May 4, 2010

Looking to the Future in Djerba, Tunisia

From Steve Schwager, CEO

Decades ago, when malnutrition still afflicted Jewish children in Djerba, Tunisia, JDC ran a school canteen serving approximately 200 meals per day. Early each morning JDC also served glasses of milk—and with each glass came a piece of Swiss chocolate. Those willing to drink a second vitamin-packed glass received a second piece of chocolate.

Sweet moments are rarely forgotten—even amidst great change.

Recently, a young teacher in Djerba told Yechiel Bar Chaim, JDC’s Country Director for Tunisia, that his father “still remembers the tasty olive oil” that JDC used to distribute to the poor 35 years ago. Even the current community president, Youssef Ouezzen, who is now a prosperous businessman in his mid-forties, reminisces fondly about the “incredibly durable shoes” and “long-lasting trousers” the Joint would hand out to the needy when he was a boy.

Over the years, as the Jews of Djerba have become better educated (with the help of JDC-supported schools) and living conditions have generally improved, JDC closed the canteen and no longer distributed goods-in-kind. A community tax imposed on the sale of kosher meat soon enabled our local partners in Djerba to take over the discreet payment of monthly cash assistance to needy Jews. And just recently, the community took the initiative to build and furnish a small one-room apartment for the last of the Djerban Jewish beggars.

These developments, made possible through JDC’s work with the local community, have allowed us to shift our priorities toward the community’s future—the flourishing Jewish education system. Largely funded by designated gifts, JDC’s Djerban agenda focuses on training teachers and modernizing the curricula for the 300 children who now study in the Jewish kindergarten, schools, and yeshivot.

The only other remnant of JDC’s welfare activities on the island is that we reimburse the community’s bikkur holim fund (bikkur holim literally means visiting the sick) half the cost of medications for Djerba’s neediest Jews.

The evolution of JDC’s historical role in Djerba is reflected in the story of a local father and son. A half century ago, Reuven Saghroun was in charge of our extensive welfare services in Djerba. Today, his son, the Tunisian-trained doctor Simon Saghroun, examines Jewish school children at JDC’s request, keeping an eye out for possible cases of malnutrition and verifying that the kindergartners are duly vaccinated. His work is complemented by a Jewish dentist from Tunis, Jean-Pierre Liscia, who gives dental exams to hundreds of Jewish school children in Djerba thanks to specific funding from a JDC donor.

Dr. Saghroun is also the JDC liaison to our pioneering IDP project there, which many of you have heard of: a therapeutic and vocational training farm for both Jewish and Muslim mentally impaired youngsters.

And perhaps the most telling sign of the times: Djerba’s Jewish community leadership has finalized a breakthrough agreement with JDC to receive a non-interest-bearing SELF (Strategic European Loan Fund) loan—the first of its kind issued in North Africa—to help construct and equip a modern community social hall. As you are probably aware, the purpose of SELF loans is to help Jewish communities to develop, renovate, or improve the condition of properties that can then yield income for them in the future—so this bodes well for Djerba on its road to self-sufficiency.

Together with the rest of the Arab and Berber population on this desert island, the Jews of Djerba—who have lived there for 2,500 years—are fast catching up with the developed world. The sandy streets of the main Jewish neighborhood (Hara Kebira) are being paved for the first time, and the municipality is planting palm trees as “points of greenery” begin to dot the enclave.

Although well-protected by the Tunisian government in this time of heightened Arab/Israeli tensions, the situation of Jews there remains precarious. In this respect, does it matter how far they have come in recent decades? JDC’s presence still serves as a quiet guarantee of the importance of this age-old community to the wider Jewish world.

Even as we appreciate how far we and our partners have come in Djerba and throughout the Jewish world in the space of little more than a generation, Irv and I are committed to JDC looking forward. It is inspiring to savor the past, as locals do with the sweet nostalgia of chocolate and milk or long-lasting shoes, but our focus is always on the future and on overcoming the challenges we face in helping our fellow Jews around the world achieve a better tomorrow.

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