The Jewish people’s 911

The Jewish people’s 911

Local archivist collects a century of JDC photographs

Linda Levi stands among the JDC files.

Twenty-six serious men sit around the table.

Two of the men have long beards; half wear mustaches. Scattered between them are two women, one of whom, of course, is the stenographer, known only as Mrs. F. Friedman. The other is the comptroller.

The year is 1918, and the men are leaders of the Jewish community. Most, like the host of the meeting, banker Felix Warburg, and his father-in-law, banker Jacob Schiff, are Reform Jews of German origin. A couple, including those with beards, are Orthodox and from Eastern Europe. Some are rabbis; one is novelist Sholem Asch. The comptroller is Harriet B. Lowenstein.

Meet the founders of the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers, the organization now known as the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and variously as JDC or “the Joint” for short.

The men had formed the group four years before the photograph was taken. That was after Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey, who was Jewish, had cabled Mr. Schiff asking for money to aid the Jews in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The Great War had erupted in Europe a month earlier, and now the Jews of Palestine were cut off from their traditional Eastern European supporters because the Turkish Ottoman empire was at war (alongside Germany and Austro-Hungary) against the Russian (and British and French) allies.

At first, American Jews formed two separate relief organizations in response to Morgenthau’s plea; one by the new Orthodox immigrants, one by the Reform old guard led by the American Jewish Committee. But by November of 1914 they had merged into the joint relief body that would dispense the funds raised by their separate campaigns. (In 1915, a third group joined – the socialist People’s Relief Committee, backed by Workmen’s Circle.) The war hit the Jews of Europe hard. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, many by their own governments.

The (mostly) men of the JDC had reason to pose on that July day in 1918; they had mobilized the Jews of America to aid their overseas relatives. They had led Congress to proclaim a Jewish War Relief day in 1916. And when their wartime contributions would be tallied three years later, it would turn out that by 1921 the Joint had raised $15 million for relief in Europe and Palestine and had facilitated the transmission of $10 million in personal direct aid to the war zone.

In the century of whirlwind Jewish history that followed, the JDC’s work continued around the globe, through the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, to the mass migration of Jews from the Middle East and the Soviet Union, to fragile Jewish communities in Ethiopia and Sarajevo and Argentina and beyond.

Its actual fundraising, however, was put on pause for many years. After competing after the Great War with Zionist fundraisers over whether Jews should be helped in Europe or in Palestine, the two groups joined forces on the eve of the Holocaust in 1938 to form the United Jewish Appeal, whose funds were allocated between the JDC and the Zionist Jewish Agency.

More recently, as the flow of money slowed from the Jewish federations that funded the United Jewish Appeal and its successor organization, the Jewish Federations of North America, the JDC, like the Jewish Agency, began its own independent fundraising again.

The JDC now spends half of its $360 million budget in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, feeding elderly Holocaust survivors and supporting a revival of Jewish communal life for those Jews who remained after the Holocaust and mass emigration to Israel. Another 40 percent of the budget is spent in Israel, where the JDC funds a range of social service projects.

Now, as the JDC marks its centennial, that 1918 photograph of the JDC’s founding leaders fills the first page of a new commemorative book: “I Live. Send Help.” The book is subtitled “100 Years of Jewish History in Images from the JDC Archives.”

It is edited by Linda Levi, who heads the JDC’s archive and lives in Teaneck with her husband. The couple, who have two grown children, are members of Congregation Keter Torah.

Ms. Levi grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. She went to nearby Brandeis for college, and spent her junior year abroad at Hebrew University. It was in Jerusalem that she took a course with Dr. Michael Rosenak, called “Issues in Contemporary Jewish Life.” In later years Professor Rosenak would become known as the premiere philosopher of Jewish education. In those years, his class already was packed, and Ms. Levi was far from the only student who left the classroom wanting to devote her life to a career helping the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

She went on for a graduate degree in contemporary Jewish studies and Jewish communal service at Brandeis, and then, when she finished, she moved to Israel.

“My dream job was to work for the Joint, which was in my eyes then and still is the premiere organization that was helping Jews in need around the world,” she said.

Her first job was the Jerusalem Y. Then she spent four years with Eshel, a partnership between the Israeli government and the JDC that provided social services for the elderly.

Then, when family concerns brought her back to America, she found a job with New York’s UJA-Federation.

In 1989 she joined JDC as associate director of program planning and budget.

“We were helping large numbers of Soviet Jewish transmigrants who were leaving the Soviet Union and deciding not to go to Israel,” Ms. Levi said. (Transmigrants are people moving from place to place, before they arrive at their final destination.) “Our offices in Vienna and Rome were caring for Soviet transmigrants as they were waiting for paperwork to enter the U.S. We were working in Eastern Europe in countries that were still under communism. We were trying to find those openings that would help us revitalize Jewish life.

“And then, with the end of Communism, the JDC began to operate in the Soviet Union, in a place that was vast, as a community that was cut off from its Jewish heritage for so long, and we had to figure out how to begin.

“Unfortunately, the economic dislocation following glasnost and perestroika led to the end of the safety net that Soviet citizens had been able to depend on. We began addressing the needs of the Jewish elderly. A lot was done with the help of the Claims Conference” – which receives money from German reparation – “to fund those programs for victims of the Nazis. We developed a major welfare program, providing food packages and home care for needy Soviet elderly, and later for children at risk,” she said.

Her role in the budgeting process gave her a top-level view of the JDC’S decisions, and “its funding allocations in response to global needs around the world,” she said. During this time, she traveled around the world, “visiting many, many communities, seeing the needs.”

In 2009, the JDC’s longtime archivist retired and Ms. Levi took over the job. She turned her attention to the JDC’s history, and “how the treasures of our archives could be used for the benefit of the JDC today.”

All told, the JDC’s documents span three miles of shelving, some in Israel and some in a climate-controlled facility in Long Island City. The archive boasts some hundred thousand photographs, about 160 sound recordings, and more than a thousand films.

An oral history project features transcripts of interviews with JDC staff and leaders “who were involved in major historical events of the work of the JDC from the time of the Holocaust and later,” Ms. Levi said. “Many of the oral histories of the Holocaust are of survivors. Ours are of the caregivers. It gives a whole different insight.”

Much of the archives have been digitized and are accessible online at, a website that showcases the organization’s photos. A name search provides easy access to records that contain more than a hundred thousand names. It is a great boon for people researching their family history.

“In the archives of the Joint I have found correspondence from my great grandfather, who was a leader in the Jewish community of Vienna in the 1920s,” Ms. Levi said. “He was corresponding with the Joint about the visits he took to see the situation of Jewish refugees from Galicia who were in Lemberg, and about the help the community was extending to the refugees.

“I also found records in our archives of when my grandfather came to America. There are notes about two different times he came to meet with JDC leaders to impress upon them the terrible situation of the Jews in World War II, specifics about particular problems that needed to addressed with and dealt with at the time,” she said.

“We indexed some very historic lists. We have a list of over 9,000 refugees who were being helped by the JDC around 1940 in Vilna, refugees from Poland who had moved to Vilna. That list has the names of many familiar rabbis like Aron Kotler, and Zionist leaders like Menachem Begin,” she said.

After the war, “JDC was very active in the DP camps,” she continued. “We had an emigration service working out of Vienna and Munich. We had an index card of everyone we helped. All those cards, something like 80,000 of them, have been indexed.”

And this reporter discovered that one of his great grandfathers had been a vice president of a national Jewish organization that had corresponded with the JDC and whose letterhead had been digitized into the archives.

“When you delve into our archive system, you get a sense of the enormous length the JDC went through and continues to go through to help Jews, particularly during crises,” Ms. Levi said. “When you read some of the field reports of what was witnessed and done, both in reaction to World War I and World War II, and the number of countries we worked in, the efforts to get papers for people coming from different countries, trying to match people’s backgrounds with countries that had some openings, the array of countries – particularly during World War II – refugees in Casablanca and Tangiers and Shanghai, refugees sent to Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, India, all over the world – it’s really quite astounding.

“It makes me very proud to be part of an organization that has this kind of illustrious history.”

The archives have provided her a window of what Jewish rescue required back in the days of telegraphs and steam ships. “When you read some of the old reports and you understand what it took to get to places and communicate about it – the operation had the same alacrity in trying to respond to problems, but the effort was so much greater and the communication about it was so much slower,” she said. “Today you send an email. Things go so much faster.”

The JDC describes itself as “the 911 of the Jewish people” – a phrase that would have been incomprehensible to the men sitting around that table a century ago. But though the situation has changed, and one of the three Rs in its description has morphed over the years, from “reconstruction” to “rehabilitation” to “renewal,” its core mission “has remained constant: rescue and relief,” Ms. Levi said.

We suspect that Mr. Warburg and Mr. Schiff would have approved.

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