by Ira Robinson

Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies and Director of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University.


When the concept of a Federation for the Jewish charities of Montreal was first considered in the second decade of the twentieth century, Jews in Montreal were witnessing a veritable explosion in the Jewish population of the city. While the 1901 Dominion Census recorded 7,607 Jews in Quebec, the vast majority of whom lived in Montreal, the 1911 Census showed there to be 30,758 Jews, a quadrupling in number in just 10 years. This torrent of Jewish immigration did not abate until the interruption of international travel caused by the onset of the First World War in 1914.

Jews newly arrived in Montreal in this era generally spoke Yiddish, were largely working class and poor, and seemed religiously, socially, and culturally quite distinct from the small, established and largely prosperous English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal. Like their counterparts across North America, the established Jews of Montreal saw themselves and the Jewish charities they had set up being overwhelmed by the great and evident needs of the new wave of Eastern European immigrants. They and others like them in the North American Jewish community understood that “demands for charitable purposes have grown to great proportions and call for the expenditure of sums which some years ago would have seemed fabulous.”

In response to this crisis, the first North American Federations were founded in the 1890s in Boston and Cincinnati in order to make Jewish charitable fundraising more efficient and more effective. The idea caught on and by 1919 some fifty North American cities possessed their own Jewish federations.

In 1912, the initiative for the creation of a Montreal Federation stemmed from discussions within the Baron de Hirsch Institute, then the premier Jewish philanthropic institution in Montreal. A committee began meeting in 1914 to explore the issue. The committee first had to decide whether the desired model of communal organization for Montreal should be that of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which governed the Jewish community of the mother country, or would emulate the North American Federation movement. In 1915, the decision was taken to opt for a Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and to apply for a charter from the Quebec Legislative Assembly, which was granted in 1916. Formal fundraising began in January 1917.

None of Federation’s organizers stemmed from the community of recent Jewish immigrants who were the main objects of its philanthropy, but they did reach out for consultation with leaders of Montreal’s Eastern European Jewish community like Reuben Brainin and Hirsch Wolofsky, both key figures who headed Montreal’s Yiddish daily newspaper, the Keneder Adler, and were instrumental in organizing numerous charitable and communal initiatives among the immigrant Jews. Wolofsky bluntly informed the organizers that the people of the “East Side” he represented felt slighted in not being invited to participate in the establishment of Federation. In response, Wolofsky and two other Eastern Europeans were invited to become members of Federation’s Provisional Executive Committee. However, power within Federation definitively remained with men of the older established Jewish community who met regularly in the Montefiore Club, membership in which defined the elite of the Montreal Jewish community. Many of them were also affiliated with Westmount’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue.

Federation’s initial campaign in 1917 was considered a success, garnering $127,000 to be divided among twelve constituent agencies. The main purpose of these funds was “relieving want and checking pauperism among Jews in the City of Montreal and elsewhere.” In its early years, Montreal’s Federation thus largely concentrated on relief of the poor and health services for them. Indeed, of Federation’s 1924 budget of $171,000, 58% went to poverty relief, 28% to health services and the only other major expenditure was 11% for administration.

There were obviously major areas of Jewish activism that, by consensus, North American Federations in that era did not support. One of the largest of these was Jewish education. Support for Jewish education generally remained outside the scope of Federation financing and planning in Montreal and throughout North America until the 1960s.

This omission, as well as the ongoing feeling within the immigrant Jewish community of Montreal that its other vital interests were not fully taken into consideration by Federation, led to the organization in 1922 of the Jewish Community Council [Va’ad ha-‘Ir] of Montreal, headed by Hirsch Wolofsky, whose mandate included the support of Jewish educational institutions as well as the regulation of kashrut, which was likewise considered outside Federation’s competence. This move was paralleled in other North American cities, such as Cleveland and Detroit, where Jewish Community Councils were established because of dissatisfaction with the priorities and perceived non-representative nature of Federations.

Federation’s priorities did not remain frozen, however. In the interwar period, Federation became aware of important developments within the field of social welfare known collectively as “scientific charity.” The concept of “scientific charity” meant that the poor required not just monetary aid, but also constructive solutions to their problems. Only when the causes of poverty were researched and identified could these constructive solutions be found. This spirit of “scientific charity” is well expressed in Federation’s 25th annual report in 1941 which stated that Federation was moving away from “the narrow bounds of merely alleviative philanthropy into the wider sphere of preventative social service.”

The years immediately after the end of the Second World War posed important challenges to Federation and its acknowledged leader, Samuel Bronfman, whose personality dominated decision making in both  Federation and the Canadian Jewish Congress in that era. In response to the major challenges of helping Holocaust survivors make new lives for themselves, and of aiding in the establishment of the State of Israel, Federation witnessed its first million dollar campaign in 1947.

Federation’s involvement with the Jewish world outside Montreal caused by the great events of twentieth century Jewish history would continue to grow and by the mid-1960s Federation, as the key element in the Combined Jewish Appeal, had come to play an important role in support for both Israel and Jewry overseas, symbolized by the fact that in the face of Israel’s crisis of 1967, Montreal Jews raised close to $10 million for the “Israel Emergency Fund.” In response to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Montreal would do much more and raise fully $23 million for Israel.

The postwar period saw a major shift in the priorities of Federations across North America because the needs of the Jewish community had significantly changed. The Jewish communities of North America in the 1950s were no longer made up of a large proportion of newly-immigrated poor people. The services for the poor and unemployed, so vitally needed in 1917 and in 1937, were no longer as relevant to the much more prosperous postwar community. Thus, in 1946, Federation’s president signalled that Federation was “prepared to make necessary progressive changes… Never must we permit our planning of communal life to become rigid.” Federations across North America in the 1950s sought to discover within themselves “a capacity for adaptation in structure and functions,” substantially reinventing themselves in order to stay relevant in the light of changing communal priorities. In Montreal, Louis Rosenberg engaged in extensive research on the needs of the Jewish community and reported in 1958 that “changes in the composition of our population give added reason for a re-examination of the whole fabric of communal services as they are presently organized.” This shift in emphasis was further expressed by Federation Executive Director Alan Bronstein in 1960: “We must face the problem of changing the public image of our work from that of ‘serving the poor’ exclusively to its true nature of service to the entire Jewish community.”

A symbolic result of this global change in Federations’ orientation across North America was a trend among numerous North American Jewish organizations to change their name from “charity” to “social service.” The very visible result of this trend in Montreal was that Federation’s name in its original provincial charter of 1916, “Federation of Jewish Philanthropies,” was changed to “Federation of Jewish Community Services” in 1951 and to “Allied Jewish Community Services” [AJCS] in 1965. Another aspect of this changing conceptualization of Federation’s tasks involved greater centralization of planning and budget within Federation, resulting in “an increasingly formal and systematic approach to community planning.” Federation’s success in achieving this transformation was due in no small manner to the influential professional leadership of leaders like Manny Batshaw, Executive Director of AJCS in the crucial period 1968-1980.

In the immediate postwar period, Federation still avoided direct commitment in the area of Jewish education. However, pressure on Federation to help in this sector was mounting.  In 1951, United Talmud Torahs was successful in obtaining access to the Federation subscription list and was given other help by Federation in conducting its own fundraising campaign, and Federation also allowed the Peretz School to conduct a parlor meeting with some of its major contributors. These were preliminary signs of a trend to come.

By the 1970s, AJCS began moving into Jewish education in a more direct manner. In 1970-1971, AJCS signalled its major involvement in Jewish education when it brokered a merger between the Jewish People’s School and the Peretz School, creating a merged Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools, and further aided in the fundraising for the schools’ merger campaign. Shortly after this, in 1972, Federation co-sponsored a master plan for Montreal Jewish education along with Canadian Jewish Congress, an organization that had up to then taken the lead in community involvement with Jewish education. By 1974, Federation was developing its own central organization for educational services that would become known as the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre, signalling that it wished to take a leadership role in the Montreal Jewish educational enterprise. While in 1945 virtually no North American federations supported day schools, many Federations toward the end of the twentieth century had determined that support of day school education was squarely in the community interest. Montreal’s Federation adopted this cause as well and in its budgeted allocations for 2015-2016, Montreal’s Federation CJA spends a major portion of its budget, some $3 million, on day school tuition subsidies.

In the 1970s, Montreal Jewry as a whole was significantly challenged in numerous ways by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The Quiet Revolution fundamentally impacted one of the major institutions of Jewish Montreal, the Jewish General Hospital, founded in 1934, which though not officially connected with Federation as a constituent agency, was headed by people active in Federation. The Quiet Revolution brought with it an increasing governmental control of health and social services that affected the Hospital and also greatly impacted several constituent agencies of Federation dealing with these areas. Perhaps most importantly, the Quiet Revolution’s empowerment of the French language in Quebec strongly challenged both the structure of the community’s educational system, which Federation had made one of its major priorities, and especially its long-established way of doing business in English only. Federation’s 1974 Annual Report states that Bill 22, which gave French legal priority in Quebec and served as a precursor to the later Bill 101 and its Charter of the French Language, set the Jewish community “back on its linguistic heels” as it struggled to begin presenting itself publicly in French as well as English.

During this era the AJCS became effectively, and by design, a central communal organization, attempting to be the institution that would lead the way for all Montreal Jewry. This had to mean, among other things, taking on the task of integrating the significant group of Jewish immigrants from North Africa, who had begun arriving in Quebec in the 1950s and who were still largely absent from the Federation leadership group in the mid-1970s. It also meant assimilating their major organization, La Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec into the Federation community.

The period of fundamental change that marked the 1970s also saw the inauguration of the National Budgeting Conference [NBC] of Canadian Federations which became an important forum for the cooperation of Jewish community Federations across Canada. NBC was seen as “a body which will bring about a greater cohesiveness within our various Jewish communities.” The NBC process ultimately resulted in the organization of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, in which the Montreal Federation and that of Toronto constitute the largest and most influential partners. Originally constituted to support Israel, in the 1990s the organization’s focus was broadened to include initiatives relevant to the Canadian Jewish community itself. This development ultimately contributed to the demise of Canadian Jewish Congress which was an organization that had also claimed to represent the Canadian Jewish community as a whole.

AJCS changed its official name to Federation CJA in 1992 and continues its role in planning for and sustaining a community that has priorities that greatly differ from those of the Federation that was founded a century ago. Whereas in 1917 practically the entirety of Federation’s income went to relief of poverty and health care, in 2015-2016, the budgetary category of “Caring for the Vulnerable” constitutes less than half of Federation’s local expenditures ($7 million) as opposed to $8.6 million for “Jewish Vibrancy and Continuity” which involves significant support for both Jewish education and Jewish culture, areas absent from Federation’s budget in 1917.

Whatever else has changed, however, what Maurice Karpf wrote about North American Federations nearly eighty years ago may still be relevant to our thinking about Montreal’s Federation CJA as it looks toward its second century of activism on behalf of the Jewish community of Montreal:

Federation is the most important single organization in the Jewish community…In its representativeness, unrepresentative as it is; in its community mindedness, narrowly conceived as it may be; in its financial resources, limited as they are; in its leadership, one-sided and conservative as that may be; in its catholicity of interests, circumscribed as they are said to be; and in its status before the non-Jewish world, there lie possibilities heretofore unrealized and assuredly unequaled by any existing Jewish organization.