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Curiously, the “successor” to Europe was not, in the eyes of the foundation’s founders, to be Israel. In 1960, despite the beginnings of a serious Israeli academic community in a number of fields, Israel was not yet on the radar of American Jewish leadership. Perhaps not surprising, American Jewish leaders were “America-centric” when it came to the needs of scholars. Hence the name, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Twenty years after the founding of the NFJC, the foundation woke up to the reality that there was a thriving Jewish culture in the United States outside the academy and that other arenas needed to be nurtured and supported. The NFJC became the pioneer in investing in creativity through a range of grants programs — for film, visual arts, music, literature and of course continuing in scholarship.
Theater was a good example: In theater, the foundation leveraged small grants to playwrights and theater companies for new, cutting-edge expressions. The Fund for Jewish Cultural Preservation, funded by the federations through the NFJC, was a unique program: it allowed for a range of projects to be carried out by the archival agencies of the Jewish community — the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society — and by Jewish museums and research libraries around the country.
So what happened? Why did this strong supporter and presenter of Jewish culture go under?
It was not all about the money. It is indeed true that funding sources dried up, especially support from the federations. And the “Big 19” federations did not step up to the plate with bailouts à la the Federal Reserve.
No — the FJC’s demise is of a piece with a larger story.
It is the latest casualty of the shift in the center of gravity of the Jewish community: from “national” to “local,” with the diminution of impact of most national Jewish organizations. With this shift, strong federations have taken on national and even international roles — not necessarily a bad thing, if some national groups were not doing their jobs.
The Jewish community changed, priorities changed and the federation system aggressively moved into new arenas and jettisoned others. The recent professional and lay leadership of the FJC never truly understood these dynamics of American Jewish life, and as a result it failed to continue to engage the new key institutions that might fund the FJC into the future.
So, death by strangulation? By poisoning? By a knife in the back? By neglect?
The demise of the Foundation for Jewish Culture should be an occasion for mourning. But the Kaddish is not only for the FJC.
Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, was associate executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture from 1996 to 2002.