Joint effort

Many staffers at the JDC-Israel have a longstanding connection with the Israel Prize-winning organization.

JDC project (photo credit: Courtesy)
JDC project
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After the Holocaust, 13-year-old Moshe Nordheim wanted to set up a new life for himself in Israel. "I was from Holland, and I was in Bergen-Belsen. I came back without my father, but with my mother and sisters," recalls Nordheim, now 73, who manages the computer systems for the Joint Distribution Committee-Israel. "The whole idea was to come to Israel; there wasn't a future there, with the economic situation. My mother knew the situation wasn't good here, but we wanted to come. My grandparents were already here." The JDC provided crucial assistance to his family after their initial request to the British was denied, and Nordheim, then aged 13, arrived in Palestine with his family in 1947. After a career in teaching, at 40 years old he decided to start a new career with computers and went to work for the Joint in the 1970s. The prestigious Israel Prize is awarded each year on Yom Ha'atzmaut to individuals or organizations that have made significant contributions to Israeli society and culture. This year JDC-Israel is set to receive the award, in recognition of the charitable organization's ongoing and deep influence on Israeli life. Like Nordheim, many of the organization's employees have a personal connection. "My parents are Holocaust survivors," explains Eli Shalev, who has worked at Eshel, a branch of JDC-Israel that helps the elderly, for 18 years. "After the war, they were in the camps and the JDC gave them food, taught them Hebrew and gave my father vocational training. When I started to work [there] they told me all this... then, a few years after my father died I went to the archives and within a few minutes I had the original file about my father. It was very interesting and emotional - he had written that he wanted to go to Brazil after [the camps], but it seems like my mother wanted to come here. It's like a circle, because I myself work at the Joint." The original JDC was set up in 1914 soon after the outbreak of World War I as an umbrella group for several relief organizations. From the original mission to provide assistance to Jews affected by the traumatic events of the Great War, by World War II the JDC was a major international organization, providing invaluable aid to Jewish communities during and after the Holocaust. Continuing to grow, in the 21st century the JDC operates in more than 60 countries and provides help to non-Jewish communities as well, including ongoing relief and reconstruction aid to South Asia after the tsunami in 2004. Most of its funding comes from the North American Jewish community. The JDC has been active in the Holy Land from its inception and played a crucial role in the founding of Israel by helping relocate Holocaust survivors to Israel and by helping fund the arrival and immigration of the Iraqi and Yemenite communities to the fledgling state. The JDC's role in Israel continued to grow, and in 1976 the JDC-Israel was officially launched as the permanent Israel branch, enabling a deeper involvement with Israeli society and ultimately leading to the receipt of the Israel Prize. "The prize is for all of us," says Shalev. "It's not a big surprise because the Joint deserves it; they do so many special things, a lot of which people don't really hear about." "The Joint was always helping with so many things," adds Nordheim. "First of all, we start a new program, and if it continues it can spread. We are always starting something new, therefore there are so many things in Israel today that started with the Joint and now are independent, a lot more things than people think." In a phone interview from her New York office, Judy Amit, chief operating officer of the JDC, attributes the achievement to the organization's employees. "It is absolutely amazing recognition for the work JDC-Israel does with vulnerable populations, and winning the Israel Prize is a sign of the outstanding staff in Israel," she says. "JDC-Israel is relevant, it changes with the times and conditions, and is a non-political organization and so can serve everybody, Arab-Israelis, haredim, single mothers... we are an honest broker, and that has enables us to thrive, not just in Israel. We're the Jewish world's best kept secret."