November 27, 2009

Opening One's Eyes

From Steve Schwager, CEO

Russell Wolkind, a Senior International Relations Associate in our JDC-Israel office, just returned from seeing our work in Lithuania and participating in Limmud Poland. He shared the following reflections:

I opened my eyes and looked around. Then I opened them wider and looked again.

Last week I stood with hundreds of Jewish brothers and sisters—in Warsaw—singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” This was not a group of Israelis or Diaspora Jews who had come to Poland to learn about and witness the unimaginable atrocities our people faced in this country. I was standing with approximately 500 Polish Jews with whom I had shared an entire Shabbat of learning at a Limmud Conference. We had just recited the Havdalah prayer and were about to break into Jewish and Israeli dancing. The words Am Yisrael Chai are as relevant—and even more poignant—when sung by Polish Jewry itself.

Limmud was filled with a diversity of age, Jewish expression, and interest. With the extensive choice of sessions, you could see people struggling to decide where they wanted to go (it was easier for me since there was only one session in English each time!) The hallways and the rooms were filled with men and women learning how to express their Judaism and taking time to explore what being a Jew means to them. After the Shoah and decades of Communist rule, there now exists an atmosphere of freedom, enjoyment of religion, and a community beginning to form, breaking through the cracks of its past. This was a miracle happening right before my eyes.

November 25, 2009

A Story of Survival and Perseverance

From Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of FSU Programs

In this briefing, Asher shares a story from Stanley Abramovitch, Director of former Soviet Republics of Asia, based on a recent trip to Belarus:

"Two Jews survived the Grodno ghetto in the Second World War. One of them left a few years ago for Israel where he died recently. The other is Gregory (Hersh) Hassid who still lives in Grodno. I met him in the Hesed office where he told me in fluent Hebrew learned in the Jewish school before the war, his story, about life in the ghetto and his many escapes from death.

The Germans occupied Grodno on the day after the war broke out. The few people who tried to escape towards the east of Russia away from the invading army where caught by the German army which moved very fast across Belorussia. Gregory was seventeen years old that September. There were about thirty thousand Jews in Grodno at the time. Another thirty thousand lived in small towns and villages around and near Grodno.

Soon after Grodno was occupied, the Germans set up the ghetto, in fact, two ghettoes in different parts of the town. Gregory and his family were moved into the larger ghetto. The Germans spoke of labor camps to which all Jews would be finally moved. When they announced that they needed four hundred volunteers for the labor camp Gregory and his father joined the group. They were locked up in the large Grodno synagogue and from there put on a passenger train that was to bring them to Treblinka.

 Gregory heard some young men talking about jumping from the train. The only way was to jump out of the window. The young people queued up ready to jump. The first one out was shot at by guards stationed on the platforms of the train. The others hesitated to follow. Gregory told his father that he would jump. The father who was fifty years old encouraged him and told him to leave him, the father, to his fate, as he was an old man. When none of the other young peopled dared to jump out of the train, Gregory jumped. He too was shot at but he was not hurt.

November 23, 2009

Centers for Young Adults: Helping Young Immigrants Forge Succesful Adulthoods in Israel

The transition from youth to adulthood can be traumatic. Decisions made during this time – army, family, work, studies, vocational training – are extremely significant and usually determine an individual's future path. For some 260,000 immigrant young adults ages 18-30 who live in Israel this period can be even more difficult. Their families, who are often still not well integrated into Israeli society and face their own social, economic and cultural challenges, are unable to provide them with the support and guidance enjoyed by their veteran Israeli peers.

Lack of support services for immigrant young adults during this life-shaping period has led to a high rate of chronic unemployment – over 30% – among this group. As a result, instead of succeeding these potentially contributing Israeli citizens are falling to the margins of Israeli society.

In response to this service gap, JDC established Centers for Young Adults in cities which are home to large immigrant populations and have low socioeconomic levels. Open to adults aged 18-34, centers serve as a platform for launching projects to help young immigrants. Centers bring together all the services required by young adults seeking to be independent and self-reliant. They provide a wide range of counseling and orientation services under one roof, including guidance regarding higher education and vocational training, job readiness and search skills as well as workplace advancement, and life skills, such as money management and housing advice. Social involvement and volunteer projects encourage participants to enhance their growth by giving to, and taking leadership roles in, their local communities.

November 20, 2009

Guess Who Did Not Come to the Party?

From the Jerusalem Post
Nov. 16, 2009


Symbolism, rather than action, dominated the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America. Its new logo, new name and new executive and lay leader were a sure sign of hope, the harbingers of a sincere and enthusiastic attempt to revive the national organization that succeeds UJC. Yes, the GA was a magnificent celebration of Israeli-American Jewish unity and a demonstration of its might. But I returned from Washington more concerned than I have ever been in my 20 years of Jewish communal service.

On one hand, we at JDC will support the newly-created JFNA. On the other hand, we are worried about those who were not "present at the party" during the GA. I refer to the other Jews - those who do not live in Israel or North America. Their voices were silent, their needs received a cursory notice and their communities were ignored. I am not trying to be a party spoiler, but 20 percent - one fifth! -of the Jewish people today live outside of the US and Israel.

We know them well: For us they are not statistics, but rather Jewish men, women and children who are struggling to live Jewish lives in their historic communities. JDC is often their only guardian, their daily lifeline, their friend and support. We help them in Mumbai and in Buenos Aires, in Warsaw and Riga, in Djerba and Bucharest.

The elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union today are the poorest Jews in the world, and their situation is painfully serious. We struggle to feed them, to keep them warm, to supply their vital medicines - paid for in part by declining American Jewish charitable funds.

Regretfully, helping the elderly is stigmatized in the eyes of most affluent Russian Jews. The paradox is that those oligarchs went from rags to riches during the chaotic post-communist years. And those very same years turned their elderly parents' generation into penniless poor. But the oligarchs prefer to put their money and their names on mausoleums and universities.

In the excitement to trump new "Jewish peoplehood," there is the risk that we are abandoning the Jewish people. And that leads to the greatest irony: The Jewish "babushka" living alone in a one-room walkup in Russia is helped today by the generosity of millions of Evangelical Christians through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews - not by the charity of an oligarch who could be her grandson!

What else worries us? The UJA - the grandfather of today's newly-created JFNA - was formed in the wake of Kristallnacht in Germany, precisely 71 years ago. Numerous speakers at the GA last week made references to this historic event that catapulted American Jewish philanthropy into a superpower world arm, bringing rescue and relief to every Jew. UJA was always a relentless and indefatigable advocate of Jewish needs in Israel and overseas. Seventy-one years later, will we abdicate this moral commitment under the pressure of domestic issues and needs? Can we - the more comfortable, more secure 80% of the Jewish people - cut off the neediest 20% of our brethren? Since when has a hungry Jew anywhere become an "overseas issue" marked as less urgent compared to local needs?

We are a worldwide Jewish family - and family takes care of its own. As we enter the new era of our communal life in North America, let us harness all our moral, communal and, yes, financial resources to guarantee that our philanthropy will never forsake any Jew in need of life's basic necessities.

The writer is the executive vice president and CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This article can also be read at

November 18, 2009

Arab Clergymen Fight for Disability Rights

From The Jerusalem Post
November 11, 2009
by Ruth Eglash

More than 200 sheikhs, imams and priests - all leaders from Israel's Arabic speaking community - gathered in Nazareth on Wednesday to take up the challenge of disabled rights and brainstorm ways to improve conditions for some 170,000 people with physical and mental disabilities in their community.

"There are many challenges facing people with disabilities living in the Arab-Israeli community," Avital Sandler-Loeff, Director of Masira, a three-year-old project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) aimed at improving the lives and status of Arabic-speaking adults (21-65) with disabilities in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post.

Sandler-Loeff, who is also Area Head of Independent Living for the Unit for Disabilities and Rehabilitation for JDC-Israel, said that Masira had already provided training and tools to some 240 clergymen and religious leaders to understand the challenges faced by those with disabilities.

The goal of Wednesday's conference, she said, was to reach even more of the Arab-Israeli community leaders, most of whom are in a position to change general attitudes and educate others about the problems of being disabled.

"All participants willingly cooperated because they see it as an opportunity to create social change," said Sandler-Loeff. "For them it is a platform to use their influential position as social agents for change in their society."

November 16, 2009

Celebrating 95 Years

This year marks the 95th anniversary of JDC, the largest international Jewish humanitarian assistance organization in the world. Established in 1914 by an ad hoc coalition of North American Jewish groups to channel funds to starving Jews in Palestine and Europe during World War I, JDC has played a critical, often life-saving role in most important events in 20th century and 21st century Jewish history. Today, JDC is a constant in the lives of the world’s poorest Jews, providing life-sustaining aid while helping new and older generations connect with their Jewish heritage. And with decades of relief and development experience behind the organization, JDC effectively provides non-sectarian assistance to non-Jews worldwide who are victims of natural and man-made disasters.

JDC is proud to celebrate 95 years as a trusted partner that propels vulnerable Jewish and non-Jewish communities from dependent to self-sustaining.

As part of the celebration,  JDC invited children from around the world to help us celebrate this anniversary through artistic expression. 

November 13, 2009

The Stark Reality of Today's Global Jewish Community

The latest post from THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Israel and Overseas blog features a report on JDC CEO Steve Schwager's presentation to leaders of the Baltimore Jewish community at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly 2009 in Washington DC. 

Read the entire post at the Baltimore, Israel and Overseas blog - "The Stark Reality of Today's Global Jewish Community".

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.

November 9, 2009

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas' JDC Ambassadors Circle Mission Featured in Community Newsletter

In the November issue of Community Connections, the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas' e-newsletter, CEO and Federation President, Gary Weinstein writes about his experience on the recent mission to Moldova and Ukraine for members of the Dallas JDC Ambassadors Circle. 

Mission Participants included from L-R: Steve Lieberman, Gary Weinsten, Darryl Freling, and Seth Davidow.
 Also pictured is a single mother with her son (who has cerebral palsy) and her daughter.
This photo was taken on a home visit.

To read about the mission and to see the full community message, please go HERE. 

And to see a short video of mission participants' Shabbat experience at the Hesed Shaary Tzion, check out this LINK.

November 6, 2009

Jewish Women in Philanthropy: A Conversation with Susan Stern

JDC Board member, Susan K. Stern speaks about Jewish philanthropy and the roles women can and do play in today's nonprofit world. 

From eJewish Philanthropy blog
November 2, 2009
by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

“Your responsibility is to give back; make the world a better place.” Susan K. Stern

Much of the most recent data tracking various “groups” of donors centers directly on women. In our professional dealings with donors and nonprofits, we know that some women donors might be more likely to fund programs designated specifically for the benefit of women. This pattern is largely a response to practices traced to the years when organizations historically were run entirely by men who were not especially sensitive to female motivations. So women donors today are making a point to speak out more loudly and are making demonstrable impact on decision-making processes . . . both in their individual households regarding charitable priorities and in institutions which are allocating precious resources.

As we look more closely at women as donors, we turned to one of the most well-known Jewish women identified as a prominent role model: Susan Stern, of Scarsdale, New York. Former board chair and campaign chair at UJA Federation of New York, chair of United Jewish Communities National Women’s Philanthropy, Chair of Government Affairs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chair of the New York State Commission on National Community Service, serving as a member of Governor Patterson’s Cabinet and an influential member of a myriad of transformational and well-known Jewish (and other) nonprofits, Susie, as she is known to her friends, has had her pulse firmly on Jewish philanthropy and the impact women can and do play in the nonprofit world.

We have all witnessed a steady increase of women taking on leadership roles in nonprofits of all sizes. Susan commented on this trend and how she feels women are uniquely suited to handle the challenges and stresses of the leadership roles they assume.

Susan: “Women are uniquely suited to handle the challenges and stresses of the leadership roles they assume. Many years ago I learned from Shoshanna Cardin about how suited we are as leaders because of our parenting roles. She spoke of how she had raised 5 children and had spent every night around a dinner table in the role of negotiator, peace maker, and consensus builder. These are the very skills we use every day in our role as leaders.

In addition to these skills, you need to find and act on your passion. In my case, it happened when I started my involvement with UJA Federation of New York. I visited the Brighton Beach Y. The center was running a program teaching English as a second language to women who UJA Federation had helped bring here from Russia. As I stood there, being introduced as one of ‘the women from UJA,’ a woman from Riga, Latvia, gently took my hand and thanked me for bringing her to the United States, for the English classes and a chance at a better life. I thought, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ My grandparents, too, had escaped Latvia, and when that woman touched my hand I saw my grandparents’ experiences in her eyes. I knew right there that philanthropic work can really make a difference and I threw myself into it.”

November 4, 2009

Jewish Young Adults Building Community Beyond Borders in Europe

Each year, hundreds of Jewish young adults from JDC’s Weinberg Balkan-Black Sea Gesher region of Europe transcend traditional notions of geography, language, and culture to engage together in Jewish exploration. The following is a first-person account of the 2009 Gesher Conference—a flagship initiative of JDC in Europe that is propelling the meaning of community beyond physical borders.

There are some ideas—like Israel itself—that are so visionary that few believe they are even possible … until they actually come to pass.

The Gesher Conference, which each year draws hundreds of enthusiastic Jews in their early to mid twenties from the Black Sea Region to a distinct European destination, is one of those ideas. As one observer said at the 6th annual conference, held recently in Halkidiki, Greece: “If someone had told me years ago that there would be 400 young adults who would come together from this region every year, who are so proud to be Jewish that they are dancing to traditional songs and debating the same questions our ancestors debated, I would have said that they were completely meshuguna (crazy)!"

November 2, 2009

JDC Celebrates 95 Years of International Humanitarian Aid

In 1914, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau sent a telegram to philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff asking for $50,000 to feed starving Jews in Palestine during World War I. Within one month, the money was raised through a collaboration of three American Jewish relief organizations, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was founded. This year marks JDC’s 95th anniversary of reaching out to Jewish communities and people in need worldwide.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is the largest international Jewish humanitarian aid organization in the world today. By partnering with local governments and organizations around the world, JDC is touching lives and transforming communities in over 70 countries through programs of rescue, relief, and Jewish community renewal; helping Israel address its most urgent social challenges; and delivering humanitarian relief on a non-sectarian basis.

“We’re thrilled to celebrate our 95-year history which serves as a solid foundation as we work to continue our enduring connections to the global Jewish family well into the future,” says Steven Schwager, CEO and Executive Vice President of JDC. “Through decades of experience and strong partnerships on the ground, we remain extremely proud of JDC’s efforts to intelligently leverage resources so funds have the furthest reach and impact."