In its 70th anniversary year, Israel is widely seen as the Start-Up Nation because of its high-tech achievements. Thanks to JDC – or the “Joint,” as it is known in Israel – which develops innovative social services to lift the lives of the most vulnerable, Israel is also becoming the “Start-Up Nation for Social Innovation”

Dan Zeller
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Delivering life-saving aid, JDC and its partners care for nearly 100,000 poor, elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union
Dan Zeller
Promoted Content

If anyone had told Israel’s founders that 70 years after its establishment, the world’s leading technology companies would choose to build R&D centers here, they would have found it hard to believe. But the high-tech engine that fostered the economy’s growth has not filtered down to the most vulnerable strata of Israeli society.

The latest OECD report described the country’s huge socioeconomic gaps as a genuine danger to Israel’s stability. Many Israelis live in poverty, education gaps between populations are growing, there is a social divide among the various communities, and Israel has lagged behind in its inclusion of people with disabilities. These problems form a profound challenge to the country’s continued economic development.

“Since its establishment in 1914, The Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] has invested over 10 billion shekels strengthening Israeli society, helping and supporting social and humanitarian needs, and developing the country’s ability to provide opportunities to its vulnerable populations,” says Dr. Sigal Shelach, JDC Israel’s new CEO. “Clearly, we have the experience and expertise to harness the best tools of Israeli innovation for the field of social services.”

“The JDC is Israel’s social development center. We develop social pilot programs for the most vulnerable populations, test them in the field while conducting the appropriate research, and if they’re successful, we hand them over to our partners in the government to become official social services, touching millions of lives,” explains Dr. Shelach. “Over the years, JDC has impacted Israel’s toughest social challenges, including day-care centers and community programs for older adults, fighting poverty in the Arab and Haredi sectors through employment, and creating a better tomorrow for Israel’s next generations right from early childhood.”

There is no question that Israel is in the technological forefront, but how can these processes have a positive influence on all the groups in Israeli society?

From technological innovation to social innovation

Yossele left his ultra-Orthodox community several years ago, but his previous education did not prepare him for the job market. To bridge those gaps, he joined the Digital Talent program – which trains groups like the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis for work in the digital field – and today he is working in a large company managing client portfolios. “There’s no question that … a large part of the credit for where I am today goes to Digital Talent. It changed my life,” he says.

The program – a partnership of JDC, the government of Israel, and Google – matched the manpower shortage in digital professions to Israeli populations underrepresented in the industry. It includes high-quality and prestigious study tracks tailored to cultural sensitivities and close cooperation with leading employers in the field.

“I did a pay-per-click course for Google and the social networks and was exposed to the world of digital marketing,” says Fahdi Hussein, an Arab Israeli. “I was hired to work in a company that specializes in digital marketing; within a few months I became a project manager, and now I’m the head of a department.”

Partnership is a central principle at JDC, explains Dr. Shelach. “Our ability to professionalize that principle gives us the unique ability to convene government ministers, municipalities, NGOs, and the business sector around the table to solve the most complex social challenges.”

A place to call home

While the Israeli housing crisis receives a great deal of coverage, it is even more complicated for the nearly one million people with disabilities. They have special difficulty finding accessible housing, confronting the stigmas held by some landlords or neighbors, and navigating the bureaucracy.

Lior and Lotem, a couple with disabilities, overcame those challenges with help from Israel Unlimited’s Supported Housing initiative. “We met on a dating website, and after a year and a half of dating we decided to get married,” says Lior. At the time, Lior was living in an institution while Lotem was living with her parents. “The counselors helped us look for an apartment suited to our needs, accompanied us in our dealings with the various authorities, and even assisted us with packing and the actual move,” recalls Lotem.” We succeeded in fighting for our independence! Everyone deserves independence; we want our independence too.”

Supported Housing is one of many JDC initiatives for the disabled made possible through a partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation and the government of Israel. Since its 2012 launch, the pilot has expanded to 40 communities throughout the country and is expected to grow considerably next year under the auspices of the government.

Global exchange with Israel at its heart

JDC operates in 70 countries worldwide, saving Jewish lives, building Jewish life, empowering Israel’s most vulnerable, and aiding victims of disaster or crisis. This global reach enables JDC to import and export leading social welfare and other humanitarian and educational intervention models.

“Sometimes the best and most innovative models are right under our noses, and sometimes they are from further afield. That’s what happened with the Green Learning program,” notes Dr. Shelach. “One of our funders, who supports a similar model in the U.S., recommended that we import it to Israel.”

Over 4,000 schoolchildren are already benefiting from the program, which creates green spaces in schoolyards, gardens that become hands-on incubators for math and science learning. Principals at the participating schools speak of the positive change the program has made in the atmosphere of their school.

Successful models in Israel have also been exported to other countries. An example is Witness Theater, which brings together Holocaust survivors and teenagers in a yearlong drama-therapy process that results in a play based on the stories of the survivors and performed by the entire group.

Dozens of Israeli communities have already participated in this project, but its success has expanded beyond Israel. Witness Theater performances with local Holocaust survivors and students (including non-Jewish students) have been staged in the U.S., Ukraine, and even Germany. The German participants came to Israel and put on a joint performance with Israeli students and survivors.

“The same people whom JDC helped as children during the Holocaust, we are now helping to heal in their old age. As Holocaust survivors in Israel are aging, we’ve found that one of the most important challenges for them is to dispel their loneliness through social programs and even by sharing their life stories,” says Dr. Shelach.

Impacting tomorrow

To solve the next generation of social challenges, you need to involve the next generation of social entrepreneurs and social service professionals.

In partnership with the National Insurance Institute, JDC established Hackaveret  – Israel’s largest social innovation Hub – which encourages the development of innovative solutions to major social challenges facing Israel’s vulnerable populations.

JDC also launched a new Campus for Learning and Knowledge supported by the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Foundation, which offers professionals working with Israel’s vulnerable populations access to JDC’s best practices and innovative models from Israel and around the world. 

“Both Hackaveret and the JDC-Wohl Campus were designed to support all those involved in social initiatives, and also to serve as antennae for us to discover new innovations in the field,” says Dr. Shelach.

JDC has over 200 programs in various development stages, Dr. Shelach continues. “Our programs not only will become official social services sponsored by the State of Israel in the coming years, they are also the building blocks of a society where the most vulnerable are offered an opportunity for a better tomorrow.”

JDC’s operations in Israel and worldwide are generously supported by Jewish Federations across North America through JFNA, foundations, private donors, and many generous partners.

Saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life

The Power of Giving sat down with JDC President Stanley Rabin and JDC CEO David Schizer to learn more about how JDC carries out its century-plus mission of “saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life.”

Why does JDC remain relevant today in a world marked by growing isolation and crisis?

At no other time has it been more critical for Jewish communities across North America – especially our valued partners in the Jewish Federations – to engage in global issues that can transform lives for the better, both here in Israel and also around the globe. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are touched each year through our work together – people who, thanks to our collective care, now – people who live with dignity, with pride in their Jewish identity, and with hope for the future because their lives have been profoundly and positively changed.

Your work in the former Soviet Union is often noted as the “bread and butter” of JDC. Why?

In Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and other post-Soviet States, some 100,000 Jewish lives are on the line – elderly Jews, half of whom are Holocaust survivors, who are struggling today to survive on miniscule government pensions as low as $2 a day. With no families left to help them, many would die without the food, medicine and homecare we provide through our network of Hesed social welfare centers supported by the Federations in partnership with the Claims Conference, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and many others. We have also seen the blossoming of Jewish life among communities across the region, where our JCCs, Shabbat family retreats, leadership training, and youth programs are stacking the deck for more advancement in Jewish life. Legions of volunteers we have fostered have joined us in our work caring for the needy and innovating the way “being Jewish” is done. This was unimaginable when Communism fell and the Jews of the region are truly among the avant garde of Jewish creativity.

Speaking of the future of Jewish life, what is your forecast for Europe, where there is great concern over anti-Semitism, terror and political changes?

We’re bullish on the Jewish future in Europe. Yes, there are deep concerns, but it is balanced by a multi-faceted and bold Jewish landscape in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. And that was once unthinkable. So we have a two-pronged approach: strengthen Jewish community resilience – emergency and crisis planning, security, and trainings in preparedness – and continue our major investments in Jewish life that have Jewish generations rising from Poland to Bulgaria. Young people are leading the way in these efforts, nurtured by programs like the JDC-Lauder International Youth Camp at Szarvas, Hungary. Since 1990, Szarvas has enabled over 25,000 campers from more than two-dozen countries to forge Jewish identities, strengthen their home communities, and contribute to the global Jewish world.

What about young Jews in North America and beyond, who, it is often assumed, are unengaged?

We have found the answer in JDC Entwine, our young professionals platform that is inspiring and empowering a rising generation of young Jewish leaders to live a life of action with Jewish responsibility at its core. The simple truth is this: young adults, especially young Jews, want to engage in the world, change lives, and have a real impact on challenges. Once they learn about these issues, they are passionate about doing something about them. To that end, we’ve already reached 20,000 Jewish young adults through Entwine’s transformative service experiences overseas and innovative educational tools to build Jewish community at home. Entwine alumni leaders are motivating their peers and wider networks to engage in global issues and learn about Jewish life around the world. Entwine’s ReOrdered Passover toolkit launched this year and already reached thousands of people, giving them insights on global Jewish communities and a taste of how our work touches their lives.

JDC has been called the “9-1-1 of the Jewish world.” What about your disaster relief and broader international development work?

Almost since our founding, when disasters or other crises devastate our neighbors and other vulnerable people, we have responded. With the help of the Federations, and thousands of others, we’ve already responded this year to disasters in Guatemala, India, and Indonesia, often with the local Jewish community playing an important role. We are also focused on new initiatives to empower some of the world’s poorest people in the developing world. Just last month we launched a program called TOV (Tikkun Olam Ventures), which utilizes Israeli AgTech and a Jewish philanthropic loan fund to lift smallholder farmers out of poverty in Africa.

Taking a wider lens, what about far-flung and Jewish communities we don’t often hear about?

We’re proud to continue to our work with Jews and Jewish communities in places like Latin America, North Africa, and Asia. From those facing financial challenges in Venezuela and the provinces of Argentina, to bolstering thriving Jewish life in Cuba, engaging the younger Jewish generation in India, and investing in Jewish education in Morocco and Tunisia, together we are putting global Jewish responsibility into action with compassion, and boots on the ground on almost every continent.

For more information on JDC’s work in Israel, and around the globe, visit