A History of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas
“Whoever saves a single life it is as if he saved an entire world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)
Since the mid-1800’s, the Jews who settled in Arkansas created ways to meet the challenges of caring for themselves and each other as a community. They sought to educate their children, to preserve their traditions and heritage, to counsel troubled souls, to take care of the elderly, to celebrate and socialize together, and to actively involve themselves in support of Jews in need elsewhere in the world. Arkansas frontier life reinforced commitment to the ancient Talmudic proverb “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
World War II Era
In 1912, recognizing a need to consolidate various groups dedicated to many of the above causes, members of the Jewish community filed charters with the City and State, establishing “Federation of Jewish Charities of the City of Little Rock and the State of Arkansas.” While the founding Board of 90 years ago was all men – Gus Blass, Leo Pfeifer, Mark M. Cohn, Charles Stifft, Max Heiman, Charles Jacobson, Dan Daniel and Louis Witt, those familiar with regional history recall the strong involvement of Jewish women in charitable causes, and speculate that they encouraged their mostly merchant spouses in this noble venture.
The Federation continued its charitable efforts over most of the next three decades with steady campaigns and mostly volunteer staffing. Predictably, the world Way II era impacted both the budget and direction of the organization, which was for a period renamed “Jewish Welfare Agency”. Dozens of immigrant families were assisted in their journey to Arkansas and employment, housing and domestic needs when they arrived. Congregants engaged in military battle were nourished through mail supplies and communication. The annual campaign dramatically increased during these years and even quadrupled between 1944 and 1945 when the full devastation was realized.
Through post-war mid-twentieth century decades, the Federation was consistently staffed and enjoyed strong and steady campaigns.
1950’s through 1970’s
The 24 year span between 1954 and 1977 was marked by relative periods of expansions and contraction in the giving of funds by the Arkansas donors. The State of Israel went to war 3 times during this period with the subsequent urgent need of relief funding. An Israel Emergency Fund was added to some of those years’ general fund amounts; these additional funds’ drives lasting for several years. The general community responded with enthusiasm to the added request for additional funds.
Immigration again became a community focus in the 10970’s when President Leonid Brezhnev permitted a limited number of Jews to leave the Soviet Union. The national resettlement director of the Council of Jewish Federations characterized Little Rock as “one of the best small Jewish communities in the country in terms of the resettlement program. Housing, employment, language lessons, food and clothing, and transportation were made available to the émigrés under our auspices. Over forty families were helped by the Arkansas community.
During this year, at various times, the Welfare offices were located in one of several downtown office building, and were capably staffed and administered. Each year a different and interesting speaker came to Little Rock to help solicit funds during our annual drive.
1980’s and 1990’s
In the ‘80’s, ‘90’s, Federation expanded its priorities to become a Jewish community- building organization. There were several mid-century name changes, and the last change was from the Jewish Federation of Little Rock to the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. Through the ACTION newsletter and personal visits, we reached out to Jews around the State. Our directors and members also went to regional meetings and on overseas missions and brought ideas back to our Federation.
Local/statewide programming expanded to include joint programs with other Jewish organizations, three Holocaust education committees around the State, cultural programs (including intensive scheduling through the Arkansas Jewish Assembly), an annual Shabbaton, Israeli Scouts, political candidate meetings and Israeli days.
JFAR supported education through scholarships for attendance at Jewish camps and Jewish educations programs and financial support of Camps Jacobs and Gan, Ati’Day Yisroel preschool, and Hillel at U of A. We helped the needy, elderly, youth, professionals, newcomers, our neighbors and Jews around the world.
It was a galvanizing and exciting time! We re-engaged interest and commitment, straightened out relationships with our national organizations, and put JFAR on firm financial ground. We had our first woman board president and our first male executive director. We broadened board membership and increased volunteer participation.
Moving Forward into the 21st Century
We are truly becoming the Jewish Federation of ARKANSAS. Through statewide networking we are now an extended solid community working together as one. The Strategic Plan structured the services that we offer to genuinely meet the needs of our community.
Through the Shlichim program, we have hosted Tal Frankfurt (2004-6), Amir Golan (2006-7), Naama Strich (2007-8), Noa Zalutzki (2008-9) and Chen Reingold (2009-10), all of whom have connected both children and adults to Israel and the Federation.
The Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) and Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzmaut) programs have become an integral part of our community. The Jewish Food Festival, which began in 2005, continues to be the bridge bringing diverse people together from all over the region.
Jewish life on campuses throughout Arkansas is expanding with the enthusiastic support of the Federation. A Hillel chapter has been a presence on the campus of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for many years. Beginning in 2004, Hendrix College in Conway established a vibrant chapter on its campus. The University of Arkansas Little Rock (UALR) and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway are planning to open chapters in the near future as well. The Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture opened on the campus of Hendrix College in the academic year 2008-09 thanks to a grant made by the Crain-Maling Foundation based in Chicago. The Center continues to be a dynamic venue for Jewish cultural and educational programming. Federation continues to fuel the growth of Jewish identity and education.
The Jewish Federation of Arkansas stands strongly by the ancient Talmudic proverb, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” The Federation belongs to all of us. Together we can repair the world!
ADL Anti-Defamation League
AIPAC American-Israel Public Affairs Committee
BRINA birthright Israel (UJC)
CLAL National Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership
FSU Former Soviet Union
HIAS Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
JAFI Jewish Agency for Israel
JCCA Just Communities of Central Arkansas (formerly NCCJ)
JCCA Jewish Community Centers Association of North America
JCPA Jewish Council of Public Affairs
JCRS Jewish Children’s Regional Service
JDC (American Jewish) Joint Distribution Committee
ONAD Overseas Needs Assessment Department (UJC)
UJC United Jewish Communities
YAD Young Adult Division