As war broke out in Europe in in 1914, feuding American Jewish relief groups came together. They paused their internecine fighting to help their Old World cousins and instead focused their energies into creating the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In the 106 years since, as Jews faced crisis after crisis around the world, the JDC kept helping them.
Now, amid the pandemic, the JDC, which receives significant and critically-important funding from local Jewish federations, is facing new challenges. But it is also has a new opportunity to connect with the American Jews who make its work possible as events once held at its Manhattan headquarters now stream online.
Linda Levi of Teaneck is the director of the the JDC’s archives. “We’ve been doing a lot of virtual public programs,” she said. “We can get to large numbers of people around the world.”
Next Saturday night, one such virtual public program will be hosted by her synagogue, Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (See box.) Ms. Levi will present two historic films the JDC produced in 1941 and 1949, and were shown to communities around the United States. “At that time, JDC was very much involved in doing what it could in Europe to help rescue Jews,” she said. “This is very, very interesting historical documentation from then.
“Each is about 20 minutes long. At the time, JDC was working through local communities to raise money. Federations and UJA” — the United Jewish Appeal, which raised money, starting on the eve of the Holocaust, for both the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Palestine — “had already been established.”
The first film includes shots of French and Spanish Jews who were trying to escape, and “touching moments of footage of refugees in Shanghai when they arrived there,” she said.
In the second film, there are “scenes at the railroad tracks when a train is departing, taking people who been in Bergen Belsen and then in DP camps away for eventual aliyah to Israel,” she continued. “They’re saying goodbye to the people they’re leaving behind. That’s very touching.
“And there is footage of Yemenite Jews. JDC was involved in Operation Magic Carpet that brought Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1949 and ’50. It’s a slice of history. People are blown away when they see it.
“People are proud of what the American Jewish community was able to do in those difficult times,” Ms. Levi said. “These films will show aspects of what was happening in these times that people today are not aware of.”
Meanwhile, in 2020, the JDC has adapted to perform its work in pandemic conditions. Most of its efforts are focused on two areas: Assisting poor, elderly Jews, often Holocaust survivors, and helping the younger generations rebuild Jewish life in far-flung communities around the world.
“Our lifesaving humanitarian work continues at full speed, helping the most vulnerable Jews around the world,” Michael Geller, the JDC’s director of media relations, said. “It can be the poorest Jews in the world, living on two dollars a day in the former Soviet Union. We take care of more than 80,000 elderly Jews there, and that work has continued despite covid. We continue to provide food and medicine and home care and attempt to help them deal with the issue of loneliness.
“Imagine if you are a poor, elderly Jew who has no relatives or family or friends in the area. We set up call centers to check in on the elderly. And there’s a pilot program we just launched in Moldova and Ukraine that’s putting smartphones with specially designed software in the hands of the elderly. They can connect with homecare aides and attend online programming like Shabbat services and Chanukah celebrations, and we can monitor their care at a distance.
“And we’re also helping the new Jewish poor around the world, mostly middle-class Jewish families who were doing just fine before the pandemic but because of job loss or other issues are having to scrape by. JDC created a humanitarian relief program to subsidize things like food and rent to help them get through the crisis.
“In Israel, we’re working with the government to adapt a variety of different organizations to deal with increasing job loss because of the pandemic. We’re retraining people to make sure they can go back into the economy, and assembling an army of volunteers to deliver food and medicine to the elderly who are at home.”
Another JDC focus is on creating a thriving Jewish life.
“We quickly adapted our Jewish education programs, the JCCs, the leadership training programs, over to digital. Two examples. The JCC in Warsaw runs a challah-making class. They went online. They went from having a few local folks to a global audience watching it on Zoom, connecting with each other and with a Jewish community most people don’t know about. Now it’s an epicenter for challah making.
“Another example is our working with Jewish teens in the former Soviet Union. We have a partnership with BBYO and Genesis Philanthropies. One of the adaptations of this program during the pandemic is that the young Jewish teens we have been helping create a Jewish identity for have formed a variety of different Jewish interest groups online, where they can teach Torah and do different Torah learning things. They had a huge Shabbat flash mob with over 800 participants. Jewish teens from around the FSU.
“They do it on their own. They want these communities. JDC works with them to make it possible.”
What: JDC Archivist Linda Levi presents two short films from the Joint Distribution Committee
When: Saturday, December 19, 9 p.m.
Where: Zoom information available at rinat.org