119 Years Chicago Strong

By Dr. Steven B. Nasatir

Gil Weissblei’s well-researched article (The Greatest Fundraising Campaign in Jewish History, Dec. 31) brought a smile to the faces of many Jewish Chicagoans who know the history of then-Jewish Federation leader Jacob Loeb and the “dinnerless dinner.”

That historic Associated Jewish Charities Relief of Jewish War Sufferers Fund represents a special moment where concern for Jewish World War I sufferers in Europe was the focus of prodigious Jewish fundraising in Chicago.

Fortunately for Chicago’s Jewish community, as well as its Jewish Federation and Jewry worldwide, that event was far from unique. Over more than a century, there have been many other memorable and similarly significant Jewish historic events where our community rallied to meet urgent needs.

Twenty-seven years after the dinnerless dinner, the minutes of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago recount the visit of Golda Meyerson, later to be known as Golda Meir, who came to Chicago to speak to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, which was meeting here, and to the Chicago Jewish Federation’s Board of Directors.

The minutes indicate that Golda told the Chicago Federation’s Board that the decision to proclaim the establishment of Israel, and the Yishuv’s determination to defend that Jewish and democratic State with their lives, already had been made. Now it was time for the Jews of America to decide if they would help.

The Board answered: Leadership was authorized to go to Chicago’s banks the next morning to borrow $4 million. Those borrowed funds immediately were sent to the Jewish Agency for Israel, which then was the government in waiting, before even a nickel was raised in any sort of an emergency campaign for the nascent Jewish State.

In addition to the huge campaigns conducted in ’67, ’73 and the other all-too-many war campaigns that were necessary at times of great danger, another historical and memorable emergency fundraising campaign was launched in 1990. After 25 years of advocacy for our Jewish brothers and sisters in the former Soviet Union, the doors flew open and Federations across the country launched the massive Operation Exodus campaign to help bring a million Jews from oppression to freedom.

In Chicago, $102 million was raised. Perhaps as impressive, the community of then some 257,000 Jews produced 60,000 gifts – roughly equivalent to the number of Jewish households – for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of Jewish history and transform Israeli society. Some 30,000 of those immigrants resettled in Chicago and received major assistance from the Federation and its affiliated agencies.

To assure that the Operation Exodus emergency fundraising drive, which was in addition to the Annual Campaign, did not negatively impact programs addressing ongoing local and overseas needs, the Federation Board again went to the banks, this time borrowing $50 million.

Today, almost 100 years since Jacob Loeb’s dinnerless dinner, that great tradition of bringing the Jewish community together at dinners and major events to provide for those facing crises continues. For the past half-century, the philanthropic heirs of those around Loeb’s tables have gathered annually at JUF’s Major Gifts fundraising dinner, hosted by Renée and Lester Crown. In that single evening, in recent years, about $35 million in gifts to the Annual Campaign are announced, providing the foundation for the rest of the Campaign and for the hundreds of thousands served by it.

And so, from generation to generation, mothers and fathers hand down to sons and daughters the rich Jewish tradition of kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh – Jews taking care of fellow Jews.

This was the vision Julius Rosenwald and 10 other leaders of Chicago’s Jewish community had that Erev Pesach evening 1900 when they gathered at Sinai Temple and established the Federation concept in Chicago. Today, we celebrate them and the continued commitments and leadership of so many in Jewish Chicago over the past 119 years, as we look forward to the future with confidence in our strength and knowledge of our capacity to continue to build upon the shoulders of those who came before us.

Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and is the fourth Federation executive in the 119-year history of the organization.