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.

As the 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, Ohio.

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 armed forces.

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 attending.

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 Palestine.

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 year.”

“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 Europe.”

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 then.”

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 civic protection.

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.

This important group led the battle in the US and UN for the creation of Israel.

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 future.

The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is the author of the American Heritage Haggadah.

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