January 20, 2009

Briefing from Steve Schwager, Executive Vice President and CEO

January 20, 2009

Today is an unprecedented moment in America’s history as Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th—and the first African-American—President of the United States. Our world faces new and weighty challenges, and Irv’s and my hopes and prayers are with Mr. Obama and all those who work with him.

Commentators have noted that during his entire candidacy, Barack Obama spoke of his vision and program in terms of “we” rather than “I”. “Our time has come,” he reminded us. Three words, “Yes we can,” became a universal call to action and for hope. Despite the backdrop of crises and concerns, his words prompted a sense of participation and partnership—and a belief that in working on the challenges together, we could prevail.

Sounds to me like the essential spirit of JDC.

The Joint Distribution Committee for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers was born of emergencies within the Jewish people during World War I, and was slated to disband after the emergency subsided. Yet the First World War—an event so horrific that it was called “the war to end all wars”—left a world so crippled that the ensuing two years were judged as more chaotic and horrifying for the civilian population than the war years themselves.

The near complete disintegration of political, economic, and social institutions in Central and Eastern Europe motivated the US Congress to establish the American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by Herbert Hoover—and to appropriate $100 million (i.e., $2 billion in today’s terms) to resurrect that continent. The primary goal of the ARA was to provide food relief, while also helping with medical aid, relocation services, and much more.

The sitting President, Woodrow Wilson, was deeply concerned for suppressed nationalities, and had an idealism toward the future of the Holy Land born of his rich Christian background. In the armistice treaties, it was Wilson who helped to write guarantees for the minority enclaves (including Jews) in the newly created states of Eastern Europe—guarantees that were immediately swept away, however, by revolutions, pogroms, famine, and epidemics.

The Jews bore the heaviest brunt of the turmoil that enveloped these countries and regions, and so it became clear that JDC could not disband. Its leaders in fact extended JDC’s mandate and took upon themselves unprecedented commitments and responsibilities. Throughout the United States, they prescribed that JDC’s constituent committees campaign “conjointly.”

The highest expectations were held out for New York. The April 1920 Campaign News, published on behalf of “the Greater New York Non-Sectarian Appeal for Jewish War Sufferers,” did not mince words: “Each of us is asked, ‘SHALL DEATH BE THE HIGHEST BIDDER, or SHALL I GIVE TO SAVE A LIFE?’”

Despite these efforts, the results were no match for the extreme level of need. On May 27, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson put his prestige behind JDC’s efforts, and cabled the following to JDC Chairman Felix M. Warburg:

The Greater New York Fund, which is to be administered by the Joint Distribution Committee for the benefit of the people of the war-ridden countries in Europe and Asia who are suffering from famine, pestilence and economic ruin, merits the support of all true Americans. Our fundamental principles of humanity compel us to take heed of this great post-war debacle. We must try to visualize the true significance of some of the reports which come from these unfortunate lands.

It is extremely difficult for us to comprehend the significance of the fact that three million children are under-nourished; that six million men and women are utterly dependent upon outside aid for the preservation of life; that hundreds of thousands of our fellow beings are stricken with typhus fever; that there are vast well-populated areas of Europe as large as the entire state of New York, for example, where there are neither doctors nor nurses, medicines, or the most primitive sanitary supplies.

Even if we leave aside all questions of human compassion and mercy, we are forced to remember that unless we now do our utmost to ameliorate these deplorable conditions, we inevitably shall suffer the direct consequences right here in our own homes….

In thanking President Wilson, JDC expressed assurance that the President’s “powerful voice” would help arouse all people to understand their responsibility, “in view of the unspeakable situation in which so many hundreds of thousands of our brethren are struggling to keep alive.”
In 2009, JDC also has a “powerful voice”—a strong determination and belief that it must always rouse the Jews of North America to understand our responsibility to the well-being of our fellow Jews, which is embodied in JDC’s mission of Rescue, Relief, and Jewish Renewal for the global Jewish community.

Nearly one hundred years following his remarks, Woodrow Wilson would probably be surprised, first, to discover that JDC has not “gone out of business”; and second, to see that his dreams of a Jerusalem and Holy Land returned to the Jewish people became a reality.

Irv and I wish the new Administration much success. We hope that the triumphs of this Administration will help ensure that our brethren around the world no longer suffer from continuing wars in the Middle East; and effect improvement in the world economy so that there may be significantly fewer Jews and others in need in this country and around the globe in the 71 countries where we work.

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