When the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel, they dispersed across many countries, fragmenting into small groups among widely divergent cultures and empires, but what held them together was an allegiance to a code of laws and rituals set forth in the Torah and Talmud.
But Judaism is more than a religion; it is a way of life experienced through the kehillah, the community. Forced to endure harsh conditions, without anyone to rely on for assistance but themselves, Jews developed a communal infrastructure that was uniquely Jewish. With an obligation in Jewish law to help the less fortunate, everyone in the community made regular contributions to the collection box. This system continued in the new country, and despite the hardships, Jews, for the first time, went about their business with relative freedom; many became quite successful. They continued to be involved with human rights and looked out for their less fortunate neighbors by creating a sophisticated philanthropic network that served the needs of the whole community. The first Jewish Federation was founded in Boston in 1895, and as Jews moved across the country, more Federations were established.
From the 1930s onward, there was a massive influx of population to Southern California, including Orange County. It was only a matter of time until there was enough of a vocal Jewish presence to organize a Federation as in so many other cities in the country. That began in 1939, when Sam Hurwitz founded the United Jewish Welfare Fund of Orange County to raise funds for a variety of needs for the small Jewish community. In 1955, at a meeting held in what was then the California Federal Bank in Anaheim, the organization became a Community Council. Until 1964, the only community-wide Jewish activities were fundraising. Then on July 6, 1965, the Jewish Federation of Orange County was officially incorporated, with the goals to provide needed communal services and support its beneficiary organizations.
Over the next several years, the Federation helped to form Hillel at Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine; the Hebrew Academy opened in Huntington Beach; and in 1970, the First Federation Women’s Division (now known as Women’s Philanthropy) was formed, with a fundraising goal of $25,000. Several JCCs were also established throughout the county.
With the opening of the Baker Street Jewish Community Campus in Costa Mesa, in a building generously donated by Allan and Sandy Fainbarg and Arnold and Ruth (z’l) Feuerstein, the Laguna Beach and Garden Grove JCCs were merged. And in 1991, Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School was founded by Holocaust survivor Irving Gelman at that location.
Today, the large, expansive and impressive Community Building on the Samueli Jewish Campus houses the offices of Jewish Federation and Family Services, the newly renamed Merage Jewish Community Center, the offices of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, the Jewish Community Foundation and Hillel.
The growth of the Federation mirrors the growth of Orange County. By 2005, some 3 million people were living in OC with estimates placing the Jewish population between 80,000 and 100,000. Yet only about 80 percent of the Jewish population has been identified.
Most think of the Jewish Federation as primarily a fundraising organization that supports a number of beneficiary agencies. While that is undoubtedly one of its primary goals, today establishing an ongoing dialogue with the Jews of OC is an important focus. And because Orange County is one of the fastest-growing, most vibrant and most diverse Jewish communities in the country, JFFS has had to develop an innovative approach to achieve its goals.
“The Federation also needed to examine their structure and how it could be improved. The merger with the Jewish Family Services is an example of how organizations need to work together,” said Shalom C. Elcott, President and CEO, who came to the OC nine years ago. “By altering the structure, we became more effective at delivering a broad range of services.”
“When the recession hit, both the Federation and Jewish Family Services were seriously affected,” said Debbie Margolis, Chair of the Board, JFFS. “Donors were stepping back, and grants were not coming in at a time when the need was increasing.” The feeling was that the two organizations would be stronger they if merged. “This made approaching the donor population easier because now it made for an easier ask,” added Margolis, “and it was a single ask.”
“This is a very young Jewish Community,” said Elcott. The challenge has been to find unique ways of engaging the Jewish community. “One very big challenge in OC is that many of our organizations cannot find what I like to call the ‘hidden Yidden,’” Elcott added. Those are the Jews who have not participated in the Jewish community at any level. “How do we reach them?”
To “belong” is a very challenging concept today in OC. A recent study completed by the Federation notes that many younger Jews are not attracted to the traditional organizations of the Jewish community. “These folks are more interested in a DIY approach to their Jewishness,” the report noted. “We may be forced to teach the younger generations about the importance of community and of Israel,” said Elcott. “Our goal needs to be to connect the Jews of OC to the greater Jewish Community including the State of Israel.”
The next generation is not interested in doing what their parents did—giving because their parents gave, or joining an organization because their parents did. “The younger generation wants to see exactly where their money is going,” said Margolis. “Today people want to see their money in action, so we have more hands-on donors. While Super Sunday may have worked for our parents, it is not at all effective today.”
And so in November 2005, the Federation rolled out “Connect 2 Community,” a new series of community-building initiatives designed to give investors choices in their philanthropy for Jewish Orange County.
In addition to creating an innovative program for its donors, the Orange County JFFS took the same approach when it came to designing other aspects of the organization. Programs needed to reach out to those who were not involved in the Jewish community.
“We want to meet them where they are,” said Margolis. Elcott echoed that sentiment by pointing out all the variety of unique programs that have been established to engage Jews at every age, interest and level of observance to participate in the conversation about being Jewish in Orange County.
“We have developed 23 portals through which we can reach out to Jews in the community,” said Margolis. These are not fund-raising entities. Some focus on leadership development, and some on service. These portals have been designed to find Jews, attract them into the community and then provide them with convenient and inexpensive ways of “doing Jewish” in order to instill a “love for Jewish.”
One of the most successful is the PJ Library Program, which provides books, music and CDs at no cost to Jewish families with children ages 6 months to 8 years and has reached 1,800 families. Families are then invited to special events introducing them to other aspects of the Jewish community.
NextGen OC (formerly Young Leadership) is the nexus of the OC’s vibrant community of Jews in their 20s to early 40s. These young leaders participate in tikkun olam through projects including Second Harvest Food Bank, the Walk to End Genocide and rebuilding New Orleans.
“Our primary goal is to build community,” said Lisa Grier, Chair of NextGen. “That is the key to everything. Once we have a strong community then we will have everything—donors and tikkun olam.” The biggest challenge for this demographic is to understand why donating is so important. “But they do want to volunteer,” Margolis added. “We had over 87 volunteers come out to put together over 1,000 care packages for the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] troops. We did it in an hour and half.”
Another portal for reaching out to Jews in Orange County is the Community Scholar Program, which provides high-level education in a variety of settings. “Arie Katz [the program’s founder] had an idea, and we supported it,” said Elcott. Now the CSP attracts large numbers of Jews from all over the community who attend these programs.
And the list of vibrant JFFS programs goes on, with something for everyone. The Rose Project, for example, educates OC students about the facts and myths of Israel, instills self-sufficiency in Jewish student leaders, and encourages students to engage their peers to develop greater understanding of Israel and its centrality to the Jewish people. Members of Mitzvah Mavens, a volunteer arm of JFFS, write letters to Israeli soldiers, bag lunches for soup kitchens, design centerpieces for Holocaust survivors for their annual lunch, and acquire gift cards for the annual “Adopt a Family” program at Hanukkah.
JFFS also recently established the Mandel House, a residential home for special-needs adults that offers those with developmental disabilities a place of their own. It provides an independent, community-based, group living environment that meets their unique needs and helps them remain active in Jewish life.
Yet another service is Silver Streak transportation help for older adults, 60-plus, who cannot drive. This service allows these folks to maintain their connections to friends and family, be active and involved in the community, run important errands, and attend medical and social service appointments.
From Shalom Baby to Silver Streak, the JFFS continues to provide assistance and unique opportunities for engagement in the Jewish community in Orange County.
In 1981, Herb Brin in his publication “The Heritage” wrote the following in a tribute to the Federation: “It is the idea of one’s Jewish responsibility for another that enabled us to survive terrors beyond imagination. This survival instinct gave us all a special social radar system—and no matter what our personal beliefs were in politics or how we strove for social standing, as one Jew fares, we must all must fare. History gives us no luxury of separation from our people.” It is this sense of responsibility that motivates and drives all those who work for and support the JFFS. Happy Fiftieth Anniversary and best wishes for continued success!
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004. She served as the Vice President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation West Coast and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.