This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

That Old Blue Box*

No symbol of commitment to the Zionist cause is more recognizable than that simple blue JNF blue box that has graced many a mantelpiece or kitchen counter over the last century.

Initially, several alternative methods were considered for collecting the donations that would be used to purchase lands on behalf of the Jewish people.

An article that appeared in 1900 in the Zionist newspaper Die Welt favoured the distribution of stamp sets that could be assembled into special albums. At the same time, a "Golden Book" was established to be inscribed with the names of all patrons who had contributed at least ten pounds to the cause.

While both these modern-looking ideas were implemented immediately, and with some measure of success, it would take a few years before the Zionist movement hit upon their most popular fund-raiser, the placing of tin collection boxes in private homes.

This last-mentioned idea was the invention of a Galician Zionist named Haim Kleinman, who tested the method in his own locality before it earned recognition from the official bodies.

Kleinman commenced by placing a single box in his office. When he reported the success of his efforts in a letter to Die Welt in 1902, the method was spontaneously emulated by many individuals, still without official sanction from the Zionist leadership.

It was not until 1905 that the official reports included any acknowledgment of the blue boxes. Within a few decades it had become clear that the revenues collected through the blue boxes were greater by far than those brought in from any other source.

At the time of its reluctant adoption by the Zionist movement, the domestic charity-box was by no means unknown to the world of Jewish philanthropy. Pushkahs had been in use for close to a century as a means of collecting funds for various religious causes, especially for the support of the poor in the Holy Land.

Precisely these associations with the religious--and anti-Zionist--institutions of the "Old Yishuv" that made many Zionists reluctant to adopt this method for their own fund-raising.

The institution of the home-based charity box appears to be rooted in the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe to the Holy Land that took place at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of nineteenth centuries. This phenomenon embraced both Hasidic and anti-Hasidic (Mitnagdic) circles, the latter represented by leading disciples of the Ga'on of Vilna. Through their modest contributions to the pushkahs, Eastern European Jews strengthened their identification with their brethren in Palestine. For their own part, the new immigrants did not integrate well with the veteran Jewish populace, and required a constant flow of donations in order to maintain themselves and their separate institutions.

Working for one's livelihood was still not an option that was taken seriously in such intensely spiritual circles.

In contrast to the earlier situation, when the Jews of Eretz Israel were perceived as a tiny body of far-off zealots, the current crop of immigrants included many respected scholars, who maintained strong links with local rabbis, communities and relatives. Thus it was both necessary and possible to create a solid infrastructure for the continual collection of donations from their home communities.

Although they attracted only tiny contributions and were virtually impossible to regulate in an organized manner, the home-based coin-boxes had the advantage of involving all segments of society, including women and others who would not have had frequent access to charity-boxes that were housed in the synagogues or other public institutions.

By 1829, a Galician Maskil penned a letter to the Austro-Hungarian government in which he condemned the prevalence of charity-boxes as an unpatriotic subterfuge for illicitly channeling funds outside of the homeland.

At the same time, the same Lithuanian scholarly circles that had played a prominent role in immigration to Palestine were also pioneering the establishment of their new model of international yeshivahs. It did not take long for them to latch onto the same successful fund-raising scheme, and it became a common sight for Jewish homes to house, side by side, two different pushkahs: one for upkeep of the Jews of Jerusalem, and one for the Volozhin Yeshivah.

When the Jewish National Fund reluctantly decided to emulate this traditional form of alms-giving, one can easily imagine their leaders' discomfort at imitating a programme that had been developed by circles whose ideology and objectives were so diametrically opposite to their own. Zionism was, after all, striving for the creation of a new secular Jewish culture in which proud workers would cultivate their own land. For the Zionists, the traditional pushkah denoted a society of superstitious parasites, locked into the middle ages, passively waiting for the redemption while living off the generosity of others.

Ironically, the JNF box would inherit many of the religious associations of its predecessors. Like the boxes that were intended for the collection of pennies for the poor of Jerusalem, the blue boxes would routinely be positioned next to the Shabbat candlesticks, so that the act of dropping in a coin became for many a ritual associated with the sabbath preparations.

These kinds of paradoxical encounters between the old and the new, the traditional and the revolutionary, the extremes of militant religion and secularism, are of course an inescapable part of the Zionist experience that never fails to contribute to the fascination and exasperation of Israeli culture.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressApril 18 2002, pp. 8-9.
  • Bibliography:
    • Hirschmann, Ira. The Awakening: The Story of the Jewish National Fund. New York: Shengold, 1981.
    • Lehn, Walter, and Uri Davis. The Jewish National Fund. London: Kegan Paul, 1988.
    • Shilony, Zvi. Ideology and Settlement: The Jewish National Fund, 1897-1914. Translated by Fern Seckbach, Israel Studies in Historical Geography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998.
    • Shva, Shlomo. One Day and 90 Years: The Story of the Jewish National Fund. Jerusalem: Dept. of Publications and Audio-Visual Aids Information Division, Jewish National Fund, 1991.
    • Stampfer, Shaul. "The 'Collection Box': The Social Role of Eretz Israel Charity Funds." Cathedra 21 (1981): 89-102.