Eighty years of programs and activities cannot be fully detailed in a few pages, however, this abridged history of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (“FJMC” or “Federation”) demonstrates that the organization consists of dedicated and resourceful individuals who have worked very hard to serve their congregations and communities in a spirit of caring and brotherhood.
The history of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs can be measured by how well its leadership adhered to its mandate: To build a network of Men’s Clubs in order to strengthen the Jewish home, synagogues and the Conservative Movement. In the mid-1920’s, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohen, then the Director of the United Synagogue of America, conceived of bringing together leaders from existing Conservative Movement Men’s Clubs into a “National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs of the United Synagogue of America.” He envisioned that this group would foster an interchange of ideas that would help them focus on their common needs. NFJMC members served on United Synagogue committees and held positions of leadership. In addition, they developed several programs such as the Pocket Calendar/Diary and the Tract Series, which were entrusted to United Synagogue because it was in a better position to distribute and maintain them.
Initially, the NFJMC was housed in the Jewish Theological Seminary and was supported financially by United Synagogue through the Joint Campaign. Beginning in the 1940’s, that financial support was gradually reduced, and in 1967 the NFJMC relinquished any subvention and became an independent 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.
The early NFJMC leadership came from the New York and Philadelphia areas; it was not until 1952, when Albert Jacobson from Chicago was elected president, that the organization had its first leader from somewhere other than the East Coast. From that point on, the NFJMC became unique among Conservative Movement organizations in that it did not view New York as the center of the Jewish community in North America. As a result, the FJMC remains the only Conservative Movement organization to have elected Presidents from Canada and was the first Conservative Movement organization to have elected Presidents from the Midwest and the West Coast.
With the growing strength of Canadian Men’s Clubs, the adjective “National” was dropped from the organization’s name in 1983. Today, the international Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs is known simply by its acronym, FJMC.
In 1937, the FJMC developed a Men’s Club President’s manual to provide a philosophy and structure for member clubs. Early on, it suggested programs and procedures to forge links between Men’s Clubs and synagogues. Initially, the programs were holiday-centered and were designed to further the role of the Men’s Club in the community, as well as to heighten the social, religious, and cultural awareness of Jewish community life.
Revised in 1953 to reflect a national unity among FJMC members clubs, the manual was entitled, “A Handbook for Organized Men’s Clubs.” It stressed the role of organizational planning and programming in the formation and maintenance of strong Men’s Clubs.
A second revision in 1981 synthesized Men’s Club Presidents’ administrative needs with concrete programs. Its basic premise was that Men’s Clubs often represented a person’s first contact with the organized Jewish community, and that part of the FJMC’s role is to teach Men’s Club leaders how to involve their members more actively.
In addition to a thorough rewrite of model guides for budgeting, by-laws, and publicity, today’s manuals include sections that highlight outstanding social action and educational programs developed by affiliated Men’s Clubs, as well as sections on administration, membership, and FJMC programs and services.
The Torch, introduced in 1941, was the first journal of Jewish thought published by the Conservative Movement. For more than thirty years, The Torch provided a forum for the greatest minds of Conservative Judaism and served as a platform for issues on the Jewish agenda.
Martin Buber, Louis Finkelstein, Robert Gordis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among those who wrote for The Torch, which also provided a forum for many rabbinical students who rose to prominence in the Jewish community. In 1958, The Torch developed into Torchlight, a quarterly newspaper highlighting the expanding list of programs developed by FJMC. In 2000, Torchlight became a semi-annual magazine. However, in 2007, the FJMC recognized that Torchlight had run its course. That year, FJMC ceased publication of Torchlight and joined with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism (which ceased publication of their own magazines United Synagogue Review and Outlook, respectively) to publish a combined magazine of and for the entirety of the Conservative movement: CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.
In 2003, FJMC instituted the e-Torchlight, now known as HaShofar, to provide club leaders with timely information to aid them in their programmatic efforts.
In 1945, the Jewish Theological Seminary appointed Rabbi Joel S. Geffen as FJMC’s spiritual advisor. His initial responsibility was to travel throughout North America to expand the influence of the Seminary and to build future synagogue leadership through Men’s Clubs. Rabbi Geffen guided the organization for 40 years, during which he linked FJMC to the rabbis in the field and to Seminary leadership. In 1997, FJMC established the Rabbi Joel S. Geffen Leadership Development Institute dedicated to training lay leaders for the Conservative Movement.
During the 1940’s, FJMC introduced several programs to facilitate both its internal growth and public awareness of the role of a national Jewish men’s organization. The first was the creation of regional kallot. These began as a Layman’s Institute in 1944, which brought Men’s Club leaders to the Seminary for a Shabbat of prayer and study. Today, all 16 FJMC regions have replicated the Institute program; the New England Region’s Laymen’s Institute has maintained its vitality for over 65 years, and annual regional retreats serve as a tool to enrich the quality of our members’ Jewish lives and to build awareness of current FJMC endeavors.
The second innovation was the Toraharians, a business lunch-study program conceived by NFJMC President Arthur Bruckman. In addition, FJMC published a series of pamphlets dealing with the importance of ritual life. These publications included: “When Religion becomes Vital” by Mortimer Cohen; “The Sabbath” by Abraham Millgram; “Jewish Dietary Laws” by Samuel Dressner; “Jewish Ethical Living” and “The Ideals of the Prayer Book.”
FJMC’s growth was very strong in the years following World War II, paralleling the growth of the Conservative Movement. A regional structure was developed to provide more direct service to member clubs. The New York Metropolitan Region was established in 1944. The Middle Atlantic, New England, Pacific Southwest (later changed to Western), Seaboard, Tri-State, and Midwest Regions were established between 1949 and 1951. The Great Lakes Region was created in 1953, followed by the Connecticut Valley Region (1956), Northern New Jersey Region (1957), Florida (1964), Northeast (1966), and Southwest (1967). More recently, the FJMC added four new Regions – Anshei Darom (Men of the South; originally called the Southeast Region) in 1999; KIO (Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio) in 2001; Hudson Valley Region in 2004; and Michigan in 2007.
Conventions have played an important role since the first one in 1931. Initially held annually, the conventions became biennial in 1979. They have proven to be an important opportunity for Men’s Club officers, members and the international leadership to meet, share experiences, and learn from each other.
In 1983, FJMC expanded its convention programming to provide training for club and regional officers, with lay leaders as instructors. Two years later, FJMC established the Ma’asim Tovim Award to be presented at each convention to men who have made outstanding contributions to their regions and communities. Torch Awards are presented to clubs to recognize outstanding programming. New FJMC programs and initiatives are unveiled and showcased at biennial conventions, such as the first Art of Jewish Living program in 1985, Hearing Men’s Voices in 1999, and Keruv in 2003.
The first Conservative Movement convention to be held on the west coast was the FJMC convention in Los Angeles in 1974. In 1977, the FJMC convention was held in Montreal where, for the first time, a major arm of the Conservative Movement elevated a Canadian to its presidency. In 2009, the FJMC Convention was held during Independence weekend in Philadelphia, PA, the city which gave birth to the United States. In 2011, the FJMC Convention will ‘go west‘ and be held in Orange County, Southern California.
The first organized trip to Israel by a Conservative Jewish organization was sponsored by FJMC in 1961. FJMC’s Rosh Hashanah Greeting Card Program, introduced in 1970, was the first of its kind among Jewish organizations and since has been adopted by B’nai B’rith, Jewish War Veterans, and others.
The program has since been adopted by the Century Club (later FJMC 100, and merged since 2004 into the Foundation for Jewish Life, created as a stronger vehicle to provide effective funding to serve our constituency), established in 1978 to provide seed money for new projects through individual $100 annual contributions. The Century Club provided seed money for the development of the Hebrew Literacy campaign, the Art of Jewish Living series, the Shabbat Morning Torah service videotape, and the “Prayers and Invocations” booklet.
In 1977, Rabbi David Blumenfeld became the first full-time FJMC Executive Director. Rabbi Blumenfeld served until 1981, and was succeeded by Rabbi Charles E. Simon the following year. FJMC now has two additional full-time staff members and is assisted by rabbinic interns from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1975, FJMC introduced the first of several educational programs that have moved the organization to the forefront of the Conservative Movement. Rabbi Noah Golinkin created for FJMC a lay person-to-lay person method of teaching synagogue Hebrew. The unique approach was designed to provide members of congregations with lay role models and a sense of comfort within the synagogue. The Hebrew Literacy Program consists of two volumes: “Shalom Aleichem” (1975) was based on the Friday evening service, and “Ayn Kelohenu” (1981) focused on the Shabbat morning service. Since the inception of this program, more than 180,000 people have developed the ability to follow and participate in synagogue services.
In 1981, the Middle Atlantic Region built an indoor recreation center for Camp Ramah in the Poconos with funds raised through an annual concert series. This effort marked the first time an FJMC region took an active role in supporting other Conservative Movement programs, greatly enhancing the image of the Men’s Club movement in the region.
Similarly, in 1983, the Western Region adopted the Tikvah program, which provided a Jewish camping experience for children with special needs at Camp Ramah in California. In 1989, the Great Lakes Region committed itself to building a guest facility for Camp Ramah in Canada, and dedicated it in 1995. That same year, the New England Region adopted Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah program while the Southeast and Florida Regions began the drive to create Ramah Darom, which had its inaugural summer in northwestern Georgia in 1997. In 1999, New York Metro Region laid the groundwork for an innovative program for challenged children at Ramah Berkshires.
FJMC enlisted Ron Wolfson in 1985 to develop materials to create a total living and learning environment around key Jewish holidays. Tens of thousands of our synagogue members and Russian immigrants have developed a sense of competence with ritual matters and a sense of ease in the synagogue through the Art of Jewish Living series. The first book, on the Shabbat Seder, was followed in 1987 by the Passover Seder book (subsequently translated into Russian). Next followed the Hanukkah volume and then a final publication entitled “A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort.”
Originally developed by the Beth Tzedec Men’s Club of Toronto in 1983 to provide Jew and non-Jew alike with a meaningful ritual which would enable them to observe Yom HaShoah in their homes, the Yom HaShoah Yellow Candle Program was adapted and expanded, subsequently becoming one of the most successful and far-reaching of FJMC activities. By 1991, its third year as an FJMC international program, more than 100,000 families lit Yellow Candles in their homes to commemorate the Holocaust and keep alive the memories of the six million who perished. The program has been expanded beyond FJMC-member households to Women’s League chapters; Hillel/B’nai Brith campus organizations; Reform, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox congregations; Jewish Community Centers, Holocaust Memorial Centers; church groups, and others. In 1998, FJMC created the “From Darkness into Light” scholarship program whereby United Synagogue Youth members at congregations participating in candle distribution can receive scholarships for USY Eastern European Pilgrimage programs. As the need for Holocaust remembrance continues to grow, the FJMC continues to expand its programmatic efforts. Current efforts include the opportunity to our synagogues to provide Yom HaShoah Yellow candles to Masorti Congregation throughout the world.
The Shabbat Morning Torah Service video was produced and distributed in 1989 as the first FJMC educational videotape designed to teach a synagogue skill and reduce anxiety in synagogue members who do not feel competent in ritual matters.
Since the late 1980s, the FJMC has played an increasingly important role building the global Conservative Movement. FJMC leaders serve on the boards of the Jewish Theological Seminary; the Leadership Council of Conservative Leaders; the World Zionist Congress; Mercaz; the World Council of Synagogues, and as member of other Conservative Movement round tables.
After the successes of the Hebrew Literacy program, the Art of Jewish Living series, and the Yom HaShoah Yellow Candle program, FJMC produced a series of innovative hands-on manuals devoted to meeting the needs of men and to create new and attractive ways of involving them in Jewish ritual life. At the 1995 convention, two new programs were introduced – one on the ceremony for affixing a mezuzah to a door post and the other on encouraging the wearing of non-leather sneakers to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Also in 1995, FJMC began working with Rabbi Tovia Singer, National Director of Outreach Judaism, to counter efforts of cults who specifically target Jews for conversion. For the next several years, FJMC featured programs on Hebrew-Christian missionaries at its conventions and organized speaking engagements before congregations and youth groups across North America.
In 1997, the FJMC introduced its Hearing Men’s Voices initiative, which includes six program guides devoted to men’s concerns in a changing Jewish and secular world: Our Fathers/Ourselves(1997), which explores men’s roles in the Jewish family; Body and Spirit: Men Staying Healthy and Fit (1999), exploring men’s health issues; Listening to God’s Voice, focusing on men’s spiritual lives; Our Fathers Ourselves, concerning men’s relationships with, and legacies from, their fathers; Building the Faith/Let’s Talk About It, to assist men deal with the issue of dual faith intermarriage; and For Whom Do I Work, regarding men’s self-identification with their work and jobs.
FJMC’s premier educational and motivational film about the traditions behind the use of tefillin coupled with instruction on how to wear them, The Ties That Bind, was released in 1999. Sunday, January 28, 2001, marked the first World Wide Wrap in which Conservative Jews from around the world celebrated the mitzvah of tefillin at their morning minyanim. Today, there are both traditional versions of this video (in which only men speak about their relationship with the mitzvah), as well as egalitarian versions (in which both men and women speak about the meaning of ‘laying’ tefillin and its meaning and importance to them.). The WWW, now an annual highlight for most Men’s Clubs, allows them to twin with Masorti synagogues from around the world.
The World Wide Wrap has become one of the FJMC’s signature programs, as clubs around the world get together to celebrate the mitzvah of tefillin. And, we’ve brought participating it into the 21st century, as both registration and reporting of club’s ‘wrap’ can be done on-line. Held on the Sunday of the SuperBowl, in 2011, over 5000 men ‘wrapped’ tefillin. And, to help introduce the mitzvah to younger Jews, a companion program, ‘Build-a-Pair’ allows fathers and their fifth through seventh grade children to create model ‘tefillin’ and decorate them as they learn about the mitzvah.
FJMC’s desire to make men more ritually sensitive, to foster Jewish learning, and enhance awareness of the importance of local Men’s Clubs resulted in the creation of the FJMC’s Sefer Haftorah scroll in 2003. The scroll, consisting of all the haftorot and written on parchment with vowels and cantillation, is circulated among Men’s Clubs and at FJMC events. In addition, synagogues can purchase their own Sefer Haftarot scrolls.
In 2003, FJMC undertook to study the impact intermarriage and changing families have on the Conservative Jewish population in North America. Since that time, two volumes and a host of seminars have been developed as FJMC continues to innovate and lead the Conservative Movement. In actuality, FJMC’s Keruv initiative began in 1999 with the goal of placing intermarriage on the agenda of the Conservative Movement. To date, more than 150 rabbis and 90 lay leaders have taken part in FJMC Keruv training programs. Currently, 54 congregations in North America have Keruv programs supervised by FJMC trained lay leaders and professionals.
FJMC accepted the mandate of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism in 2008 to create new vehicles to “green our Movement.” This effort, named Shomrei Ha’Aretz – “Guardians of the Earth” — has resulted in the creation of soy based Shabbat candles, a solar eternal light(Ner Tamid) kit, partnering in North America and Israel with carbon offset efforts, and joint purchasing of bio-degradable products for institutional use.
FJMC, a volunteer-led organization with minimal staff and maximum effectiveness, continues in the 21st Century to be an innovative, thinking and planning organization which understands the importance of the Conservative/Masorti movement and the strength of commitment of members of Conservative synagogues.
FJMC successfully involves Jewish men in Jewish life and is a significant component of the future of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.