June 25, 2012

JDC Israel Focuses on Empowerment

By Rebecca Neuwirth, Director, JDC Ambassadors

A huge moon is hanging over my shoulder in Tel Aviv, a city I haven't been to since I became a mother over seven years ago and put a brake on long travel.

A lot has changed in that time, but not the tender breeze, the slightly sweet smell of blossoming summer in a dusty city. The smell of cats too - in every small street I sense them - on steps and mailboxes and sliding between parked cars. The simple cafes, the handsome people, the certain knowledge that the ocean is just hidden beyond these small streets, win me over again.

I'm here with 70 people for the JDC Board mission. We are visiting projects that address serious social issues in Israel. I'm excited to see that JDC is hitting all the right notes.

I will leave Israel certain that it is a first-class development organization, combining the most cutting-edge best practices with age old humanitarian instincts to better the lives of the most vulnerable.

Each program is being developed around sound principles. Staff speak of empowerment rather than service delivery. There is a priority placed on innovation, a can-do attitude that nevertheless is grounded in real trial, error, and context.

And all over I see a focus on filling needs through collaboration and community.

JDC has an almost scientific process in place: each identified need is researched, piloted, evaluated, retooled, scaling up, and finally JDC ensures that successful national programs are made self-sufficient or taken over by the government, ie the JDC exit. The work lives up to the highest standards of any industry, except that it is all about addressing real needs and helping people.

We see innovative pilots to introduce segments of the insular Haredi and Arab communities into the workforce. We visit community-based empowerment centers in the process of being scaled up nation-wide after proving effective in addressing isolated and at-risk children, youth, and their parents (I love the slogan at the disabilities center, borrowed from the U.S.: “nothing about us without us”). And we visit long running established projects that now "graduated" to become entirely self-sufficient or government-run; I wish one of them existed for my grandfather -- a program that enables elderly to continue to live in their own in their homes by fostering a community-based security systems, human connections and accessible medical care.

We visit a park in south Tel Aviv where groups of asylum seekers live in limbo status, perhaps one of the most acute current issues, and the cause of recent violent riots. The conflict can be seen as pitting poor Israelis against African migrants who have lost everything in a desperate trek to get over the border. These two groups are in competition for cheap housing and the search for under-the-table work.

We are told that Israel has become a destination city for Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. Since both countries are deemed unsafe for return, and therefore deporting refugees back is illegal under international law, the situation poses a major challenge to Israel on moral and practical counts.

JDC is working with local NGOs to help the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: creating safer conditions at unofficial day care centers where one woman cares for up to 20 babies and little children a small room or home.

As I walk past the Habima theater, I feel strongly how many dreams this country represents. Jews have always tended to outsized ideas, and perhaps no other country has been etched with narratives as bold and passionate as Israel.

But I stop myself. What we are doing on this trip is not revisiting the grand narrative of a country that finds itself in the throws of existential conflict in spite of its best hopes.

JDC is all about making real, concrete changes. They are changes that are people-sized.

This is not a political organization. The larger geo-political issues have come up only at the start and end, to frame almost a week of people-to-people meetings and site visits. I get the sense too that international politics are not foremost on the minds of the locals either. Perhaps there is a need by all human beings to focus on the things over which there is personal volition.

In a country that counts more than most on true solidarity among its residents to survive, JDC's programs are attempting to re-stitch the fabric of community. In the United States such work is humanitarian; here in Israel it feels existential.

The paper corroborates this thought: daily headlines focus on domestic issues and highlight almost all the themes of our mission visits. A Board member jokes that the JDC-sponsored version is being delivered to our hotels, but we all recognize it in fact as an authentic confirmation of how JDC's work dovetails so completely with the real cares of Israelis.

I am amazed too by the tremendous commitment of JDC's board to visiting programs for five full days. Each individual member seems to have adopted one or two specific projects - about which they know all the details, the staff, the current results and the future plans. They're not only proud of JDC's work here, they are eager to interact, to learn. Above all, though, they want to feel. They see the universal human dimension in this work.

One member says something that sticks with me as she recounts her amazing experiences crossing history and touching lives during the Ethiopian rescue and initial integration: we can do a lot of good things with our lives if we only see.

I'm so impressed with this work, so glad to be part of an organization that is "big and good," as my friend in Kiev, Anja, said. And, after seeing this work in detail, I'll add "smart" too. I am also excited about the opportunities for hands-on engagement, and see a lot of potential for JDC Ambassadors to get involved.

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