As UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey prepares to rebrand itself the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, we admit to mixed feelings about putting the UJA acronym out to pasture. The change certainly makes sense. It is particularly timely now that the federation is working to transform itself – and its perception in the community – from a fundraising organization that appeals to donors into a federation that connects donors to projects and brings together different Jewish agencies to implement those projects. And in some ways the change is long overdue. It has been more than a decade since the national United Jewish Appeal organization – the source of the acronym – was transformed into the United Jewish Communities, an organization that has since been renamed the Jewish Federations of North America.
Truth be told, we never understood what motivated Jewish federation leaders to ditch the United Jewish Appeal name. The United Jewish Appeal name was so well-known among American Jews that it was a punchline to jokes – in a good way. Two Jews were stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere. One is frantic, but the other reassures him. “There’s nothing to worry about. UJA can find us anywhere.” The joke spoke to the success of UJA in raising the funds that rescued Jews and built the State of Israel.
It was a fundraising success built in part on a sense of Jewish communal responsibility, along with generous use of peer pressure that was commensurate with the enormous challenges at hand. UJA’s heyday was a time when Jewish identity could be taken for granted and leveraged for donations, rather than being something that needed to be nurtured and was itself a philanthropic need.
We miss that portion of the UJA legacy.
We remain in awe of what UJA accomplished, both as a national fundraising body for overseas needs as well as the local affiliates whose organizational descendants are in our merged Jewish federation. But there is one part of UJA’s storied history that we adamantly don’t miss: The fierce urgency that led to its founding in the 1930s. United Jewish Appeal was formed to unite two funds for overseas Jewry that had, prior to the urgency of Hitler’s rise, competed for American donations.
World Jewry was on fire, and UJA was tasked with the rescue and resettlement.
It wasn’t easy for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – which raised money to aid the Jews of Europe – to combine forces with the United Palestine Appeal, which helped build the Jewish community of what was not yet the State of Israel. Was Zionism the future? Or was it a distraction?
A Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch from 1941 paints the picture of UJA’s origin: “The emergency position in which millions of Jews find themselves during this war period required cooperative action among Jewish leaders in America.”
By comparison, the challenges facing the Jewish community today are real, but perhaps not the same goad to giving until it hurts.
And for that, we are thankful.