The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been “called the best-kept secret in the Jewish world,” Dr. William Recant, a seasoned professional leader of the JDC, commented as the organization moved to increase public awareness of its work.
Recant is the assistant executive vice president for government affairs and a disaster relief expert for the JDC, also long been referred to as “The Joint.” He and other leaders of the organization—active in 70 countries including Israel—spoke on its work at a reception on Long Island’s East End last month.
As another speaker, Zoya Shvartzman, in charge of JDC’s “strategic partnerships” in Europe said, “all Jews are responsible for one another” and “Judaism is a lot more than religion. It’s a people, a tribe—and we take care of each other.”
Michele Rosen, a member of the JDC’s Board of Directors, spoke about how the group, “over 100 years old, was born out of the necessity of providing relief to the Jewish community after World War I…We are committed to world Jewry. We have a global perspective.” She hosted the reception with her husband, Stanley and daughter Leslie, at the family’s home in Amagansett.
It was explained at the event, attended by more than 100 people, how JDC was founded in 1914 initially to provide aid to Jews living under Turkish rule in what is now Israel. The war had left these Jews isolated and in acute financial duress. The leaders of the Yishuv appealed to Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the ambassador of the United States to Turkey, for help.
Morgenthau visited and subsequently sent a telegram to U.S. philanthropist Jacob Schiff stating: “PALESTINIAN JEWS FACING TERRIBLE CRISIS…BELIGERENT COUNTRIES STOPPING THEIR ASSISTANCE…SERIOUS DESTRUCTION THREATENS COLONIES…FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS NEEDED.”
That money was quickly raised and the JDC born.
The JDC has also been “called the 911 of the Jewish world,” said Recant, referring to the telephone number in the U.S. for emergencies.
He related the many JDC operations through the decades to rescue and assist Jews all over the world. This has ranged, on the heels of the mission to help the Jews of the Yishuv, assistance to Jews in Eastern Europe as they fell into poverty in the chaos of World War I, to the Holocaust years when JDC was the main financial benefactor for Jewish emigration from Europe, care, however possible, for Jews who remained in Europe. to post-World War II assistance to Jewish survivors and, with the establishment of the state of Israel, the emigration of European Holocaust survivors and also Jews then under threat in Arab countries to Israel. The JDC and Israel organized, for instance, Operation Magic Carpet in 1948 in which 50,000 Jews from Yemen were airlifted to Israel.
The mission of JDC, Recant relayed, is “relief, rescue, renewal—aiding Jews worldwide.”
“Where there’s a Jew, we’re there,” he said.
Today JDC works across the former Soviet Union, he noted, to care for more than 100,000 poor, elderly Jews, including many Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution, some of the neediest Jews in the world. Recant said this work remains critical to JDC’s mission and is one of the most outstanding priorities it has, partnering with the Jewish Federation system, the Claims Conference, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to aid these seniors, whose needs continue to grow.
Recant, who feels this work personally as the son of Holocaust survivors who were aided by JDC after the war, spoke also of a meeting he had with Fidel Castro in 1994 to “revive Jewish life” in Cuba where now “a vibrant Jewish community is back.”
He explained that the JDC had kept a low profile because its work in assisting the Jews of the then Soviet Union was extremely difficult—Soviet leaders banned the organization—and this low profile continued for many years.
Zoya Shvartzman told of how she first got involved with a JDC-supported activity in her native Moldova, the former Soviet republic. “I was born in the USSR—like the song,” she commented. “For me growing up being Jewish was a mystery. Once in a while you’d hear about Israel at home.” A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the Shoah made many Jews of Moldova regard being Jewish as “a liability.”
But she joined what later she learned to be a “a JDC-funded Jewish choir,” went to a JDC camp in Hungary that brings together young Jews, one of several JDC camps in Europe where now each year thousands of youngsters learn about Jewish culture and tradition. She embraced her Judaism, made aliyah and for the last 10 years has worked with Jews in Eastern Europe for the JDC. She is among scores of other young Jews in the region—from Warsaw to Odessa—who are products of the JDC’s street festivals and other Jewish cultural and educational activities that JDC has invested in to rebuild Jewish life in this part of Europe and beyond.
The JDC assists, in addition to Jews, other peoples in trouble. Michele Rosen spoke about how she recently returned from a JDC mission helping people still suffering from the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The JDC has been providing medicine, food, shelter supplies, as well as offering vocational and community building activities for people still “traumatized” by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Working with JDC, she said, “informs my Jewish values.”
The JDC has in recent years also applied its extensive experience and provided assistance to people impacted by among other crises, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Rwandan genocide, the earthquakes and other disasters in Haiti and Japan, the current refugee crisis and famine in East Africa—all in the spirit of tikkun olam.
A heartening reminder of the generational impact of the organization was two-and-a-half year-old Chloe Rose Molton of Southampton who attended with her parents, David and Maria Molton. Her grandfather, great-grandmother, great aunts and great uncles were aided by JDC during World II in escaping Europe.
“Imagine how inspiring it is for my family to be here and know that the group who saved my father and his mother, brother and sister from the Nazis on more than one occasion, whose name is printed on our historic papers from the war years and was always noted with deep respect and regard, is still working vigorously today to carry on its mission,” said David Molton. “This makes us all very proud.”