June 6, 2012

A Final Column from JDC CEO, Steve Schwager

Since March 8, 2005, I have been sending you a weekly column describing in detail some of the many programs and issues facing JDC as it navigates within a turbulent world – always trying to ensure that the needs of Jewish, as well as non-Jewish, men, women, and children are met across the globe.

I have written 331 columns; since I will be traveling over the next few weeks, this will be my last column, and I thought it would be meaningful to highlight some of JDC's achievements during my 23-year tenure. The programs described below are in no particular order, but simply came to mind in a stream of consciousness process as I began writing this piece.

In the early 1990s, I was JDC's CFO. I was asked to directly supervise a $15 million US Government grant that was the precursor of our FSU welfare program. In a world without cell phones, Blackberrys, and today's computer technology, my team of 15 Americans and Israelis, supplemented by almost 100 local Russians, distributed more than 500,000 food packages to needy Jews and non-Jews in Moscow and St. Petersburg over a six-week period. The process ran smoothly and efficiently, with no loss of food to theft. In fact, at JDC's 80th anniversary celebration at the State Department in Washington DC, Vice President Al Gore publicly thanked JDC for its work in the FSU, noting in particular that not one food package was lost in that process. What was the secret to our success?  We hired the Russian world karate champion as our head of security. No one wanted to fool with him.

JDC established and expanded the Women's Health Empowerment program in partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure to bring together Jewish and non-Jewish women in Russia, Israel, Bosnia, and other places across the globe. Thanks to JDC, women of different ethnicities came together because they shared one common bond:  breast cancer. And through that reality, they felt empowered to work together, to help strengthen each other, and to work for a cure.

We responded to man-made and natural disasters in many locations, such as Argentina, Japan, Southeast Asia, and Haiti. Each time a disaster would hit, a well-oiled machine moved into action and created hope out of despair. JDC at its best.

Connecting the next generation of young Jews to JDC's work was an important goal of mine, accomplished by establishing a cutting edge continuum of international volunteer programs for young adults to serve with JDC in countries overseas. This included the expansion of our Jewish Service Corps, as well as our Short-Term Service opportunities. Now each year, nearly 500 young Jewish men and women, primarily from the United States, serve in countries across the globe addressing challenges facing various communities. We have established Learning Networks in seven US cities, with events that have attracted over 5,000 participants since 2009. The Next Generation Initiative has grown into a full department of 13 people with a budget approaching $4 million. For me, these programs have been a labor of love – a powerful way to ensure that future generations of young people are connected to JDC and the work we do around the world.

I served as the co-chairman and JDC was a founding member of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. The coalition began with 40 member agencies and over the years grew to more than 100 members, including federations, foundations, and private individuals interested in this issue. Arabs comprise 20 percent of the population of Israel, and it is clear that much more needs to be done to integrate them into society. This is the ultimate goal of the Task Force.

In Israel, I look with pride at all of our activities – ranging from our assistance to the most vulnerable during the second intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War to the life-changing Parents and Children Together (PACT) program for Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters, the reinvigoration of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, and the important work of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute. Our latest programs to expand employment opportunities for Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox are changing Israel for the better. But more must still be done to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and secure a more promising future for all of Israel's citizens.

I have felt a powerful responsibility all these years to elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, lonely and impoverished old men and women who I have often said could easily have been, but for the grace of God, my grandparents or yours. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that: "A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture."  Based on that standard and given the wealth in the Jewish world, we need to do much, much more.

Finally, I remember being told of elderly grandparents secretly bringing their grandchildren to our soup kitchens in the FSU. The children were hidden under the tables and ate the meals intended for their grandparents. When I asked my staff to look into this strange habit, they discovered an enormous underclass of children living in homes where there was literally nothing to eat.

On a subsequent visit to Kharkov, I visited two such homes. The living conditions were appalling. The children slept on dirt floors. They had none of life's simple amenities - no warm clothes, no food, no books, no eyeglasses, nothing. Afterward, I asked our staff what we were going to do for these two families. Their response was:  "Nothing. There are so many and the FSU budget has no money for children."

This was unacceptable, I told them, first for these two families that I had just met and, more importantly, for the future of all Jewish children in the FSU.

A subsequent field study by JDC Board member Dr. Spencer Foreman concluded that 20 to 40 percent of Jewish children in Moldova, then and now one of the region's poorest countries, were malnourished and in need of supplemental food.  A wider Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute survey confirmed this alarming finding, while pinpointing precise needs. As a result, in 2002, we launched a new Children's Initiative in the FSU, and from that beginning, the milestone IFCJ-JDC Partnership for Children was born.

Today we spend over $7 million annually on 35,000 children and their parents in the former Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe.  Of course there are many more we do not yet reach, but we keep trying. I am proud of the program and the fact that through our work, the future is brighter for many.

I also take much pride in the Memorial Wall that was unveiled in the JDC-Israel building in Jerusalem in the summer of 2009 – a moving tribute to the 40-plus JDC employees who, over our 97-year history, have died serving the Jewish people.

On the revenue side, the organization increased its global reach from a $243 million budget in 2002, my first year as CEO, to a record budget of $362 million in 2012. At the same time, the number of staff decreased from over 1,000 people to 800-plus. Doing more with less is a key phrase at JDC.

Various independent organizations have recognized our work, including Charity Navigator, which awarded JDC its highest rating, and the Israel Government, which awarded JDC the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel. Another proud moment.

At the end of the day, a JDC professional wants to be able to say that he or she made a difference. I step down as CEO on June 30 with enormous pride for all that has been accomplished.

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