Speaker tells of agency’s life-saving
RIDGEWOOD In an emergency, who you gonna call? In the Jewish world, you call "the Joint."
In an address last week at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center here, Dr. Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, gave a detailed rundown of the organization’s lifesaving rescue, relief, and renewal projects worldwide, which have been ongoing for nearly a century. With core funding from the North American federation system, individuals, and private foundations, Recant said that "the Joint," as it is commonly known, helps hundreds of thousands of people in disadvantaged and imperiled communities in 63 countries through non-sectarian emergency relief programs.
At one time, operating largely behind the "Iron Curtain," the JDC had reason to keep its work secret. Today, however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and much of the Communist world, the agency is no longer shy about raising its profile. The aim is twofold: first, to make people aware of JDC’s programs serving to alleviate needs wherever they may be, and second, to highlight how a community that is prospering one day may be in dire straits another. The imperative to respond, Recant noted, is based on the dictum contained within sacred text "Kol Yehudi arav zeh ba zeh," "All Jews are responsible for one another."
As an example, he asked the packed social hall in this affluent village to imagine a community much like their own, one perhaps even more privileged, with yacht and polo clubs next to its Jewish community center. Five years ago, almost overnight, economic hardship set in throughout Argentina. With a 10-month nationwide bank closure that began on Dec. 31, ‘001, the quarter-million-strong Buenos Aires Jewish community was forced to reach out for help with even its most basic needs. Synagogue membership became an unaffordable luxury; just keeping congregations running was a nearly insurmountable challenge. Fortunately, Buenos Aires Jewish leaders knew to make the call. In short order, $10 million in emergency funds had been raised to offset the cost of food, medications, clothing, and shelter, and kept open the synagogues’ doors.
Today, Buenos Aires Jewry has regained its former strength, and with that has come a return to organized Jewish life similar to that in places around the globe. "In Buenos Aires; Istanbul, Turkey; Tiblisi, Georgia; Tel Aviv; and Ridgewood, N.J., boards of directors are sitting around discussing ways of keeping the community alive," said Recant, who lives in Wyckoff. "There are the same men’s clubs, sisterhoods, committees, and issues being discussed everywhere: religious school, security for adults and children, fund-raising and the survival of Israel."
Recant’s presentation was a mix of statistical information and human-interest tales that provided a virtual travelogue of his extensive journeys to sites where the JDC has been active during his 13 years with the agency. The son of Holocaust survivors, Recant has parlayed a doctorate in political science into a career that engages his passion to connect with and support the rebuilding of Jewish community. He called his responsibilities "a privilege."
As global political and economic conditions have changed, the good news, he reported, is that Jews today are free to emigrate from wherever they choose, even if, under certain circumstances, they have to leave their possessions behind. Following decades in which the JDC assisted millions seeking to escape the threat of anti-Semitism and worse, "the days are over that Jewish communities are in need of rescue," Recant said. JDC-sponsored DP camps housed the remnant of European Jewry post-World War II before their resettlement; more recently, dramatic JDC airlifts of Jews from Soviet-bloc nations and Ethiopia and evacuations of Jews living under intolerant Muslim rule in North Africa and the Middle East have enabled them to reach safety.
Among the most uplifting stories Recant recounted is that of Cuban Jewry. In 199′, after a 40-year ban, he said, an official change loosened restrictions on religious worship. On his trip that year to Havana, he noticed a sign in the "Patronada," a JCC social hall with only two working light bulbs, that read "Am Yisrael b’Cuba chai," "The Cuban Jewish community lives." Recant asked his guide, "Is this true?" to which the guide replied, "No, it’s a lie." Only eight elderly men in a community of 1,500 were openly identified, and they didn’t know how to daven, according to a rabbi who accompanied Recant on the JDC mission. Thirteen years later, "there’s a palpable sense of renewal, with two dozen b’nai mitzvah and a number of Jewish weddings performed in the past four years. Friday nights, about 300 Jews come from throughout Havana to welcome Shabbat with services."
Renewal efforts have also yielded tremendous success, he said, throughout Eastern Europe, notably in Germany, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Russia.
At the same time, he said, the JDC’s relief mission, that "no Jew should ever go to bed hungry, anywhere in the world," has not yet been fulfilled. There are still impoverished elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, for example, left scrambling to cover the costs of food, medicine, and shelter. Asked how the JDC can justify aiding non-Jewish victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami before taking care of the basic needs of Jews living in poverty, Recant explained that funds raised in the aftermath of an emergency are typically earmarked for that event and cannot be diverted to other social services.
Be that as it may, he said, the JDC is proud of its role as a non-sectarian relief provider to victims of natural disasters and political oppression. The organization has been instrumental, for instance, in an effort to rebuild a school in Gal, Sri Lanka, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. Of the $30 million raised for tsunami relief, said Recant, $18.5 million was donated by the Jewish community through the JDC. The JDC is also part of a coalition of 44 separate organizations working to halt the genocide in Darfur and has funneled $8 million from American Jewish donors to aid the Kosovar Muslims in the rebuilding of their community. The most recent example of JDC participation in disaster relief has been its on-the-scene involvement on the Gulf Coast, devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Recant concluded his talk with a "Todah rabah," a thank you, to his audience for "building community here at home and for not forgetting Jewish needs around the world."
He will speak at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee on Friday, Jan. ‘0, at 7 p.m. For information, call (’01) 947-1735.