”) and, in doing so, create communities that elevate the human spirit and illuminate the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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