July 29, 2010

JDC Camp Provides Aid at Crash Site in Romania

After hearing about the tragic crash of a helicopter that killed six Israeli military personnel and one Romanian, staff members and campers at a nearby JDC summer camp in Romania responded with aid for the rescue and recovery teams.  The Jerusalem Post ran a feature and interviewed JDC staff in Romania about their efforts.   

Photo by Yaakov Katz

Check out the article, JDC camp in Romania aids rescue and recovery crews

July 28, 2010

Personal Impressions Part III - Israel

Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In this final travelogue entry, he shares his impressions and insights about his time visiting JDC programs in Israel:

Today was such an action and information filled day. It will be very tough to capture in this short piece.

Our first site visit of the day was to the JDC Supportive Community for the Elderly at Moshav Nir Galim. The goal for this program is to allow individuals to age in place/ to provide emergency health care, home assistance and maintenance and social activities for the elderly (including an adult day care center) without their having to move. It sounds very similar to programs already in place in many Jewish communities in America and this is true. But it is a fairly new idea in many parts of Israel. Here, it is a partnership of the municipality, the moshav, the individual and JDC helps out in a few of the activities. There are 240 of the Supportive Communities around Israel.

Here we met three people who use the program: Shlomo, Duggo and Yonah. Shlomo and his family made Aliyah in 1969 from Chicago. In 1944 he fought with the US Army in the Normandy invasion. Sitting right next to him was Duggo who was originally from Hungary (a theme that continues to show up). In 1944 Duggo was sent to Birkenau (Auschwitz) and came face to face with Dr. Mengele. As a 14 year old he both survived (through some trickery) Mengele's selection process and the death march. We had not expected to meet Duggo so we were not fully prepared to hear his complete story, which was not easy to hear, but serves as another reminder of what took place over 60 years ago. Yonah was a hidden child in Germany and France who eventually made her way (at the age of eight) to Switzerland and then was reunited with her mother in Belgium. What does this have to do with Supportive Communities you ask? There is an intergenerational program there called Holocaust Theatre where teens hear the stories and then act them out on stage. It is a way for the survivors to connect with the next generation, the third generation.

From there we drove further south to Kiryat Gat where we learned about Garin Kehillati. Here we learned about a program for Ethiopian Jews by Ethiopian Jews. Not all immigrants are initially fully 'absorbed'. Those Ethiopians, usually older adults, who have not mastered Hebrew and have no trade beyond agriculture are left behind. What is found are often households where the 'alpha male' stays home all day with nothing to do which causes both financial and social problems. Domestic abuse is not unseen in some of these families. Here in Kiryat Gat a community garden was created to give some of these families a place to go during the day. The group reclaimed some unused land from the Ministry of Agriculture and split the plot between 12 families. Our lunch included vegetables we picked there. Moshe, the leader of the Garin gave a full explanation of the theory behind what is being done and why.

Our final stop for the day was in Netivot where we met a group of incredible teens. When asked about their volunteer activities, they each rattled off four or five different places they volunteer, whether it was running a blood drive or organizing a 'Happening' for the city or packing and delivering weekly vegetable packages for some 350 families. For these teens, volunteering is about the values they were brought up with; it is their chance to give to others and to help to build themselves up. It is a social activity. They come together in different small groups to be together and to have fun, though through doing a lot of hard work. For one girl, Moriya, her summer is spent working and when not working volunteering, with little or no 'free' time. These kids were truly amazing.

I could go on and on, and I will, about what I saw today. It was an exhausting though exhilarating day.

July 27, 2010

Personal Impressions of Budapest - Part II

Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In the second of several travelogue entries, he shares his impressions and insights:

Budapest – Day 2
Just got back from the day at Szarvas and I have a few moments before we have Kabbalat Shabbat.

This morning we began the day at the Shoes Memorial on the Danube Promenade. This memorial is 'bronzed' shoes in various positions representing the hundreds of Jews who were shot to death and thrown into the Danube River by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian pro-Nazi militia. To Hungarian Jews, this single act represented a total rejection of the Jews belief that they had been totally emancipated and accepted by the Hungarian people as full members of society. Again, this is an ongoing theme of the past two days, that Hungarian Jewry believed that they were safe in Hungary, having fought and died for Hungary in World War I, but learned otherwise in the 1940's.

Next came a long drive to Szarvas camp. On the way we heard about JDC's goals in Hungary: Renewal, Revival and Rebuilding. JDC serves 5,300 holocaust survivors and 900 children at risk. A big role is providing home heating subsidies in the winter. 1,400 individuals receive kosher daily meals, but everything is meant to be a partnership. All who receive assistance are expected to pay something or give something in return.

The best way to think about Szarvas Camp is through stories of people who have gone there.

Lela is from Macedonia. She is from a town of 200 Jews who got together every Friday night for dinner at the Jewish Center. For these Macedonians, Shabbat and Jewish holidays was a meal, not a holiday. At age 11 her family sent her to Szarvas where she learned that Judaism is more than a meal. The camp was/is twelve days of immersion in living Jewishly. Many of these kids return home changed and feeling Jewish and wanting to be Jewish and wanting to come back the following year. Lela now works for JDC and is based in Budapest.

Sondra is from Serbia and has been coming to Szarvas since 1991, first as a camper, then a madricha and now a unit leader. Her mother brought her to Szarvas when the camp in Zagreb closed. For Sondra, this was the first time she felt what it is like to live in a Jewish environment. Now she always looks for a job that will allow her to spend her summers at Szarvas, first as a teacher at a Jewish day school until she was downsized and now as a translator. Szarvas defines her Jewish life and it is a priority in her life.

Arten is originally from Moscow, but made Aliyah last year and is back at Szarvas for the summer. He too is back this year on staff. For him being Jewish began for him in 2000 when he first came to camp. He still remembers his first Shabbat. When all the campers are together in the 'square', they write their wishes on a piece of paper which are then attached to balloons and are then released into the air. Upon his return to Moscow he attended his first Rosh Hashanah service in Moscow. All because he spent 12 days in Hungary.

Szarvas draws campers from some 20 countries, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU. In past years, there were 4 sessions and thus 2,000 campers each summer. Due to budget cuts at JDC and due to smaller overseas allocations, this year there will be only 2 sessions, only 1,000 campers. What this means is that the priority is to take campers from Hungary and new campers. What this means is Arten and Sondra and Lela might not have been able to attend if they were just now trying to attend.

For these young adults there were no alternatives for being exposed to being Jewish. What we are seeing is that it is the young who are teaching the old about being Jewish. This is something we will also be seeing when we meet with Ethiopian Jews in Israel, a new generation of Jews living jewishly.

It is amazing to see the differences we are making in the work we do.

July 25, 2010

Personal Impressions of Budapest - Part I

Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In the first of several travelogue entries, he shares his impressions and insights:

Budapest – Day 1
Where do I begin!!

This morning we arrived in Budapest. A lot of what I am feeling is a comparison to what I saw 5 years ago in Bucharest. The ride in from the airport was not nearly as dreary as in Bucharest. Yes, we saw many apartment buildings of Soviet era style, but there wasn't that same feeling of grayness.

Our first stop after lunch (or breakfast as it was 6 am Stamford time) was the Dohany Synagogue. Walking in it felt like a museum, not a house of worship. A fee is charged and there are two kiosks selling t-shirts and challah covers. Our Scholar in residence … made a statement that rang so true with me.  "A big building does not make a community; rather a community fills a building." The Dohany Synagogue is huge, sitting 3,000 easily, including two levels of balconies. While at the Dohany Synagogue we heard a brief cantorial performance by two cantors, one from Dohany and the other from the rabbinic seminary. It really set the mood and made it clear that we were not in a museum, but in a house of worship…

...We then visited the Rumbach synagogue, a remodeling job in progress. During World War II and the Soviet period the synagogues were not in use and were in horrible shape. The symbolism of the work being done to recreate the Rumbach is as a phoenix. A bird that fell in flames and out of the ashes rose a new bird. This too is true of Jewish community of Hungary, now totaling over 100,000.

Our final visit of the day was to the Balint JCC to learn about some of the JDC programs. The director of the JCC told us her story. Her grandparents were married in the Dohany synagogue, but in the years that followed, especially until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, religion, and especially Judaism, was de-emphasized. Hungarian Jews saw themselves as Hungarians and not Jews. Nothing was being passed on to the children. After the death of her grandfather, it hit the director that she was in fact Jewish. Her personal exploration led her to her current position, at the forefront of a revitalization of Jewishness in Hungary. Her story is one of shared leadership, of partnership, not one of the JDC doing all the work. Hungarians want to rebuild their community themselves.

We [were] told of the unseen poverty in this cosmopolitan city. Homeless families have found new homes in community-owned apartments. The JFS (funded by the Jaffe family of Tidewater, VA) saw that there are some 2,000 children in need. To date they are serving 450 families including 800 children. Our campaign dollars to overseas and JDC are making a real difference in people's lives.

Volunteerism is something the Hungarian Jewish community is learning for itself. Under a communist regime, there is no such thing as volunteering, unless it is 'mandatory'. A typical reaction when a Jewish volunteer tells a friend that they are volunteering their time is, "you are being exploited". When a teen was asked how she was chosen to be part of a leadership training program, her response was 'my own free will'. Things we take for granted are things these people do not.

This is a Jewish community on the mend, one that is making great strides because of the work we are doing.

More tomorrow when I get back from our visit to the Szarvas Summer camp.

July 23, 2010

Official Dedication of the Beit Grand JCC in Odessa

The Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center in Odessa, Ukraine held its official dedication ceremony last month, celebrating the completion of the center's expansion and renovations.  JDC Board member Nancy Grand and her husband Stephen, for whom the JCC is named, were there for all the festivities, including a ribbon cutting and the hanging of the mezuzah on the center's front doors.  

The J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California featured a wonderful article about the dedication ceremony. 

Nancy Grand watches as her husband’s long-lost cousin (center) helps affix a mezuzah to the new Jewish cultural center in Odessa in June.
Photo from Jweekly.com

Read the article at S.F. couple funds new Jewish cultural center in Odessa

About Beit Grand JCC
Beit Grand is home to the city's Hesed Shaarey Tzion Welfare organization and its Jewish Family Services program, as well as Hillel and the Odessa Regional Association of Ghetto and Concentration Camp Survivors. In addition to hosting concerts and holiday celebrations in its spacious concert hall, the Beit Grand also plays a key role in helping to organize and sponsor community events outside the building such as the Days of Jewish Culture event.

Boasting an extensive library and community gym, the Beit Grand campus has wide-ranging cultural programming including an arts studio, a Jewish writers club and a course for Jewish Odessa tour guides. The campus recently celebrated the opening of the Montessori-style Anavim Jewish kindergarten. And since 2009, a Jewish educator has been coordinating all Jewish renewal programs and working with the Beit Grand’s newly established Youth Club.

July 21, 2010

PACT Program In Ashkelon - Three Years of Successful Partnership

The Ashkelon-Baltimore Partnership In Israel recently celebrated the third year of JDC's Parents and Children Together (PACT) program in Ashkelon working to help Ethiopian Israeli children succeed in school.

Read more about the celebration at Focus on Ashkelon.

Video of PACT program and participants in Ashkelon - in Hebrew only

About PACT:
Parents and Children Together (PACT) is a comprehensive initiative addressing Ethiopian-Israeli preschoolers' educational and developmental needs by working to close critical educational and social gaps between Ethiopian-Israeli children under the age of six and their veteran Israeli peers.

By promoting the enrollment of every Ethiopian-Israeli youngster in a preschool framework and providing culturally sensitive support, PACT helps the children acquire the social and cognitive skills that Ethiopian-Israeli parents—raised in a rural, oral-based society—cannot provide.

JDC's partnerships with American and Israeli communities have made PACT a pioneer among efforts aimed at closing immigration-related social gaps.

July 19, 2010

Impressions of Haiti

The Ottawa Citizen recently featured an article about a mission to Haiti sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).  Jack Silverstein, Executive Campaign Director of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, Canada was among the participants who had the opportunity to see the situation on the ground and visit JDC sponsored programs that are working to make a difference.  In this piece by The Ottawa Citizen writer, Ellen Mauro, he describes what he saw.        

Read the entire article at Haitians ‘need our help,’ campaign director says.

July 16, 2010

Announcing the JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellowship

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and BBYO launched a new overseas service fellowship for BBYO alumni, the JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellowship. This new initiative will place four BBYO alumni in JDC’s Jewish Service Corps for one year to work with overseas Jewish communities on their most pressing welfare, Jewish renewal and humanitarian needs and develop teen programming and connections to Jewish life through BBYO’s innovative leadership programming and international network. The JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellowship is receiving initial support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

“The JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellowship speaks to the definitive power of service to transform the lives of young Jews eager for a chance to make a difference in the world. We are truly fortunate that our long-time partners and friends at the Schusterman Family Foundation are once again helping us strengthen our important ties to BBYO and to Jewish service around the globe,” said JDC’s CEO Steven Schwager.

In addition to their day-to-day service agenda, JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellows will help connect North American Jewish teens with their peers abroad and facilitate the participation of these teen peers in BBYO gatherings. This connection speaks directly to BBYO’s teen-led agenda addressed by the International Teen Co-President Jeremy Sherman: "We couldn’t be more excited to strengthen BBYO’s ties to the global Jewish community. As BBYO teens, we feel a strong connection to Jewish teens everywhere, and we have long felt that bringing Jewish youth from around the world closer together should be a priority. It is inspiring to see that vision become a reality.”

“We are excited about the collaboration between BBYO and JDC, who will be working in close partnership to engage Jewish teens, strengthen global Jewish community and involve young professionals in meaningful service work,” said Lisa Eisen, national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and a member of BBYO’s Board of Directors. “This initiative will forge important connections between Jewish teens across the globe as they work to repair the world and build a vibrant Jewish future.”

BBYO staff will also provide training as part of JDC’s Jewish Service Corps Orientation and contribute to long-distance learning opportunities for the Fellows. Fellowship placements could include locations such as India, Turkey, Israel, Poland, Estonia, Serbia, or Ukraine. Interested BBYO alumni can learn more about the program at www.JDC.org/JewishServiceCorps JDC’s existing collaborations with BBYO include a growing number of BBYO alumni applying to JDC’s Jewish Service Corps, BBYO teens raising thousands of dollars for JDC’s global programs, and JDC providing updates and speakers on global issues to Jewish teens. Most recently, a former BBYO International Teen President, Shauna Ruda, served as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow working to connect Turkish Jewish teens and the community to BBYO.

To apply for the JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellowship, please visit the JDC website.

July 13, 2010

Klara Kogan z"l

From Steve Schwager, CEO

Over the years, I have made many home visits to poor elderly Jews living in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Almost every visit involved trudging up flights of stairs to visit elderly “shut-ins.” I also have visited dozens and dozens of Federations, determined to bring the faces and needs of those elderly Jews home to the Jews of North America. And while my audiences will always hear the harsh statistics—that today we serve some 160,000 poor elderly Jews living in 2,900 cities in the FSU, and tens of thousands more need our help—what truly touches each of us is the story of one person. As many of you know, for me, that person has always been Klara Kogan. But for the grace of God, Klara could have been my mother or grandmother—so visiting her or just thinking about her moves me to tears. Indulge me to share her story one last time...

Klara Kogan was born on July 24, 1905 in Bendery, Bessarabia, then part of Russia (today Moldova). Klara never completed elementary school; in 1919, her entire family moved to Kishinev, where at age 14 she began working at a carton-making workshop. In 1925, the family moved again, this time to Bucharest, where Klara was employed in a textile factory. She married in 1929 and gave birth to her only son three years later. In 1940, when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union, Klara and her family moved back to Kishinev, where she started working as a cashier in a store.

During World War II, Klara was evacuated with her husband and son to Kazakhstan, near an oilfield. Shortly thereafter, her husband joined the Soviet army and left for the front lines; Klara worked as a cashier and raised her son. The remainder of Klara’s family was killed in the Holocaust: Nazis shot her mother, her older sister was taken to Germany, and her younger sister was sent to dig trenches and never returned. In 1948, her husband returned from the army and the family moved back to a one-room apartment in Kishinev, where Klara continued working as a shop cashier until she retired in 1960.

In 1981, when Klara was 76 years old, she lost her husband; her beloved son died four years later, leaving Klara without a living relative anywhere in the world.

The only people who cared for Klara were North American Jews, thousands of miles away. They reached her through JDC’s Hesed center network.

Thrust into poverty following the economic collapse in the former Soviet Union, Klara became a Hesed client in 1995. When I met her for the first time in early 2002, she was receiving a monthly pension of $16—the cost of her monthly utilities. In truth, Klara was kept alive by Hesed services and its network of volunteers who regularly visited her and provided her with food, medicines, and homecare as well as a hearing aid and rehabilitation equipment.

Compounding Klara’s difficulties was the fact that she lived on the top floor of a five-story walkup building. When I first met her, she had not been out of her apartment for several years. She actually could walk down the stairs, but could not get back up. On my first visit to Klara’s home, I expected to find a depressed woman; she blew me away by being the exact opposite! Klara impressed me with her crystal clear memory, quick wit, and analytical abilities. I grew to understand that she also had a very special gift for getting along with anyone, no matter what their age, social status, or educational background.

During that first encounter, Klara told me how grateful she was for all of the help she received from Hesed. She did, however, share one complaint: she was not happy with her homecare worker who came one hour per day, five days a week, to help her. The problem, she said, was that the homecare worker wanted to clean her apartment each day. I asked Klara what was wrong with that and she warmly responded that she would prefer to use the hour for conversation because she was otherwise alone. That was Klara: grace and good humor.

Klara never let a guest—including me—leave without her first sharing a joke. The one she often told me was: “A grandfather was walking on a beach with his grandson. All of a sudden a wave swept the child away. ‘Oh Lord!’ the grandfather screamed. ‘All my life I was a good man, followed all the laws, and helped others. How do I deserve such a cruel punishment? The boy’s mother will die of grief, his father will commit suicide—please do not let this happen!’ The wave grumbled and threw the boy back to the beach. The grandfather held the boy, looked up at the Heavens and at the wave, and complained: ‘But he also had a hat on!’”

I am sad to report that Klara has passed away at the age of 103; I am comforted that she has joined her husband and son, and that JDC was able to help her in her time of need. May Klara’s memory be for a blessing.

Statistics and charts and projections are important to our programs; but Irv and I know that it is also our responsibility to remember that each needy elderly Jew has a unique and often difficult story to tell. Our helping and remembering them is a reflection of our humanity. How well we all know that JDC is often the only lifeline for these elderly Jews and, with your help, we will continue to care for them as long as they live.

July 12, 2010

JDC Ashalim: Inspiring Entrepreneurship in Israel's Youth

JDC Ashalim and The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) are inspiring young people to succeed in school and in life by seizing educational opportunities and starting their own businesses.

July 7, 2010

ASYV Jewish Service Corps Volunteer Featured in PresenTense Magazine

The recently released PresenTense Magazine Jewish Heroes Issue features an article by Jewish Service Corps volunteer, Mike Brand, where he writes about his experience as a volunteer at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a project of JDC's International Development Program. 

You can read the article on the eJewish Philanthropy blog at Smile: Worthwhile – Volunteering in Rwanda.

To learn more about JDC's Jewish Service Corps, please visit the JDC website

For more information about the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, visit

July 6, 2010


NEW YORK, NY, June 29, 2010 – Following the G20 Summit in Toronto earlier this week, Steven Schwager, the CEO of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), said that solving the challenges that face the world’s poor is an essential element for global economic recovery.

“As the largest provider of welfare services to poverty stricken Jews in the world, we have observed first-hand the devastating effects that the global financial crisis has had on our clients who today face growing hunger, sickness, and unemployment,” said Schwager. “It is incumbent upon us all, especially in an age of interconnected economies and communities, to create innovative solutions to ease the burden of those who face this kind of hopelessness.”

JDC’s global humanitarian assistance program includes the distribution of food, clothing, medicine, and basic needs to poor Jews and others in more than 70 countries. JDC has also pioneered a number of job training, micro-loan, and financial support programs that have been implemented in places like Argentina, Israel, and nations throughout South Asia. JDC has created and implemented these programs to address the needs of people facing sudden poverty during economic crises; vulnerable populations with high rates of unemployment or non-employment; or those who have lost their livelihoods in the wake of natural and manmade disasters.

July 1, 2010

An Evening of Song in Raanana, Israel

Donn Weinberg, Chairman of The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore entertains the crowd at the the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Employment, Fitness and Leisure in Raanana, a program of JDC-ESHEL, The Association for the Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Israel.