Federationism and post-Federationism

old_newBy Joseph M. Davis


The Federation system was built on the basis of a fairly simple set of ideas. There were always differences in emphasis, and genuine disagreements over principles. Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes. But the basic principles were not complicated. The fundamental basis was the responsibility of Jews to help and support other Jews. From there, the other principles followed naturally (1) that a centralized communal organization was needed. Since religious matters are typically a source of disagreement among Jews, the communal organization (2) must be largely secular. (3) The Federation system was focused on basic needs, such as health care, food, housing, basic income, and especially safety. Federationism thus had a great deal in common with the so-called “pragmatic Zionism” of Herzl, and it adopted the Zionist insight that safety would depend on organized mass emigration to a Jewish state. This would also, clearly, demand support for Israel, and it would also imply fighting antisemitism.


In the year 2016, a great deal has changed. Israel and Diaspora Jewry are no longer communities of destitute immigrants. Today’s impoverished Jews depend less on Jewish charities, because there is more government support available for them. In line with this, I would argue that there has been a rethinking of basic principles, in the direction what can be called post-Federationism.

Post-Federationist Judaism is organized to help both Jews and non-Jews, returning towards the notion of a “light unto the nations.” A community constituted by mutual aid has become instead a community that is increasingly organized around Tikkun Olam. If UJA was the classic institution of Federation, the AJWS is a classic example of post-Federationism. Other characteristics of post-Federationism are:

  1. From centralized institutions to a freer structure: Federations today allow a freer structure of competing institutions and personal funding decisions by individual donors. The new structure therefore has a less defined center.
  2. From secular to trans-denominational: The trans-denominational principle means that Jewish debate defines the new structure more than unanimity and consensus.
  3. From refugee assistance to Jewish flourishing: Post-Federationism focuses more on cultural and spiritual needs than Federationism did, less on physical needs, and far less on migration and aliyah.
  4. From raising money to raising voices: Federationism always supported a program of activism in the Diaspora, for example, during the Soviet Jewry movement. By contrast, it did not support grassroots organizing within Israeli society. Post-Federationism changes this and does support efforts to shape Israeli public opinion and Israeli policy, in order to help the neediest elements of Israeli society.
  5. Changing attitudes to the non-Jewish world: Post-Federationism tends to see non-Jews in a more positive light. For example, one sees a shift in discussions of the Holocaust from studying the Nazis to studying rescuers and strategies of genocide prevention.
  6. Changing notions of Jewish identity: Moving away from an understanding of  Jewish identity as exclusive, the organized Jewish community today has moved  towards an inclusive notion of Jewish identity, from “Jewish and not …” to “Jewish and …”

While we may be in an age of post-Federationism, “Federationism” has not disappeared, nor should it. Communities tend to look for the middle way. The modern Jewish community was never so xenophobic that it regarded all strangers as foes, and is unlikely ever to be so xenophilic that it helps only strangers, and recognizes no enemies. Similarly, the other principles are not “all or nothing.”

But there has been a shift in emphasis. Jewish agencies that formerly helped Jews have expanded their efforts to help non-Jews. HIAS is one example among many. The Jewish Agency (JAFI) is no longer the major recipient of American Jewish fundraising, and Federations now channel funding to synagogues, Chabad and Jewish religious day schools. The prevalence of Jewish intermarriage has forced a reconsideration of the meaning of Jewish identity.

The future of the American Jewish community is unclear, and I am no prophet; but it is clear where we have gotten. Among the most striking changes of the last generation has been the decline of the centralized institutions of the American Jewish community, and their transformation from a system of Jewish self-help, focused on basic needs, to a new system that is adjusting slowly to a new paradigm.

Joseph M. Davis is an associate professor of Jewish thought at Gratz College in Philadelphia.