The Jewish Federations of North America functions today as the main
representative body for North American Jewish groups. But in the 1940s, American
Jewry was splintered into many organizations and parties, each making a bold
attempt to save its brothers and sisters from the Nazis overseas.
JFNA ’s General Assembly convenes in Jerusalem this week, it is worth recalling
that 70 years ago, shortly after news of the Nazi genocide became public in the
US, a critical General Assembly of the CJF (the Council of Jewish Federations
and Welfare Funds, as the JFNA was known then) was gathering in Cleveland,
The American Jewish Yearbook in 1943 noted that there were 80,000
Jews in Cleveland – the same location as the founding GA in 1932 – and five
million Jews in the USA . Of those, 300,000 women and men were serving in the
Completing his first year as president of the council,
Sidney Hollander of Baltimore – a forceful leader working diligently to protect
and maintain the strength of the American Jewish community – knew that this GA
had to activate the members of the 185 communities who were
Noted leaders like rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise
were calling on American Jews to use their influence to persuade president
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to attempt to save the Jews of Europe
whom Hitler and the Nazis were murdering unmercifully. Silver was also the major
American advocate for establishing a Jewish state in Mandatory
As the Cleveland GA of 1943, with its 465 delegates, got under
way in the second week of January, Atlanta Jewish newspaper The Southern
Israelite carried a bold headline reading “Europe Jewry faces darkest
“Leaders of the United Nations...
in reviewing the past
year emphasized the fact that one half of [the four million] civilians killed
were 2 million Jews,” the paper reported.
“The number of persons
massacred by the Nazis in occupied countries is larger than the number of men
killed on the battlefields.”
Only a month earlier, in December 1942, the
American government had permitted the first public announcement of the
systematic destruction of two million Jews.
Although Roosevelt had
received the information in August 1942, he wanted it confirmed before allowing
Wise to make it public. Starting in early December, the rabbi moved heaven and
earth to awaken American Jewry in particular, and Americans in general, to this
ongoing slaughter. He held a public news conference that month that the The New
York Times covered but put on Page 10. Meanwhile, details of the murder of
European Jews could be found in every Anglo-Jewish newspaper in December 1942
and January 1943.
In his opening address at the GA, Hollander postulated
the requirements for stable communities where social agencies thrived with
efficient budgeting. He was overwhelmed by his personal anxiety, fully aware
that Jews were being slaughtered.
“We gather in Cleveland at a time which
is much more problematic for us as a people than was the Depression when the GA
of 1932, born here in Cleveland, took its pioneering steps toward becoming a
major body in American Jewish life,” he said. “Friends, we have to be strong at
home, able to assist our nation and all the Jews in the service to win this war.
Moreover, there is a growing awareness on the part of our community that the
rescue of the Jews in Europe will be our task. The demonic Hitler knows nothing
but to kill the innocent. He and his forces must be stopped by [the] Allies, or
else the tragedy will grow in proportions even outside of
Hollander declared that one of the most important problems
American Jewish life was facing at that time was organization. “This was not
always the case, because America is noted for its rugged individualism, and each
new Jewish group followed suit, proclaiming, ‘We are the one.’” However, he
continued, “as the Jewish community in USA became more homogeneous and as common
needs became more pressing, the tendency toward some sort of communal
cooperation began to grow. This is true in our general communities, but it is
even more significant for our Jewish community.
That is why the CJF was
founded just over a decade ago and has grown exponentially since
He then stressed his major point, the theme of the gathering:
“Without unity among all the Jewish groups operating in America today, we will
not be able to provide services for those who need it the most, be they
civilians or in the military.”
For many months, the CJF had been working
with the Jewish Welfare Board, the American Association for Jewish Education and
the Synagogue Council of America to establish a unified core of action in the
field of civic education and enlightenment. Additionally Hollander and his
negotiating team had spent many hours with leaders of the Anti-Defamation
League, the American Jewish Committee and Congress to fashion a unified plan of
As has been the case many times in Jewish history,
there were naysayers, so the desperately needed unity could not be finalized at
the 1943 GA. However, pressures were so strong after the Cleveland meeting that
by March unification did exist.
As the leading American Zionist figure
calling for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state following the war,
Silver – who was co-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, the major American
fund-raising arm that for many years now has been a part of the JFNA –
recognized that he dare not push that agenda at the GA. Instead, he noted that
the UJA was “eager to enter a united front with all agencies working diligently
in the field of humanitarian efforts.”
Later that year, he became
co-chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council with Wise.
important group led the battle in the US and UN for the creation of
Practically every day of 1943 made a major impact on world Jewry.
UJA campaigns 70 years ago led with the statement “We cannot let the two million
European Jews die in vain.”
Sadly, as is well known, the final number of
dead was six million.
As the participants in this year’s GA gather in
Jerusalem, delegates should keep in mind that there is an Israel, and there are
Jewish communities the world over. And together, they can insure our
The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is the author of the American