Losing a Precious Outlet for Jewish Culture

Foundation's Closing Is Sign of Big Changes in Community

Big Loss: Ofri Cnaani’s ‘Sota Project’ was funded by the Six Points Fellowship, a program started by the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
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Big Loss: Ofri Cnaani’s ‘Sota Project’ was funded by the Six Points Fellowship, a program started by the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

By Jerome Chanes

Published September 27, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
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When the Foundation for Jewish Culture closes its doors sometime next year, there won’t be many mourners saying Kaddish. Instead, the prevailing communal sentiment may very well be: “Yawn. We have too many agencies; one less will not matter!”

But Kaddish ought be said for the FJC.

The group’s lonely mourners will be those of us who remember what the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (as it used to be known) once meant to the American Jewish polity.

It was an organization that taught the Jewish community how to say things via the medium of culture, and gave American Jews the opportunity to experience innovative Jewish culture. “Jewish culture,” as we then saw it, was the expression of the Jewish experience through scholarship, visual arts, dance, film, theater and music.

When it was founded in 1960, the NFJC was one of a number of Jewish communal organizations that were created by the federation system from the 1940s into the 1960s — the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Education Service of North America.

The original mission of the NFJC was “to bring enrichment to the field of Jewish culture.” But what did these vague words mean? Indeed, the genesis of the NFJC was radically different from those of the other groups started by the federations, groups that were devoted largely to public affairs.

The impetus for creating such an organization did not come out of nowhere. In 1960, 15 years after the end of World War II and in the aftermath of the destruction of European Jewry, American Jews began to appreciate what had been lost: a European Jewish culture, a world of Jewish scholarship, an academic world and a professorate.

The Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds — the umbrella organization for the federations in North America, an agency that at that time reigned supreme — commissioned a study to determine what might be done by American Jewry to re-create that academic world and make it as vital as it once was.

The study affirmed that America was to be the “successor” to the European Jewish cultural and academic heritage that was lost. It recommended the establishment of a foundation, to be funded by the federation system, to nurture Jewish scholarship in America. The first grants to support scholars — all of $500 per grant — were made that year.


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