Often, people unfamiliar with JDC make comments about our nickname like: "Oh, you’re the Joint! Well, do you smoke a lot of good things at work?" While I take such remarks in stride and in good humor, it occurred to me that an explanation of JDC’s origins and name could be interesting to all of you.
In 1914, the year JDC was founded, American Jewish society was organized along three separate, but very distinct lines:
- "Establishment" Jews of German extraction
- Orthodox Jews, many of whom were of recent Eastern European origin
- Jewish members of the socialist labor movement
However, with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, and the magnitude of need surpassing anything previously known, the need for additional organizational machinery was clear. All sectors of American Jewry began vigorously—and separately—to raise funds to help their brethren in Europe and Palestine.
On August 31, 1914, at the end of the first month of hostilities, Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff, leading members of the American Jewish Committee, received a cable from US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau in Constantinople appealing that $50,000—equal to $1 million in today's terms—be sent urgently to save the 60,000 Jews of Palestine from starvation. The call to act was answered promptly by the Jewish community in the US.
One month later, two major streams of the American Jewish community formed their own relief committees: The Union of Orthodox Congregations formed the Central Relief Committee for the Relief of Jews; and The American Jewish Committee invited all leading national Jewish organizations and Jewish communities to a conference, and established the American Jewish Relief Committee to address the needs of all war-stricken Jews.
The American Jewish Committee promptly transferred to this new Relief Committee $100,000 in emergency funds—equivalent to $2 million today.
From the outset, the American Jewish Relief Committee publicly declared: "The fund collected is to be administered through such agencies as shall, in the judgment of the committee, best accomplish an effective and equitable distribution among those individuals and institutions whom it is sought to help, without waste or unjust discrimination…".
Five days later, the two relief committees joined forces and established the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers.
Within a few months, the agency representing Jewish labor circles—the People’s Relief Committee—became the third constituent agency of the Joint Distribution Committee.
JDC saw itself at that time as a temporary agency; yet, as it confronted immense political and logistical obstacles and military restrictions, it succeeded beyond all expectation to channel funds, food, clothing, and medical supplies into the countries at war.
At the end of World War I, Eastern European Jewry was in ruins, while in Palestine the struggles of the Yishuv continued. Emergency relief was needed on a massive scale. The Joint Distribution Committee had worked so efficiently that its operations were extended into a post-war emergency phase.
Post-War pogroms, epidemics, and regional wars resulted in the killing or maiming of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and so JDC’s work in relief and then in reconstruction, in both Eastern Europe and Palestine, was extended throughout the 1920s.
World War I actually marked the "graduation" of the American Jewish community into maturity. A book on JDC’s work in Palestine, published in 1917, begins: "At the very outbreak of the war in 1914, American Jewry immediately recognized that conditions in Palestine would demand the forwarding of large sums of money from America to take the place of those which previously had been sent by the Jews in various belligerent countries." American Jews realized that those Jews who previously took care of their unfortunate brothers around the world were at war and had their own problems; it was time for the American Jewish community to step up to the plate.
And step up to the plate we did. In its more than 94 years of existence, JDC has distributed over $3 billion in aid to Jews and Jewish communities in need. I am proud of our organization’s heritage and what we have "jointly" accomplished. And as long as there are Jews in need around the globe, we will continue the devoted work as the "911" of the Jewish world that our founding fathers and their organizations began so many years ago.