Federations and their Legacy Tradition: How the “Greatest Generation” Impacted American Jewish Life

Today, often leadership succession occurs by default as individuals are inserted into positions of responsibility, possessing a minimal understanding of the nuance and complexity of what it may mean to serve as the voice and compass of a communal institution.

Image courtesy Pew Research Center
Image courtesy Pew Research Center

By George T. Caplan and Steven F. Windmueller

In Los Angeles the names were Farber, Feingood, Field, Goldsmith, Goren, Hochman, Singer, and Weinberg among many others. They represented the best of a generation of leaders and institution builders. Indeed, they were emblematic of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” In every Jewish community during the second half of the Twentieth Century an exceptional generation of American Jews would emerge to provide a level of visionary leadership that would benefit our federations, national agencies, and synagogues.

They symbolized a leadership style that promoted a shared vision of communal stewardship. As Brokaw would note, these men and women did not seek fame or recognition rather they were driven by “the right thing to do.”

What inspired these folks? The imprint of the Holocaust, the founding of the Jewish state, and the celebration of the American Jewish experience would profoundly energize and motivate this generation. They would not only leave an imprint on the Jewish community but through their philanthropy and civic activities, they would also enhance our larger society and its institutions.

In many cases they would be motivated by leaders of a previous generation; their parents and others would serve as role models in preparing them for the mantle of leadership. Some would share stories of how their families had faced anti-Semitism or had embraced the early Zionist leaders. In many ways the Second World War would be the bridge linking their future responsibilities with the legacy of their own family stories and the fate of the Jewish people.

The Jewish communal system can be defined by the depth and vision of its leaders. Five characteristics represented the imprint of this generation on our society. Leadership was earned, namely that this cohort expected to work their way up the ladder of communal responsibility. Secondly, as leaders they understood the value of “checks and balances” and the importance of transparency in building their relationships with professionals and in constructing their partnerships with other institutional leaders. They led by example through their philanthropy and by the principles of communal practice that defined their participation. A fourth trait exemplified their ability to recruit and inspire others. Finally, they understood the idea of legacy, as they possessed a rich understanding of Jewish history as well as a commitment to the Jewish future. Each one of them whether by their actions or their philanthropy would be “investors” in perpetuating the communal story.

Political candor would mark their leadership styles as they took on both internal Jewish challenges and tackled global Jewish responsibilities. On the one hand they would be proud defenders of the Jewish State just as they were prepared to share their criticism of Israel and its policies with its leaders. They would take up the cause of world Jewry, being instrumental in bringing to freedom Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Their actions were directed not only toward Jewish concerns but also to issues of national significance, as many of them would be in the forefront of the battle for the civil rights of all Americans. They were committed to investing their financial resources in strengthening Jewish and general causes that were directed toward building a stronger base of civic participation.

During their tenure of leadership communal organizations would flourish, as they helped to sponsor programs and underwrite new initiatives. Community would be understood as a “verb” as it reflected a vitality and civic action, unmatched in Jewish history. Indeed, what served our Jewish community extremely well during this “golden age” of American Judaism involved a model of constructive leadership, where this generation of leaders would seek out partners at all levels of the social and political spectrum to forge a communal consensus.

Today, often leadership succession occurs by default as individuals are inserted into positions of responsibility, possessing a minimal understanding of the nuance and complexity of what it may mean to serve as the voice and compass of a communal institution. Money trumps experience, ego offsets vision, and expediency replaces commitment as we see community after community moving to “fill” their leadership positions. Indeed, the absence of a new generation of experienced and visionary leaders will seriously impact and compromise the future of the communal system.

In light of today’s environment of political recrimination and financial influence, present both within our larger society and within our communal system, we require leaders that emulate the values of this unique generation of women and men who helped to build and sustain the Jewish and civic enterprise.

George T. Caplan served as president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles between 1988-1990.

Steven F. Windmueller was both a federation and Jewish Community Relations Council director and has served as dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus.