November 11, 2009

From the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly 2009

The latest briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

I am writing to you from Washington, D.C., the site of the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America (formerly UJC). My passion for telling the JDC story never diminishes, and I had an opportunity to do just that at Sunday’s opening plenary. The GA has some 3,000 registrants, among them about 15 JDC Board members, including our President, Irv Smokler. Given the challenging times and our shared commitment, I thought it important to share excerpts from the message I brought to the GA with all of you.

The JDC story—95 years in the making—began with a group of North American Jews responding to the dire circumstance of starving Jews in Europe and Palestine during World War I. Later chapters encompass the rescue of Jews from the Nazi horror, the operation of a massive humanitarian assistance program in the Displaced Persons Camps, and the reconstruction of Jewish life in the wake of the Holocaust. The story continued with the birth of Israel and the safe transport of tens of thousands of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East to their young homeland. And a new chapter was written with the renewal of Jewish culture and identity among those Jews who have only recently emerged from the darkness of communist rule.

And the JDC story continues to unfold across the 11 time zones of the former Soviet Union ... in Israel … in the Baltic States and Poland… in Turkey and India … in Cuba and Argentina ….in Ethiopia and Morocco … in any part of the world where Jews seek relief from hunger, poverty, isolation, or even persecution.

JDC’s story is an integral part of our story. And here I’m not talking about “us” as advocates and professionals in humanitarian work; I’m talking about each of us personally, as Jews. From the first moment when JDC and our partners answered history’s call in 1914, we have brought hope, opportunity, and the chance for a better life to literally millions of Jews living in more than 85 countries. We know these Jews. They are our siblings … our parents … our grandparents. Theirs are stories that might have ended—as they did for far too many others—in Ottoman Palestine … or in Dachau … or in a frozen Russian winter.

But these stories—our stories—continue because we believe that kol Yisrael arevim ze lazeh, Jews are responsible for one another. It’s a principle that lives in the hearts of everyone in this room. It’s there whenever JDC provides heating fuel and warm blankets to an elderly Holocaust survivor in the former Soviet Union … when an impoverished Jewish child in the Baltic States gets adequate nutrition and medical attention … whenever JDC helps a marginalized Israeli youth or new immigrant overcome barriers to employment to become a productive member of Israeli society … and whenever we conduct leadership training and community development programs that will move an isolated Jewish community in the former Yugoslavia or South America from dependency to self-sustainability.

These efforts represent millions of stories that continue to unfold because you make it possible, both with your work in your local communities and in your collective contribution to improving Jewish lives overseas. JDC could not do what we do without you.

But I’ve also come here to challenge you to dig down deeper within yourselves and reach out farther than you have reached—to be louder and more prolific as the voice of our fellow Jews in need. Because rarely, if ever, in our history have the life stories of so many Jews been more fraught with uncertainty. Stories like that of Lydia Vinokurova, an 87-year-old Hesed client in the former Soviet Union. Despite having led a challenging life, Lydia has accomplished more than many. She went to college and worked for decades as a dentist, beginning in 1941.

But Lydia has little to show for having endured a lifetime of hardship and loss. Her husband died at a young age, leaving Lydia to raise a son and a daughter on her own from the time they were 8 and 5. Her two children and her only grandson have all since passed away. She has outlived her entire family—and would literally be alone in the world without Hesed.

In 2000, when Hesed began helping Lydia because her pension barely covered the cost of food, utilities, and medications for her cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis, she was receiving food, regular supplies of medications, and regular homecare visits. Today, since funding shortages have reduced services and tightened criteria for JDC’s welfare clients in the FSU, Lydia no longer qualifies for food support. Hesed supplements her medications two times per year, and her home care hours have been reduced: twice a week for three hours, a home care worker comes to clean the apartment, wash the linens, cook, and bathe Lydia, since she can barely move around her apartment, let alone leave it to feel the sun on her face.

Sadly, stories like Lydia’s are not unique.

At-risk populations have paid a terrible toll with the global economic crisis and their safety nets are stretched to the breaking point. With your help, JDC is caring for Lydia and 168,000 others like her; but there are 60,000 destitute elderly Jews in the FSU whom we have turned away. And 20,000 needy children in the FSU and Central and Eastern Europe will get no help from JDC’s Jewish Family Service. We simply do not have the resources to provide for them.

But we have a duty to ensure that the elderly who have been persecuted and endured the unthinkable can live out their lives in dignity. And we have a duty to ensure that the next generation grows up in a healthy, supportive community—one that is dependent on today’s children being tomorrow’s leaders.

At JDC, we fully appreciate that each of you feels the weight of these modern challenges. But without diminishing the difficulties you face, I urge you to consider your brethren overseas.

History calls once again. It calls on each of us—American Jews, European Jews, Israelis… It calls on all who are vested in JDC’s vision of a global Jewish community that is moving forward—service volunteers, lay leaders, and communal professionals … philanthropists from Israel, from Russia, from Europe, from North America.

History calls on us for our fortitude, our deep empathy for the plight of the least fortunate among us, our commitment to the Jewish principle of kol Yisrael arevim ze lazeh. I believe we can energize our commitment and draw new support when we tell our stories.

What stories we have to tell! They are the stories of everyday courage and extraordinary perseverance. They are stories of charity and opportunity … of the rediscovery of life’s purpose and reconnection with Jewish tradition and culture. They are the stories of our lives, and of our parents and our grandparents … and the legacy we leave our children and our grandchildren. Tell these stories because they are true. Tell them because they inspire and inform our own activism. Most of all, tell them because they represent limitless possibility from even the greatest despair.

JDC is making every effort to ensure that all generations know these stories—the real challenges faced by families struggling to make ends meet in Latvia and in Argentina … elderly living without running water, heat, or adequate medicines in Ukraine … the 30% of Israel’s children who are living below the poverty line.

We are investing in a new generation of Jewish leaders all around this country. We are answering their call to service by mobilizing hundreds of young adults each year to go abroad and experience the realities and struggles of many Jewish communities outside the U.S. We are turning the value of global Jewish Peoplehood into action through hands-on service. And through this service, we are ensuring that these young, bright leaders see that they have a pivotal role to play in responding to the needs of their fellow Jews.

…JDC stands in its 95th year with considerable pride in what has been achieved through the partnerships amply represented by the people in this room. With all of you, we will look forward to the stories yet to unfold—those of our children and their children. We share your desire for a world in which no Jewish child wants for food or shelter or opportunity … a world where no one lives a productive life only to age into another life of isolation and suffering … a world in which there is no place where it is unsafe to live life as a Jew.

I have been with JDC for 20 years. I have traveled to many countries and sat in the living rooms of countless people. I can tell you these needs are real— but equally important, JDC’s vision of an intertwined and interconnected, single Jewish world is also real. I know we all share this vision. Let’s go forward and achieve it—together.

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