The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has picked up another sister city.
It is twinning with Lviv, the western Ukrainian city formerly known as Lemberg (and also spelled Lvov), to support Jewish programs for relief and renewal in a Jewish community now estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000.
In 1939, Lviv’s 110,00 Jews made up one third of its population. The number swelled to 200,000 with the refugees who fled there after Poland was invaded. But by May, 1945, only 800 Jews remained.
After the war, with the return of refugees and Soviet urbanization, the Jewish community grew, peaking at 30,000 in 1979, before mass emigration from the Soviet Union to the United States and Israel began.
Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, is glad that the general work the federation has been doing in feeding impoverished Jews in the former Soviet Union will now have a specific address.
“By partnering with Lviv, we’re better able to impact a specific need,” Shames, said. “They have a community we can relate to very well.”
Shames said Lviv’s history makes helping its Jewish community “very profound and emotional and rewarding.”
“It was one of the first towns that Hitler declared to be Jew-free,” he said. “It had one of the first concentration camps. My maternal grandfather and all of his siblings who lived there were slaughtered.
“Now, we’re able to give the Jews who live there a second chance at building a Jewish community.”
The twinning was arranged through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides funding for relief and renewal for Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the diaspora.
The federation long has funded JDC efforts around the world. Between last June and this one, the federation allocated $90,000 specifically to feed elderly Jews, many Holocaust survivors, in the former Soviet Union.
Now, with the twinning, the federation will be helping one specific partner: The JDC-sponsored Hesed Arieh Jewish community organization.
Hesed Arieh serves 2,127 elderly clients, providing food and medical care, as well as helping 408 youth at risk.
Hesed Arieh also offers Jewish educational programming, a kindergarten, a dance program, a Jewish museum, an orchestra, and a Hillel that involves several hundred students every week. It is one of a number of Hesed organizations throughout the former Soviet Union launched by the JDC. (Hesed is Hebrew for charity and Arieh is Hebrew for lion; Lviv means Lion in Ukrainian.)
Across the former Soviet Union, 165 JDC-sponsored community welfare centers work in 2,700 locations.
“On a daily basis, with the help of our federation partners, we are able to give food, medicine, home care, and winter relief supplies to over 200,000 elderly Jews and 50,000 Jewish children,” Dov Ben-Shimon, the JDC’s executive director for strategic partnerships and the liaison to the federation, said.
Ultimately, the JDC hopes that its leadership development activities will enable the Lviv community to support itself.
“This is a matter of rebuilding a vibrant Jewish community,” said Miriam Allenson, the federation’s director of marketing services. “One of the things we do as a federation is to build vibrancy in our Jewish community. It’s a community that should and can be rebuilt. It has a future.”
Allenson noted that the population of Lviv’s metropolitan area now is 1.5 million people, about that of the northern New Jersey counties the federation serves.
Nicknamed the Paris of the Ukraine, Lviv is a cosmopolitan community.
“The young people are staying,” Alan Sweifach, the federation’s director of community planning, said.
“While we’re starting off primarily to provide social services and help build up Jewish communal infrastructure, we hope we will build up to what we have with Nahariya, with exchanges back and forth. Perhaps we’ll have joint exchanges with Lviv and Nahariya, all sharing together as one Jewish world,” he said. Nahariya is the federation’s sister city through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partner2Gether program.
In October, the federation is planning a mission that will spend three days in Lviv before proceeding to Israel. The mission is primarily for federation leaders and members of its allocation committee.
“We’ll be seeing what the needs are there, what programs we might interested in funding besides that which we already do,” said Karen Scharfstein, chair of the federation’s overseas allocations committee.
“It will be an exciting and memorable site visit,” the JDC’s Ben-Shimon said. “It’s something that both the Lviv and northern New Jersey communities will benefit from. We hope it will be the first of many missions to deepen the connections between these two wonderful communities.”
The twinning advances the goal set by the federation’s recent strategic plan to move toward funding specific projects that will enable donors to see as clearly as possible the effect of their gifts.
“In Lviv, we will be the primary player and be able to see the impact that we are having there,” Sweifach said.
In twinning American federations with Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, the JDC is following a path paved by the Jewish Agency for Israel decades ago, with the twinning programs that evolved to the present Partner2Gether program. It comes as federation funding for the JDC and the Jewish Agency plummeted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and as the longstanding agreements by which the Jewish Agency and the JDC agreed on how to divide American federation donations grew increasingly strained. The JDC has increased its efforts to raise money directly.
For its part, the federation is making it a priority to fund specific projects, rather than just organizations. This past year, 35 percent of the federation’s overseas allocations were devoted to specific projects (including the $90,000 grant to the JDC for feeding the elderly in the former Soviet Union). On the agenda for this year’s allocation committee discussions is the prospect of reducing the unrestricted grant to Jewish Federations of North America, which divides the money between JAFI and the JDC, and giving the money instead to specific JAFI and JDC projects.
From one perspective, allocating funds previously given to the JDC to specific JDC projects in Lviv would appear not to make a difference; the JDC’s overall budget would not be affected.
But connecting New Jersey directly to Lviv would increase the role the federation plays overseas – and its sense that it and its donors are improving the situation of specific Jews.
“In Lviv, we will be the primary player and able to see the impact that we are having there,” said Sweifach.