Rescued and rescuers

Covering more than 60 years with the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

survival book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
survival book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From Survival to Revival By Stanley Abramovitch Gefen Publishing House 285 pages; $29.95 One March night in 1935, Adela Abramowicz took 15-year-old Yehoshua to the train station in Kalisz, Poland. "Be a good Jew," she charged her son as he began his journey to refuge in England. Those were last words Stanley Abramovitch ever heard from his mother. And he took them to heart, as this memoir makes clear. Just after the war, the orphaned young adult embarked on a lifelong career aiding Jews in difficult straits and forgotten communities. As his well-written book describes, that career began with a volunteer position in Germany's Fohrenwald displaced persons camp under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - an organization he'd never heard of till then. "The Joint" aimed to patch up the survivors, restore their communal Jewish life and prepare them for resettlement. This "rescue, relief and rehabilitation" endeavor was a tall order for a 25-year-old novice. Abramovitch - outfitted in an American army uniform - functioned as administrator, social worker, rabbi, teacher and logistician. The task was monumental. While he was recovering from diphtheria, his overwhelmed replacement sent for him after just one day on the job. His success at this posting led to an uninterrupted string of assignments on behalf of the JDC. In 1949, he was appointed country director for Iran. With education his primary responsibility, he helped a New York-based philanthropy found and develop Jewish schools there. Even given his experience with Holocaust survivors, Abramovitch was unprepared for the poverty and illness he found among many of Iran's 120,000 Jews. Stretching his limited budget, he established a variety of medical, welfare and vocational programs in the schools. "The availability of a decent lunch and the distribution of clothing could induce a youngster to stay in school instead of dropping out to pursue more petty opportunities such as peddling, shoe polishing and the like," he writes. In keeping with JDC's modus operandi of setting in motion a community's ability to meet its own ongoing needs, he involved sometimes reluctant natives in managing and funding any program he started. In Iran, this involved much haggling with the affluent class. He wearied of this drawn-out process because in the meantime he "had to contemplate and sometimes witness barefoot children shivering in rags in unheated classrooms during the harsh winter months." At one Teheran school, children lined up to give back their JDC Hanukka presents because they did not grasp that they were meant to keep them. In 1952, Abramowicz moved to the organization's Paris headquarters to begin "what would turn out to be a 30-year career in Jewish education in Europe, alongside missions of many kinds in the countries of northern Africa." For this wide-ranging assignment, Abramowicz used JDC resources to replace short-term relief programs - if they even existed - with professional services and solid communal infrastructures. Working with other organizations and agencies, he realized his goal of revitalizing Jewish education wherever he went, despite tremendous odds. It was his concern for his own children's education that prompted Abramovitch to make aliya in 1972. With the blessing of his wife, Noemi, he continued traveling to far-flung Jewish communities on behalf of the JDC. Sometimes, Noemi accompanied him, as she did in 1996 when he went to Yemen to tend to the community of fewer than 400 Jews in San'a. Israel, too, is a major JDC beneficiary. Abramovitch headed its Yeshiva Program - established in 1948 to assist refugee rabbis and reconstruct and rehabilitate yeshivot here after the decimation of Europe's Jewish institutions - from 1983 until its phaseout in 2002. During many of those same years and beyond, Abramovitch was part of JDC's Soviet Union Team formed in 1989 as the first vehicle for the official reconnection of Soviet Jews with the wider Jewish world following glasnost. He spent considerable time and funds in former Soviet republics, building or rebuilding Jewish communal frameworks under near-impossible conditions. "There was no way that JDC could turn its back on so much Jewish misery," he writes. Every program affected countless lives; for example, a simple trachoma treatment initiative in Casablanca virtually eradicated the rampant disease, "a step that saved the eyesight of literally tens of thousands of children." In his recounting of these achievements, the author unfailing finds something positive to say about every person with whom he ever worked. Without denying the interpersonal difficulties that inevitably arose in his work, Abramovitch leaves the reader with an appreciation of each player's contributions to the greater good. In addition, the book gives exposure to an organization that has quietly been toiling since 1914 to fund Jewish rescue, relief and revitalization programs in more than 70 countries, as well as non-sectarian emergency relief and long-term development assistance. It is to Abramovitch's credit that he brings the JDC into a brighter spotlight by chronicling his own admirable accomplishments.