During some quiet moments recently I turned to my bookshelves for some needed solace and inspiration.
The first volume I pulled from the shelves is almost an antique: The United Jewish Appeal: 1939-1982. Yes, an ancient volume filled with the history of a great organization created (and owned until the merger that created JFNA) by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the United Israel (Palestine) Appeal. The decades covered not only included the horrors of the Holocaust and post-Holocaust but the birth and sustenance of the State of Israel, its survival against all odds, its heroic wars and our role -- as donors and communities and national organizations -- in the building of the nation we love. And, oh, the great lay and professional leaders of those decades; men and women whose philanthropy inspired my generations of Jews and still do. Reading it made me long for the heroes of those days; in particular in comparison with the lack of heroes in our national organizational life today.
That tome ended before almost...almost...all of our involvement. And that history of the UJA was written from the outside in; and has the perspective of only an outsider. It was paralleled by the work of one of the system's (when there was, in fact, a "system") greatest professional leaders, the late Philip Bernstein's, z'l, To Dwell in Unity -- The Jewish Federation Movement in America Since 1960 (published in 1983). That book is what we would call today a "tutorial" offering, as it does, the fullest explanation I had ever read of the interlocking nature of our local, national and overseas agencies. Phil was a mentor and friend to so many of us -- a professional for whom all, lay and pro alike, had total respect. And I would have been remiss if I hadn't returned to my bookshelves for Irving Bernstein's, z'l, Living UJA History, a true insider's story of the historic work of the United Jewish Appeal published in 1997. Irving was one of the inspirational Executive Vice-Chairmen who led the UJA -- he inspired me and a generation of lay persons.
But, of all of the histories (and there were and are far more than the three I have cited), the most exciting and incisive was and is Jonathan Woocher's seminal work: Sacred Survival - The Civil Religion of American Jews, published in 1986, just as the North American federation system approached its zenith in the Operation Exodus campaign and the Rally that was its preamble. Jonathan captured so perfectly "...the religion of America's Jewish federations and the powerful communal system of which they are the heart." Sadly, this was a book that was once living history and is now no more than the past and, thanks to the leaders of our Continental system in 2015, there is no longer the passion, the vision or the energy that once drove us to great achievements -- achievements that we never thought, we were never permitted to think, were beyond our capacity.
And, finally, I decided to reread my own work of a decade ago, United Jewish Catastrophes -- A Love Story. This was a very personal work, a diary of my frustrations and our achievements during the merger process, the fiasco of the hiring of the first CEO (that was but a precursor to the worse fiascos which have followed) and the first years of what was once called "United Jewish Communities." I thought that the founding years of what is now JFNA had gone so badly but, in truth, on re-reading, I now think that those first years were actually the halcyon era of JFNA, years that I would gladly trade straight up for the incoherent mess we have today and have had for the last nine years. That doesn't mean that those first years were what the merger's founders had dreamed or for which they had hoped, but the nadir of today is too much to bear.
But while the past may look terrific in retrospect, it's still the past.