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Combined Jewish Philanthropies aims for record goal

Jerry Rubin, Jewish Vocational Services CEO, met with others before a Combined Jewish Philanthropies annual meeting.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Jerry Rubin, Jewish Vocational Services CEO, met with others before a Combined Jewish Philanthropies annual meeting.

The pivotal organization for Boston’s Jewish community has set itself an ambitious new test: raising a record $48 million during its new annual campaign, launched Wednesday night.

That figure would be all the more daunting if Combined Jewish Philanthropies were not coming off the most successful run of fund-raising in its 117-year history, while its endowment accounts weathered the recession and the Madoff scandal with minimal losses, a godsend to the dozens of smaller nonprofits who rely on the organization for funding and money management.

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“Over the past decade, we started working in a much more strategic way,” said CJP senior vice president of development Zamira Korff. “We were never a passive organization, but our needs grew, and we realized we couldn’t always be all things to all people. We had to say, ‘where can we leverage our resources best so we’re not just responding to a need, but creating a self-sustaining model?’ ”

Community leaders call CJP the civic center of Jewish life in Boston, an agenda-setting hub that gets the faithful, synagogues, and nonprofits moving in unison toward shared goals, such as providing basic services to people in need, grooming young generations for an active role in Jewish causes, and supporting Israel.

“The most important role they play is helping congregations and institutions strive to achieve goals that they otherwise might talk about but never move on,” said Rabbi Todd Markley, whose Needham temple works with the group. “They put the resources in place to get people moving.”

‘We started working in a much more strategic way.’

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At Temple Beth Shalom, Markley and his staff are using CJP’s connections to specialists at Brandeis University to make itstraditional education programs more appealing to youth.

“It’s been a tremendous partnership,” Markley said. “Most other Jewish federations in North America have a relationship with synagogues that is somewhere between adversarial and lukewarm at best,” he said, because of competition for limited resources. “CJP deserves an incredible amount of credit for partnering with synagogues and seeing them as huge opportunity to create a bright Jewish future . . . It seems like a no-brainer that should be going on in every city, but it’s not.”

CJP helps support a broad range of initiatives, from educational, cultural, and school organizations for students, to housing for the elderly and disabled, to employment and family services.

The increasing fund-raising goals highlight how CJP has become a sophisticated financial operation, one that provides professional money-management to many affiliated nonprofits that are too small to afford such help on their own. This prowess means those organizations can increase services as their endowments grow and are better protected during volatile markets.

CJP now manages $816 million, with much of the funds divided among several different accounts: One is a “donor-advised fund” that lets donors steer their contributions to particular projects and is now about $350 million; another major account is the Jewish Community Endowment Pool, which combines the endowments and reserves of more than 60 local nonprofits.

The Community Endowment Pool balance is now about $327 million. During the downturn it lost a modest 5.2 percent and has since recovered. Perhaps more important, the CJP funds were not invested with money manager Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme wiped out the wealth of many Jewish donors and wrecked havoc with the finances of many organizations in the Jewish community. CJP was an important bulwark during this turbulent period, as many nonprofits that used its community pool to fund services did not face the kind of cutbacks that others did.

“It’s essentially what saved this community in 2008,” said Korff. “Many people were invested in funds that imploded and left individuals and organizations destitute. We’re very proud of the fact that we enabled the community to be resilient and survive that.”

CJP said its investment approach is intentionally conservative and diversified.

“When the market is really flying, we’re going to be in the middle of the pack,” said David Strong, the group’s chief financial officer. “But when the market is down, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

That approach seems particularly necessary given the nonprofits on whose behalf CJP is investing: small organizations whose services are often in greater need in tough times.

“We would have been in big trouble without them,” said Jerry Rubin, president of Jewish Vocational Services, a job-training nonprofit that has its capital reserve funds in the ommunity Pool. “We benefit from some of the savviest financial minds in the city, which we never would be able to do on our own . . . During the height of the recession, it was huge.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.

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