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.

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.


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