Who is filling the void in Ukraine's Jewish community left by the JDC?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Looking at the reasons that the JDC is less and less involved in the Ukrainian Jewish community.

 MEMBERS OF THE Dnipro, Ukraine Jewish community in 2015 receiving help from the JDC. (photo credit: Zvika Klein)
MEMBERS OF THE Dnipro, Ukraine Jewish community in 2015 receiving help from the JDC.
(photo credit: Zvika Klein)

Snow covered the streets of Dnipro, Ukraine, in winter 2015. Yet thousands of Jews moved there and lived in modern-day refugee camps created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known in the Jewish world simply as the Joint.

It struck me that, for the first time in many years, the Jews of cities such as Donetsk and Luhansk were far better off than their non-Jewish neighbors; Jewish organizations and the Israeli government funded many operations, housing, food, medicine and relief.

Naftali Bennett was then Diaspora affairs minister. He budgeted $4 million in order to create temporary housing for the refugees, many of whom were on the run for the second time in their lives. The previous time they fled Nazi Germany, and now it was pro-Russian separatists that took over their cities.

I remember visiting Yelena and Vladimir Sergeev, who fled Lugansk. She is Jewish, he is not – they lived temporarily in a tiny apartment that is half an hour’s drive from the city center. They had two children, one of them with special needs. The building they lived in was in a crowded residential area. The apartment was very small and not fully equipped. It seems that the furniture was collected by donations. The living room became the bedroom of the two children at night.

“At first I sent my wife and children to Dnipropetrovsk, and I arrived only later,” Vladimir told me then. The JDC took care of them: housing, food, small sums of money and also emotional assistance as much as needed.

 THE WRITER with an elderly Ukrainian Jew in Dnipro in 2015. (credit: Zvika Klein) THE WRITER with an elderly Ukrainian Jew in Dnipro in 2015. (credit: Zvika Klein)

FAST-FORWARD SEVEN years, and the JDC, one of the most important and legacy international Jewish organizations, has changed its focus and is less and less relevant in the former Soviet Union countries.

In dozens of conversations that I have had in the past few weeks with former senior employees, local Jewish Ukrainian leaders, board members and local Jews, I’ve heard over and over again that the JDC isn’t the same organization it used to be; you won’t see the JDC managing massive rescue operations as we saw in 2014 and 2015, and as we know it has done throughout history. There are less and less local activities, the Jewish content for holidays disappeared, budgets have been cut, and current CEO Ariel Zwang hasn’t visited the FSU since she was chosen to run the huge and important Jewish organization.

The Joint is a Jewish relief organization based in New York City. The organization was founded in 1914, initially to provide assistance to Jews living in Palestine under Turkish rule. According to the organization’s site, “The JDC’s main purpose is to offer aid to the many Jewish populations in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East through a network of social and community assistance programs. In addition, the JDC contributes millions of dollars in disaster relief and development assistance to non-Jewish communities.”

The JDC has also always received massive amounts of funds from the German government as early as 1990 through the Claims Conference for the treatment of Holocaust survivors. The way the JDC has been working in the FSU has been through approximately 150 local organizations, or as they are called “hesseds” – charities. The JDC offered welfare services for the elderly, yet became a hub for Judaism nationwide.

As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors, and the funds that the JDC receives from the German government become more substantial than the funds raised by the American Jewish communities for these causes. Accordingly, the only people who can receive welfare assistance from JDC are Holocaust survivors. Others in need usually cannot receive these funds.

JDC received about $120m. for the 2022 budget from the German government and $4.5m. from the Claims Conference for its FSU budget. Another half-a-million dollars were raised from the Landecker Foundation and others for emergency assistance. JDC has its own funds, of which only $4.6m. is invested in the FSU Jewish communities.

“You have to understand that there are many Jews in need in Ukraine, for instance, yet if they aren’t Holocaust survivors, the JDC cannot help them anymore,” a former JDC senior employee told The Jerusalem Post under a request for confidentiality. “Since the JDC allocates less and less of its core budget funds from what is raised by American Jewry, and most of it is from the German government, there are very clear rules: Clients, as the JDC calls the people it assists, can only be Holocaust survivors.”

Furthermore, foundations such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews have decided to cut their contributions to the JDC because of what was mentioned, but also because at times they feel that the work can be more effective if their money is invested directly in the local Jewish organizations or Chabad rabbis.

A source from JDC said that other foundations, such as the Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore, that in the past donated more than $5m. yearly for Jews in the FSU are no longer considered donors of the organization.

ANOTHER TOPIC that the JDC has been neglecting in the past few years is funding for Jewish activities in Jewish communities in the FSU.

A local Jewish leader in Ukraine said that “for tens of years I would get funds from the JDC in order to create activities for the Jewish holidays such as the Passover Seder, Hanukkah parties or Rosh Hashanah prayers. In the past two years all of these budgets have been canceled.”

A representative of a Jewish school in the FSU added that “we’ve been getting funding from the JDC for 25 years for Jewish activities for Passover, and this is the first time that we won’t be getting anything from them” said the source.

The Hillel International Jewish student organization is active in the FSU with the young generation. In 2019 it received $248,000 for its activities; in 2021, it received $74,000.

Yet the gap that the JDC has created has been filled by other players, mainly Chabad. A rabbi from a smaller and very poor Jewish community in Ukraine gave a very simple and open analysis: “I worked with the JDC in the ’90s when they used to bring money in suitcases to Ukraine. We were very close, but in recent years they have been declining, and we are slowly filling the void,” the rabbi said.

He explained that the JDC, as an American organization, came with an American mentality and decided to build Jewish community centers, JCCs, like those that exist in North America. “Everything about the JCCs was so American,” a local Jewish leader added, “they created a structure that had an element of a board for each JCC, composed of local Jews. The thing is, these Jews are poor; they’re not donating any money toward the JCCs. Therefore, they had no real power to make any changes. I must say that there are certain places where the method worked, but that had nothing to do with the JDC,” he said.

The leader added that the JDC budget became more and more focused on Holocaust survivors only. “The money over the years has been less and less from American Jewish communities and more from the German government. Take into account that 20 years ago there were thousands of survivors in every city. Nowadays, there are barely any of them still alive. Holocaust survivors are disappearing. JDC’s work has become very formal. It turns out that there is a new generation of Jews in retirement that are still poor and living on a very minimal income, yet they cannot receive money from the JDC.”

“Most Chabad rabbis have opened active community centers, and most synagogues in Ukraine today are run by Chabad rabbis. It’s not that all of these Jews are members of Chabad or even religious; on the contrary, many of them are assimilated Jews,” a local Jewish community member affiliated with Chabad said.

 “In a small town like mine, with a thousand Jewish families,” he added, “there are about 700 people on our list [to whom] we deliver hot food and medicine. In a way, we do everything the JDC used to do 20 years ago. We are the JDC in the FSU.”

Another Jewish leader we spoke to this week said that the JDC used to employ tens of local workers in his city. “There were dozens of employees at the JDC in my city. Now there are only five of them left, as the rest were fired in the past year. From what I see, the JDC is running the operation remotely from Kiev and is just leaving a few employees on ground because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function.”

Many local Jewish community leaders said that they see a big difference between JDC’s work in 2014-2015 and today. “At the time they did feel a much greater obligation to provide food parcels to the Jews - not only to Holocaust survivors. The commitment isn’t the way it used to be, and it makes sense: if you don’t have enough people on ground, the local community needs to take responsibility,” said a source in the organization.

A Jewish lay leader involved in JDCs work for many years related to all that was said by local community members. “Chabad is the most significant player in the FSU to date, and that wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” he said.

“If we compare winter 2014-2015 to winter of 2022, there are many differences, but one of the major ones is that the JDC senior management hasn’t sent anyone to Ukraine. In 2014, JDC’s then-CEO, Alan Gil, was in Ukraine numerous times. The current CEO, Zwang, hasn’t ever been to the FSU, and there are many senior officials from the US and Israel who have yet to be there till now. The explanation they give is COVID-19 restrictions,” the lay leader said.

A few of the interviewees mentioned that the head of IFCJ, Yael Eckstein was in Ukraine numerous times, including last week. The IFCJ is one of the organizations that could pick up some of the slack left by the JDC. It has organized and paid for flights to bring Jewish Ukrainian olim to Israel.

A source in the JDC said this week that “the question the JDC asks itself is: Will we forever be donors of FSU Jewish communities? We have been there for tens of years, but we did not expect to be there indefinitely. Yet, the JDC is supposed to take care of the poorest and most impoverished Jews, and that is not happening in these areas unfortunately. We must be involved there,” the source stated dramatically.

A few JDC executives, past and present, said that the US headquarters are mainly interested in racial equality issues, Jews of color and other progressive values. One of JDCs flagship programs in recent years is JDC Entwine, its leadership program. The JDC site explains that Entwine engages Jewish young professionals and college students through its annual series of overseas immersive experiences: insider trips, multi-week services corps, and yearlong Jewish Service Corps fellowships. A source in the organization was frustrated with this reality and said “Entwine’s budget grew dramatically in the past few years, since the new leadership thinks that this is what the JDC should be doing, yet at the same time there are Jews in Ukraine who are displaced, and sending American Jewish kids on a trip to exotic Jewish communities is more important?”

The source added that “people in the JDC have sacrificed their lives in the past 100 years for the sake of other Jews. This is what the JDC was and should be. An executive who lives in the US when Jews are in danger in Ukraine, and won’t visit the Ukraine, is not running the JDC that was.” 

In response, the JDC said that it “is focusing all of our efforts and energy to help nearly 40,000 vulnerable elderly Jews living in what is tragically now a war zone in Ukraine.

We find it hard to believe that board members or their supporters are using this moment to fire false attacks against our life-saving work, which has increased by more than 40 percent in direct services since 2015, representing our largest budget ever in Ukraine in 2021.”•