At a time when tensions between Israel and US Jewry have negatively affected some Israel-focused NGOs, the American Joint Distribution Committee largely remains an organization which Diaspora Jews continue to rally around.
Visiting Israel last week for board meetings, David Schizer, JDC CEO told The Jerusalem Post that the advantage of the JDC “is that everyone agrees on our goals.” For instance, issues of religious pluralism in Israel which have been a major sticking point for liberal US Jews, don’t interfere with JDC’s goals to serve vulnerable populations around the world.
Schizer believes that the tensions have had some impact on the JDC, but far less than it has on other organizations.
“We’re able to unite American Jews around Israel, who might otherwise not be as excited to participate. Because we all have an enormous stake in ensuring this country thrives. I think it’s vital that every Jews in the world participate in that,” he asserted.
The US-Israel relationship, he continued, is extremely important to both sides. “There are a number of considerations which brings the two countries together. One of them is US Jews who love Israel and make the case for Israel. These issues have alienated a number of people who have been previously involved in Israel.”
Schizer, the former dean of Columbia Law School, took the reins of the JDC in January 2017. At the first Jewish Federations of North America board meeting that he attended he recalled: “A number of people kept coming up to me saying it’s good we have the JDC because we all agree with what you’re doing even if we’re very upset about other things.”
JDC indirectly plays some role in trying to fix this divide between progressive US Jews and Israel, which Schizer opines can be significantly overcome by bringing more Jews to visit Israel and educating them about the issues, challenges and reality of Israel.
While this mission is largely served by organizations such as Birthright, it is also a bi-product of a JDC program called “Entwine” which brings people from the US and the UK to visit JDC projects in action all over the world.
“Young Jews who don’t feel connected to Israel or their tradition – and even for some of them it’s a negative – but they are passionate about helping poor people... We bring them to see our work on seven to 10-day service trips, many to Israel and many to other places. If you go to Bat Yam and spend time in the youth programs we have there, you come to realize there are these amazing people being helped by our programs and you want to be a part of it and that also gives the opportunity to come to Israel and understand it better, and that’s a huge benefit,” he said.
The organization had decided to hold its recent board meeting in Israel to mark the country’s 70th anniversary. Board members toured the organization’s programs and met with officials.
The JDC was founded during World War I, when US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Sr. wired New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff to ask for money to help Jews suffering in Ottoman Palestine.
JDC has since expanded to aiding vulnerable communities – mostly Jewish but also non-Jewish – in 70 countries around the world, but a significant portion of its efforts have always been in Israel. Indeed, the organization spends almost a third of its $315 million budget in Israel and 550 of its 1100 employees are based in Israel. “It’s a really crucial place for JDC,” Schizer emphasized.
Before coming to Israel, Schizer reread The Jewish State
by Theodor Herzl. “He said years ago that Israel was supposed to be a model state but in the same sentence he said ‘a model state and a land of experiments’ that Jewish people across the world can turn their ideals into practical reality.”
This, he said, perfectly describes what JDC does, in its efforts to continuously offer new ways to serve vulnerable populations.
The five areas JDC addresses in Israel include at-risk children; bringing unemployed or underemployed people into the workforce; care for the elderly; helping the disabled; and training non-profit leaders to develop new governmental structures to help strengthen civil society in Israel.
One of its 243 programs in Israel focuses on bringing Jewish ultra-Orthodox and Arabs into the workforce.
“The economic miracle that is Israel, is not sustainable without involving all sectors of society in it,” Schizer says.
“Half of the children in Israeli kindergartens are Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] or Israel Arabs so in 15 years they will be the entry-level workers in the economy,” he says.
He says that some see these efforts as an attempt to undermine their lifestyle but JDC is keen to show that they can have both. JDC staff who work with the Haredi population are themselves Haredi, so both parties can more naturally relate to each other.
“We don’t want them to think we want to bring them out of their community,” Schizer says.
The program targets people 19 years and over, providing them with tech training programs to help them integrate into the hi-tech industry of the “start-up nation.”
“Talmudic training gives you an analytic ability which can translate well to hi-tech,” he remarks.
Schizer says that many Haredi women are teachers and JDC helps them provide tech training to their students in order to expand employment opportunities for the younger generation.
After seven years of a program successfully running in Israel, JDC hands it off to the government, which scales it up and runs it throughout the country.
“We think of ourselves as the general contractor,” Schizer explained. JDC usually employs staff of other non-profit organizations so those experts outside of JDC can continue after we leave. “We try to just be involved in the creation and the pilot.”
One program Schizer visited – “Healthy Living” – aims to increase the involvement of disabled people in sports. Visiting the project, Schizer tried his hand at wheelchair basketball, guided by disabled instructors.
Schizer’s father, who passed away a decade ago from ALS, spent his last year in a wheelchair. “So I have a personal connection to it but I never before spent time myself navigating the world in a wheelchair and it gives you a more informed perspective of the experience of the people we work with.”
JDC works with many of Israel’s ministries, and during this recent trip struck its first partnership with the Culture and Sport Ministry to expand this program.
Another JDC project seeks to help people with disabilities live independently. In Israel, there are 10,000 who live in residential facilities while in the US there are 50,000, a much smaller number relative to the population.
“Israel has been depending heavily on that approach which is traditional but if someone is able to live on their own they much prefer.” The JDC, therefore, created the Israel Unlimited Program which works to place people in their own private homes. The NGO identifies and renovates apartments ensuring the living conditions are appropriate for each person’s condition. Social workers pay regular visits to the residents.
As well as being 30% cheaper than a residential facility, the program has a meaningful personal impact on the target group.
“A man I visited in Jerusalem said he felt that he was ‘born again,’” Schizer said with a smile, noting that the Jewish kippa-clad Israeli did not realize that the English phrase means to become a religious Christian. “But the next sentence was: ‘Because I’m living just the way my brother does,’ who doesn’t have the condition he has. So allowing people to live in the way they want to live is a very meaningful result.”