May 17, 2024

Making the Call: Our Communal Commitment to Fundraising

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

As we bring our Federation Centennial year celebration to a close, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the history of the fundraising component of the work we do, and why it is the backbone of our Federation.   

At the beginning of this milestone year, I wrote about the visionaries in our community and their reasoning for starting an umbrella Jewish based organization called the Conference of Jewish Charities that would ultimately become the group that lends the collective monies to Jewish agencies that were members. You can read this article here 

What I’d like to do here is share the story of the thousands of volunteers who rang the doorbells and made the phone calls over the past 100 years in fundraising for the UJA Annual Campaign and in support of the members of our Jewish community, locally, in Israel, and around the world. 

In 1926, three years after the Conference formed, it undertook its first cooperative annual fundraising campaign to meet local, national, and overseas needs under the name United Jewish Appeal. Before this landmark move, our fundraising efforts were competing for the same funds.  

By 1938, about 8,000 donors gave a total of $100,000 and by 1945, nine times that amount was raised from 22,000 donors. 

This increase was, in no small part, due to the war. In the mid to late 40s, attention turned to helping newly arrived refugees as well as to establishing the State of Israel. Much like the impact that WWII had on the transformation on the American home front, Jews in our region became mobilized to support these efforts.  The Conference changed its name to the Jewish Community Council of Essex County. The Council along with its constituency were participating in the effort on many fronts – to support the war effort, to help local agencies with their work, to assist those newly arrived refugees, and to help build the Jewish State. In 1946 volunteers in our community raised more than $2 million to support these efforts.  

The UJA campaign drives were a success because chairmen and chairwomen and their delegations would solicit in droves by door-to-door campaigns as well as by phone and mail. The Annual UJA drive was orchestrated with pinpoint accuracy and planning, with each section of Essex County divided by leaders then the workers would go out into the neighborhoods with clipboards and pen in hand. 

In 1951, Sarah Blum, the Women’s Division UJA Community Day Chair was confident that the year’s UJA Drive would be as successful as it was in the past as they would “proceed smoothly and efficiently until every possible contributor is visited and asked to carry her individual share of the burden of Jewish needs in Israel, the world over and in our own country and community.’’ 

Blum also requested that “every Jewish woman in the community should make a date with yourself and stay at home to meet the representative of the world Jewish community, the C-Day volunteer, on May 6.” 

In a 1994 interview with the Jewish Historical Society, Newarker Esther Kesselman spoke of her countless appeals for volunteerism and fundraising.  Kesselman spoke of when she was a young newlywed in the early 1930s, they could barely pay rent, and someone came to the door collecting for UJA of which she knew nothing about. The woman told her horrifying stories about survivors. “…When I looked in my pocketbook I had one dollar. I had no more money. I gave her my last dollar… I made up my mind that I would help.  I said to myself, ‘from now on, if there is a breath of life in me, I am going to give whatever I can to help the Jewish People…’”  

Kesselman later recalls her fundraising work: “We used to go into apartment complexes… we asked each woman we met to take a canister (and put in) ten cents a day for 36 days.” 

Today, the process hasn’t changed all that much. We still rely on individual donors to support the important work that Federation and our partner agencies do here in New Jersey and around the world. And despite the fact that we have more technologically advanced means of soliciting these funds – through emails, text, social media – we still count on volunteers to make the calls… and on members of the community to answer the calls and make a donation. 

Next month, on June 6, we’re holding a Community Calling Day. If you’d like to be part of this proud tradition and volunteer to make calls (or send texts), register hereAnd if not, please answer the call when it comes. Our important work caring for Holocaust survivors and others in need, building bridges in Israel, engaging the next generation, advocating for our Jewish interests, fighting antisemitism, and so much more are and have always been community supported. Together we’ve made it work for 100 years and need your help to make it work for 100 more.