June 12, 2012

Letter to friends: visiting Israel with JDC

Judah Kraushaar, member of the JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee, joined JDC's Board for a mission in Israel in early June 2012. Below are reflections that he shared with a group of his friends about the work and impact of JDC in Israel.

I recently had the good fortune to travel with the board of The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) examining in depth its work in Israel. As you may know, the JDC has become one of my passions, and I hope you’ll allow me to share a small part of what I saw and learned from this incredibly stimulating experience. I’ve been to Israel many times typically as a tourist or in the context of my interest in political advocacy; but this trip allowed me to see a very different side of the country—it focused on the challenges posed by the soft underbelly of society, a world where the poor, disenfranchised, and even migrant populations struggle daily. In many countries, such a focus would have been totally depressing; but, as you might have guessed, the commitment in Israeli society to address social problems, combined with Israeli innovation and passion—and helped along by the JDC’s work—made this visit to Israel one of my most uplifting ever.

Before going further, let me encapsulate the mission of the JDC. This nearly century old organization is renowned for its rescues of Holocaust victims, Jews from the Soviet Union, and refugees from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Ethiopia; but its relevance goes much further and has evolved with the times. Today, the JDC pursues a three pronged mission of rescue, relief, and community building for Jews living in nearly 70 countries (it also provides relief services for non-Jews who are in emergency situations most often as the result of a natural disaster). As I witnessed first-hand in Israel, JDC often provides seed capital and know-how to create and develop innovative social programs that are speedily taken over by third party partners such as government ministries and/or local municipalities, thus leveraging JDC’s expertise and allowing it to recycle resources to address new challenges.

Israel and the Former Soviet Union represent JDC’s largest areas of focus with each consuming over one third of the annual budget. In Israel, however, the power and leverage of JDC’s preferred operating model is exceptionally well illustrated. From a base of only $11 million in unrestricted funds put to work in the country each year, JDC has found partners that have added more than $90 million in additional financial resources. What’s more, JDC typically focuses on developing new programs that address the most pressing problems in society and provides seed capital that typically is replaced by third party partners within a three to six year time frame. Thus, the budget’s leverage compounds over time. For philanthropists eager to see the impact of their contributions maximized, this model is indeed impressive.

Another aspect of JDC has been its commitment to research and developing analyses that help steer resources most dispassionately to areas of real need. JDC has financial and operating partnerships with two preeminent research organizations in Israel. The Taub Center takes a top-down approach and analyzes economic and social trends, whereas the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute examines specific social programs and determines their need and effectiveness. Given my background as a research analyst, this part of JDC is especially distinctive and compelling—in my opinion, objective research is the key to making sure non-profit work doesn’t get carried away by natural emotional forces but rather prioritizes and focuses on things that really can have major impact.

I could go on discussing the things that I find compelling in JDC from a strategic and process standpoint, but I realize you’re probably more interested in learning what made this trip so invigorating. In brief, here are the issues and JDC programs that touched me:
  • Poverty and Youth: About a third of Israeli children (more than 800,000) live below the poverty line with nearly half of those considered to be "at risk". Responsible Israelis understand that avoiding a permanent underclass represents a moral challenge of the highest order. JDC’s response has been extensive and longstanding. Over the past 13 years, 300 projects have been developed with 70% of these having been embraced and taken over by the government. JDC programs focus especially on bringing parents and children together to promote education, parental support, daycare, health promotion, literacy, and afternoon activities. There are specialized programs for the very young, for the Ethiopian community, and for parents of children with learning and other disabilities. Programs for the very young (less than 6 years of age) will soon be in place in nearly 170 locations.

    Our itinerary included a number of stops where we interacted first hand with relevant program participants: a primary school in one of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods that concentrates on effectively integrating Ethiopian and other recent immigrants into the broader community; a center also in a desperately poor area where children at risk, their parents, and the entire neighborhood come together under a holistic intervention strategy; and a high school where Teach First Israel—Israel’s equivalent of Teach For America—has been implemented and where graduation rates have risen decisively.
  • Unemployment Among the Ultra-Orthodox: The challenge posed by the Haredim are generally well known; yet with this community exceeding 700,000 people growing 6% annually and with poverty rates at about 50%, the statistics are still devastating to hear. Importantly, JDC has been piloting a variety of programs with the IDF to bring Haredi men into the army in a manner that respects these young men’s religious needs. Special emphasis has been placed on technical training (e.g. computer skills) that hopefully can be useful for future job attainment once the army service ends. Other JDC programs have targeted the Haredim more broadly including programs geared at women that promote language and teaching skills.

    At a major army base in central Israel, we met with several ultra-orthodox soldiers. The exchange was riveting. One Hasidic young man revealed that he had kept his army service secret from his family for 18 months given their disapproval. At the end of each day, this soldier changes into civilian clothes before heading home to maintain the secret. Learning of such personal hardships wasn’t easy; however, all of these young soldiers have come to appreciate the dignity afforded by supporting oneself and family with meaningful employment. Somehow, hearing those sorts of comments suggested the future holds the seeds of progress. In fact, over the past 10 years, JDC sponsored work training programs have impacted 23,000 members of the Haredi community.

  •  Israeli Arab Economic Development: As with the Haredim, the Israel Arab population is growing exceedingly fast and suffers from very high unemployment. This is true especially among Arab women. Only 26% of Arab-Israeli women work. Demonstrating that JDC’s work does not stop with Jews, we visited Tira, an Arab village between Tel Aviv and Haifa where we met in a new employment center (one of six in Israel set up and initially supported with assistance from JDC) entirely devoted to helping Israeli Arabs enter the work force. Hesitantly, three middle aged Arab women described the cultural, educational, and logistical impediments to finding meaningful work in Israel. It was impossible to gauge how these women were inwardly reacting to meeting with a group of American Jews; however, their determination to make something of their lives was touching and certainly struck a universal chord.

  • Problems of the Elderly: We made a few stops to learn about programs for the elderly, but the one that especially hit home for me was a home visit in a neighborhood in Jerusalem where an effort has been made to provide community support services designed to keep elderly adults in their homes rather than sending them to more costly nursing homes. This was one of 250 similar supportive neighborhoods around Israel, serving over 50,000 elderly. Strikingly, this community has hired a group of adult professionals who are charged with checking in with their elderly neighbors daily and who provide assistance as needed. Moreover, a dedicated physician is on staff; and the community provides social activities all for a nominal charge. The simplicity, efficacy, and above all the humanity of this model for taking care of the elderly were impressive indeed. One should understand that the 65+ population accounts for over 10% of Israel’s population today, and that the number of elderly is expected to double over the next 20 years.

  • Programs for the Disabled: Each challenge in Israel has its own galvanizing statistic, but here’s one more: the largest minority group in the country is that of people with disabilities. The key to an effective response is to combat isolation and loneliness and to provide services that empower this population. JDC has helped establish six Centers for Independent Living across the country geared at integrating people with disabilities into society. The centers offer peer counseling, job skill training workshops, technical assistance with medical devices, and courses in how to advocate for equal rights.

Before closing, there was one other much more unsettling experience that I’d like to share, namely a growing crisis in Israel pertaining to refugees, asylum seekers, and other foreigners seeking work in Israel. Current estimates suggest there are 60,000-80,000 people who have trekked hundreds if not thousands of miles to enter Israel; and new arrivals are coming at the pace of 2,000 per month. Ninety percent of these people come from Sudan and Eritrea. Until now, the Israeli government has not had a well developed policy response and has allowed these foreigners to disperse inside the country. The liberal minded Tel Aviv municipal government and private citizen groups have provided some help, but this has only served as a magnet to attract the majority of these individuals to the city. The numbers have grown sharply, and social tensions are rising. We toured the old Central Bus Station area of south Tel Aviv which effectively is an urban ghetto where hundreds of homeless people are living in the main park. Violent crimes are increasing in frequency and it is apparent that this population is bringing out some of the worst elements in Israeli society itself. This issue is problematic for Israeli society at large and is fraught with ethical issues (especially for Israel given its refugee oriented history). One hope is that a soon to be completed fence along the Sinai border may stem the tide. It’s not clear whether and how JDC can be of help, but I’m glad that our mission did not dodge this obviously fluid and threatening aspect of life in Israel.

Not wishing to end this missive on a down note, a couple of other quick observations helped me leave Israel with a warm feeling. Most importantly, Israeli society has an incredible embedded culture of volunteerism, particularly among its young adults. We visited with high school students working hand in hand with their local mayors and town leaders to provide peer counseling services, help for the handicapped, care for the aged, etc. You have to meet the people to really feel it, but it’s something that goes above and beyond, especially relative to my personal frame of reference here at home. There’s also the exceptional role played by the army in bringing all types of people together in a way that contributes to an incredible social and community ethos. This certainly is not a new revelation, but I come home to the US somehow feeling we would benefit as a country by having a national service program for our own young people.

Finally, my week in Israel was bracketed by two high energy events in Tel Aviv. Madonna kicked off her latest world tour in Tel Aviv to a sold-out crowd, and the rumors were flying all week of that she had stayed on and had been sighted all over the city. Who would have thought a star like Madonna would hang out in Israel for a week?! The other event was the annual Gay Pride Day/Parade which turned the city into a blur of rainbow flags and pink balloons. What hit me most was the sea of humanity that came out for the event, both gay and straight. Somehow, I felt far more uplifted seeing this celebration in Tel Aviv than in New York or elsewhere. I suppose it was recognition that for all the suffering over our long difficult history in the diaspora, the Jewish people, and perhaps especially those in Israel, have come closest to learning what it means to be a light unto the nations and to respect the dignity of all people.

One of my new friends at JDC recently taught me a powerful phrase: “the heart can’t feel what the eyes haven’t seen.” After an eye opening week in Israel, my heart has been truly opened. Thank you for allowing me to share this wonderful week with you. If you would like to learn more about JDC and how to become involved, I would be honored to help you engage with this truly exceptional and inspiring organization.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Judah, You have captured the mission, Israel and JDC perfectly. Thanks for sharing what "your eyes saw and your heart felt". Penny