NEW YORK – A box of matzot from Ukraine; a pair of eyeglasses from Russia, held together for 50 years with rubber bands, tape and prayers; a letter from John D.
Rockefeller pledging half-amillion in 1926’s dollars — the equivalent of $30 million today. These items are all part of the new exhibit on the history of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) called I Live, I Send Help, which opened on Friday at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.
“As the chief steward of this century-old organization, you can’t imagine what it’s like to be standing in my shoes,” said Alan Gill, CEO of the JDC, noting that this was the first time he’d seen the exhibit himself.
The exhibit draws its name from a cablegram sent on July 14, 1995 by a woman named Luba Minze in Warsaw to New York that reads: “I live require help.”
“I see that cablegram replica everyday, and I’m reminded that it is our moral compass,” Gill said.
One of the JDC’s most pressing and consistent concerns since its founding in 1914 has been the situation in Ukraine, where there are now between 300,000 and 350,000 Jews.
“In the city of Sloviansk [in the east], there are 147 elderly Jews living under siege, as everyone in that city is, 19 of whom are homebound,” Gill said. “The JDC is there, ensuring that every single person, of which there are about 72,000 Jews who we help day in and day out, is well-stocked with whatever they need, and all 147 are not alone. They live and we send help.”
The JDC has been a presence in eastern Europe since World War I, and today is in more than 70 countries.
Operations in Ukraine have intensified since the outbreak of civil unrest there last November, mobilizing units to deliver food, medicine and other supplies in Maidan, Kiev and Donetsk.
Around Passover they distributed 53,000 boxes of matzot and organized community seders.
Gill said he aims to make the JDC part of the greater humanitarian response to disasters around the world, for all people.
“The Talmud teaches us that all Jews are responsible for one another,” Gill said. “And Rabbi Hillel taught us ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me, yet if I am only for myself, who am I?’ That to me is what, briefly, encapsulates the mission and purposes of JDC.”
The exhibit, which was three years in the making, said cocurator Linda Levy, who told reporters the exhibit is meant to “portray the heroic work of the organization in crisis and calamity, including war and natural disaster, and in times of existential crisis to the Jewish community, such as the rise of Nazism.”
Levy, who is also the director of global archives at the JDC, and involved in culling 5km. of documents, 100,000 photos, sound recordings and video footage, to select around 100 images, recordings and films.