The most successful fundraiser

Posted on 07 November 2019 by LeslieM

Do you know what was the most successful fundraising event in the history of the American Jewish community, and arguably the greatest fundraising campaign ever in Jewish History? I discovered the answer recently when I saw a strange picture taken in Chicago, in 1921. What’s going on in this photo? A bunch of Jews sitting around candlelit tables, doing what?

Well, Gil Weissblei, a Jewish archivist, came across this photo in the collections of the U.S. National Library, but could not figure out what it was. The only information was the name of the photographer and the city, “Kaufman & Fabry Co., Chicago,” visible in the photograph’s lower right corner and, underneath it, a six digit number separated by a hyphen: 21-6591, which means 1921 (the other four digits are the running number of the negatives for that year).

The puzzle was solved after Gil came across a book The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb. He read a story there and immediately knew this was the picture of that story. Jacob Loeb, one of the Chicago community’s Jewish leaders, was perturbed by the horrific state of Jews in Eastern Europe following World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Persecution, pogroms and wars were the fate of our brothers and sisters there. Jacob dreamt of holding an extraordinary fundraiser that would collect millions of dollars, in 1921, for the Jews in Eastern Europe.

How do you do it? How do you inspire the crowd to give?

He understood what was needed were not words or slogans, but a physical experience.

So Loeb organized a gala dinner to which the crème de la crème of Illinois Jewish society, including Chicago’s greatest industrialists and businessmen, were invited. On the evening of Dec. 7, 1921, 800 men dressed in their Sunday best gathered at the luxurious Drake Hotel in Chicago for what they were certain would be an exclusive event at the center of which would be a lavish banquet.

The guests were in for a surprise.

As the last of them entered the hotel ballroom, the doors were locked. Loeb stepped up to the podium and began speaking: “For so many to dine in this place would mean an expenditure of $3500 (Today, it would be $50,000), which would be unwarrantable extravagance and, in the face of starving Europe, a wasteful crime. Thirty-five hundred dollars will help to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. What right have we to spend on ourselves funds which we want to collect for them? So that this money might be saved for them, you are brought here to this foodless banquet.”

The astonished guests suddenly noticed that the tables, with the exception of the long slender candles, were indeed bare. Not a single fruit, vegetable, dip or piece of bread was available. The poor Jews were left starving at a dinner without even a glass of water.

Their bewilderment was captured by the flash of Kaufman and Fabry’s camera, and recorded in the photograph commemorating this unique event, which you see here.

The result? Checkbooks were opened for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers Fund like never before. The money was flowing. That night, the wealthy businessman Julius Rosenwald exceeded all others with a donation of $1 million (Today, it would be probably $15 million).

This was an unprecedented sum, even for a philanthropist like Rosenwald, who later went on to establish the renowned Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. (Word of the huge donation reached President Woodrow Wilson, who sent a telegram to Rosenwald thanking him.)

The fact remains: The success of the fundraiser was never duplicated. Why? Because the dinner was not about words, slogans, speeches and videos. It was about experience. They all came in hungry, and they remained hungry for the night! Their stomachs spoke more than mouths can. It allowed them to experience, if only a sliver, of the suffering of their brethren who were starving back in Europe. It made the experience real, tangible, concrete. They did not speak of starvation; they experienced it with their body.

Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches, located in the Venetian Isle Shopping Center at 2025 E. Sample Rd. in Lighthouse Point. For all upcoming events, please visit

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