Written by: Allan Nadler
In late antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, Diaspora Jewish communities in Islamic and Christian countries enjoyed a great measure of self-governance, with autonomous institutions, including rabbinical religious courts that adjudicated both religious matters and civil disputes, and independent banking and taxation systems. In the period following the emancipation of European Jewry beginning at the end of the 18th century, Jewish communal organizations increasingly became parochial, volunteer, non-profit institutions.
The traditional Jewish community is referred to as the kahal or kehilla (the synagogue is to this day known is Hebrew as a kehilla kedosha or sacred society) and encompasses a wide array of charitable, religious, and social-welfare societies, known as chevrot (plural of chevra, which literally means brotherhood). The most important of these are the chevra kadisha, which is responsible for all the rites concerning the burial of the dead. Examples of other chevrot are chevra gemilat-hesed, which provides interest-free loans; chevra hakhnasat orchim, which provides home hospitality and food for wayfarers and the poor (especially on Shabbat and Jewish holidays); chevra tehilim, for regular recitation of Psalms and prayers for healing; and chevra Shas, which organizes regular classes in Talmud study.
In the modern period the work of many of these small individual chevrot was absorbed by umbrella communal organizations. In North America, the largest of these institutions is the United Jewish Communities (formerly known as the American Jewish Federation), most commonly known either as "the UJC" or "the Federation." The UJC is the principle philanthropic fund-raising institution for North American Jewry and it maintains multi-use Jewish community centers (JCCs). Almost every significant Jewish community in the United States and Canada, as well as many in Europe and South America, have JCC complexes, or campuses, that typically encompass a library, athletic facilities, kosher restaurant or cafeteria, and meeting rooms, and that sponsor programs for groups with special needs. Most Jewish Federations also maintain, or heavily support, assisted-living housing for the Jewish elderly that feature kosher food, on-site religious services, and Jewish cultural programming. One of the major focuses of the UJC has historically been raising funds for both local Jewish needs and a host of institutions in the State of Israel.
In the broader Jewish political realm, two major American Jewish organizations were founded in the early 20th century with the primary mission of protecting the Jewish community, across the denominational spectrum, from antisemitic oppression both in American and worldwide. The American Jewish Committee was founded in 1906 in response to the reports about widespread pogroms against the Jews of Russia. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in 1913 in response to the lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was falsely accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a young Christian worker in his factory.