October 13, 2008

Update from Steve Schwager, CEO and Executive Vice President

Africa and Asia hold some of the most historical, beautiful, and unique Jewish communities in the JDC world. The region also is home to countries that face our most diverse challenges for ensuring their secure futures, maintaining their social service agencies, and supporting their varied Jewish community lives through Jewish education, lay and professional training, and networking with other communities. My focus today is on the breadth and scope of our endeavors in this vast and varied JDC area.

JDC’s work in the Africa/Asia region is an excellent example of how we put our global operating principles into action. Despite the small numbers of Jews residing in these countries, JDC continues to reach them wherever they choose to live. And because we are both apolitical and pluralistic, we are able to help these Jews to thrive as peacefully as possible in the region’s moderate Muslim countries, while always respecting the Jewish community’s various religious beliefs and viewpoints. The role we play in these Jewish communities and the new directions now being explored for them will allow for their improved and more self-sufficient future.

Turkey has a vibrant and active Jewish community with a history of relative financial stability and a rich tradition of Jewish education and caring. JDC's involvement in the Turkish Jewish community dates back during World War I, when our services included financial assistance to the neediest Jews, soup kitchens in the Jewish quarters, and a special fund for emergency assistance. In the years that followed, when nearly 2,000 Jewish orphans were registered in the country, JDC supported every child in an orphan asylum in Istanbul, ensuring that those left behind by the ravages of war could live a decent life.

Today, JDC support complements the community’s remarkable, volunteer-run educational and welfare programs by providing technical assistance that 1) enhances the community’s lay leadership engagement and trains professionals and 2) helps develop programs for weaker members who may be adversely affected by changing socioeconomic developments. JDC has also advanced many creative non-sectarian initiatives targeting some of the most vulnerable groups in Turkey. These programs, rooted in our belief in tikkun olam (repairing the world), reflect positively on the Jewish community and strengthen its value and acceptance as a minority in this predominantly Muslim country.


In stark contrast to Turkey is India, where JDC has been assisting the Jewish population since discovering in 1961 that there were native Jewish groups, such as the Bene Israel, who were in dire need of help. Our current programs run the gamut from helping the elderly and the destitute in their daily survival to creating cultural and educational programs for youth and adults.

One flagship program is the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), based in Mumbai’s Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center. This uniquely Indian-Jewish youth group spans ages 15-27 and spearheads a range of activities for themselves and the community. One such event is KhaiFest—a communitywide Hanukkah gathering where Bollywood meets Jewish tradition and the Pioneers raise funds for community needs including, most recently, the Bayiti Jewish Home for the Aged.

However, since India’s Jewish community lacks the organizational and financial wherewithal to fully fund essential welfare and Jewish education programs on its own, JDC continues to provide most of these basic services for them. But India’s recent impressive economic growth holds promise of a change as those young professionals who are benefiting most from the country's boom take on greater responsibility for community affairs. If we are to help India move towards a more self-sufficient future, we must help them focus on various community building programs, which will include using our expertise in informal Jewish educational programs to encourage them to develop a more systematic approach to Jewish education. So our approach to work in India is two-sided: JDC must still provide essential direct services while we also believe that through appropriate professional and leadership development initiatives, India will be able to take the significant steps toward becoming a more independent Jewish community.

The very traditional Jewish community of Djerba in Tunisia probably dates as far back as the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. JDC began its work in Tunisia during World War II, primarily providing relief to the Jews of Tunis who were the only community in North Africa to suffer the ravages of war and the Nazi occupation.

Our work in Tunisia greatly escalated in 1949 after a pioneering research visit by Dr. Herman Stein. Working with our French partner organization, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), JDC set out to lower the high rate of infant mortality and malnutrition among Tunisia’s Jewish children. Overall, its primary goal was to improve the conditions under which Jews in the region were forced to live, which included the need for more schools, more medical dispensaries and clinics, more child care centers, and more vocational and occupational guidance.

Today, in this entire region, only Djerba is experiencing significant Jewish population growth. Their development, combined with JDC’s recent success in gathering extra-budgetary donations, has enabled this Jewish community to increasingly finance its ever-expanding school system, even as JDC reduces its commitments to Tunisia. The money no longer needed for education is redirected to the needs of the shrinking elderly population in Tunis and to underwrite underfinanced programs elsewhere in the region.

Tunisia is clearly an example of a country with a mixed model. The Jews in both Tunis and Djerba look to JDC for more technical assistance, i.e., bringing in an expert JDC consultant on early childhood education for their preschool programs. This particular aspect of our work has an ironic flavor: Elsewhere in the world, particularly Europe and the FSU, JDC’s responsibility is to bring Jewish tradition back to Jews who, living for generations under Communism, lost contact with their historical roots. By contrast, in the countries of Africa and Asia, it is often JDC that represents the forces of modernity entering the lives of traditional Jews. The series of computer labs for Jewish learning that JDC is introducing into the Jewish schools of Tunis and Djerba—including the yeshiva—are but one example.

In Tunis, there is a gradually declining dependence on JDC for welfare and medical assistance, while in Djerba the community takes care of all of its own welfare needs and covers most of the current operating expenses for their formal Jewish education programs. This growing financial self-sufficiency in both communities strongly influences both the vision and the role of the local lay and professional leadership and enlarges their realm of responsibility. We obviously encourage this process even further by promoting stronger ties through training and exchange programs between Tunisian lay leaders and professionals and their counterparts in other countries around the Mediterranean.

Morocco has a thriving Jewish school system alongside an increasingly dependent elderly population.

JDC first came to Morocco during World War II to assist European Jewish refugees. It was only then that JDC realized the desperate situation of the indigenous Moroccan Jewish population—a community that by some accounts traces its roots in the region back to the year 70 C.E. In cooperation with the local leadership, JDC initiated health, education, and clothing and food distribution programs in Casablanca, Agadir, Meknes, Rabat, Tangier, and 13 additional smaller provinces.

Today, Morocco has a vibrant Jewish community with 700 children in Jewish schools. JDC support supplements the resources of the local community, which itself manages all programs and funds 70% of welfare programs, and over 50% of medical and education programs. While JDC has had some success in finding significant local resources to help build the Fred & Velva Levine Community Residence for welfare cases, and local funds help support scholarships for needy Jewish students, the Moroccan Jewish community and JDC are still working hard to develop young leadership and increase fundraising from both within the region and abroad.

And finally, I must mention Egypt—perhaps the oldest Jewish community outside Israel in the world. In this declining Jewish community, JDC is playing its traditional role of helping to provide for the members’ welfare and Jewish needs for as long as necessary.

JDC President, Ellen Heller and I are proud that our work in Africa and Asia reinforces JDC’s commitment to serving wherever there are Jews in need. Our work ensures that Jewish communities around the world, no matter how small or remote, will know that they never stand alone.

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