By STEVEN SCHWAGER
Symbolism, rather than action, dominated the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America. Its new logo, new name and new executive and lay leader were a sure sign of hope, the harbingers of a sincere and enthusiastic attempt to revive the national organization that succeeds UJC. Yes, the GA was a magnificent celebration of Israeli-American Jewish unity and a demonstration of its might. But I returned from Washington more concerned than I have ever been in my 20 years of Jewish communal service.
On one hand, we at JDC will support the newly-created JFNA. On the other hand, we are worried about those who were not "present at the party" during the GA. I refer to the other Jews - those who do not live in Israel or North America. Their voices were silent, their needs received a cursory notice and their communities were ignored. I am not trying to be a party spoiler, but 20 percent - one fifth! -of the Jewish people today live outside of the US and Israel.
We know them well: For us they are not statistics, but rather Jewish men, women and children who are struggling to live Jewish lives in their historic communities. JDC is often their only guardian, their daily lifeline, their friend and support. We help them in Mumbai and in Buenos Aires, in Warsaw and Riga, in Djerba and Bucharest.
The elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union today are the poorest Jews in the world, and their situation is painfully serious. We struggle to feed them, to keep them warm, to supply their vital medicines - paid for in part by declining American Jewish charitable funds.
Regretfully, helping the elderly is stigmatized in the eyes of most affluent Russian Jews. The paradox is that those oligarchs went from rags to riches during the chaotic post-communist years. And those very same years turned their elderly parents' generation into penniless poor. But the oligarchs prefer to put their money and their names on mausoleums and universities.
In the excitement to trump new "Jewish peoplehood," there is the risk that we are abandoning the Jewish people. And that leads to the greatest irony: The Jewish "babushka" living alone in a one-room walkup in Russia is helped today by the generosity of millions of Evangelical Christians through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews - not by the charity of an oligarch who could be her grandson!
WHAT ELSE worries us? The UJA - the grandfather of today's newly-created JFNA - was formed in the wake of Kristallnacht in Germany, precisely 71 years ago. Numerous speakers at the GA last week made references to this historic event that catapulted American Jewish philanthropy into a superpower world arm, bringing rescue and relief to every Jew. UJA was always a relentless and indefatigable advocate of Jewish needs in Israel and overseas. Seventy-one years later, will we abdicate this moral commitment under the pressure of domestic issues and needs? Can we - the more comfortable, more secure 80% of the Jewish people - cut off the neediest 20% of our brethren? Since when has a hungry Jew anywhere become an "overseas issue" marked as less urgent compared to local needs?
We are a worldwide Jewish family - and family takes care of its own. As we enter the new era of our communal life in North America, let us harness all our moral, communal and, yes, financial resources to guarantee that our philanthropy will never forsake any Jew in need of life's basic necessities.
The writer is the executive vice president and CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
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