Federation CJA is a Montreal Jewish community institution dating back to 1917. In the early part of the 20th Century, numerous Jewish charities were operating in Montreal, endeavouring to meet the needs of predominantly Eastern European immigrants to the city before and after World War I. Given the expansive charitable support required, it was understood that a central organizing body would serve to “rationalize fundraising and coordinate social and philanthropic services for the Jews of Montreal”. This led to the creation of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, which included a dozen founding agencies, and a first successful fundraising campaign raising $127,000.
In the following decade, the Great Depression and growing antisemitism in Europe and in Canada saw the Federation pivot and offer various social and emergency services to the Jewish community through its partner agencies. With World War II, the community was confronted with a series of new and unprecedented challenges. To meet them, a 1941 merger of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish General Hospital and the United Jewish Refugee and War Relief Agencies resulted in the creation of the Combined Jewish Appeal. In its 25th annual report, Federation stated it was moving away from “the narrow bounds of merely alleviate philanthropy into the wider sphere of preventative social service.” Tragically, the horrors of the Holocaust generated an upsurge in the needs of the community’s survivors, spurring Federation CJA to deliver important relief and refugee-related work.
The 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, the national home of the Jewish people, brought both exhilaration and urgent mobilization. As the Jewish State came under immediate attack from neighbouring rejectionist Arab states, Federation joined the United Palestine Appeal in raising funds to develop Israel’s infrastructure. It simultaneously expanded the range of services it offered to Montreal’s growing Jewish population of 85,000 (in 1952). Waves of immigration through the early 1950s saw the arrival of Hungarian Jews, and then French-speaking Sephardi Jews to the city, diversifying the community’s cultural composition. In the 1950s and 60s, the Federation of Jewish Community Services (as it became named) was supporting Jewish welfare, health and employment services, cultural institutions, advocacy, and summer camps through the annual Combined Jewish Appeal.
The 1960s and 70s were a period of crisis and upheaval for Israel (with two major wars), and also of great change for Montreal’s Jewish community. Federation raised major financial resources for Israel in response to each of these wars. The community adopted a new outward orientation, notably with the 1967 International Expo and its Pavilion of Judaism. In 1972, the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the arts, today’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts, was inaugurated. Cumming House was opened that same year and became the headquarters of the Allied Jewish Community Services (AJCS; which replaced the Federation of Jewish Community Services in 1965). A few short years later, Jewish education was adopted as a key priority by the Combined Jewish Appeal for the first time.
With the rise of Quebec nationalism, a sizeable contingent of the community’s Anglophone members relocated outside the province. At the same time, concerted efforts were made to encourage greater understanding between Jews and non-Jews, concerned also with ensuring employment prospects of university graduates. During this period, AJCS and its partners initiated the provision of services tailored to the community’s growing population of seniors.
In 1988, AJCS developed a close relationship with the city of Be’er Sheva, in Israel’s Negev, and the surrounding region of B’nei Shimon. It provided support for the delivery of quality social services and education in a region that saw a significant settlement of Jews rescued from Ethiopia. With the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union came a wave of Jewish immigration that saw more than 3,400 Russian-speakers move to Montreal. Re-named in 1992, Federation CJA provided absorption and integration support to both communities, one in Israel, the other in Montreal.
The 1990s saw the emergence of programs aimed at strengthening the Jewish community of Montreal and beyond, with Operation Montreal, Taglit-Birthright Israel, and more. Cummings House, Federation CJA’s home base in Montreal’s Snowdon neighbourhood was renovated in 1999. It housed a renewed Jewish Public Library, Cummings Centre, and Montreal Holocaust Museum. In 2006, Federation CJA opened a division branch in the West Island to meet the needs of one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in North America.
In recent years, Federation CJA has grown and innovated in important ways, in response to evolving priorities and challenges in Montreal, Israel and elsewhere. Among other things, it launched Women’s Philanthropy, two new campaign divisions, YAD FedNext/ GenMTL and the Network, as well as the Generations Fund and Passport for Jewish Life. Federation CJA continues to be at the fore of responses to local and international crises, such as the 2008 recession, 2013 proposed Quebec Charter of Values and Freedoms as well as Lac Mégantic explosion, terrorism in Israel and around the world, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflective of the community’s strong bond and commitment, Federation CJA’s relationship with Israel has continued to evolve and strengthen. In 2014 and 2017, some 1,500 Montrealers aged 18 to 100 participated in Federation CJA’s Mega Missions to Israel.
The principles on which Federation CJA was originally founded – to rationalize fundraising and service delivery – remain as relevant today as they were a century ago. Federation CJA continues to put Jewish values into action, working with partners to provide help and comfort to those in need, and enabling the community’s diverse members to thrive. More than the work of an institution, it has embodied the care, commitment and vision of an entire community.