JDC | The Global Jewish 911 in Action

David Zeller
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People celebrating Chanuka holding a Menora
Drawing from past Chanukah celebrations like this one in the former Soviet Union, JDC brings the light of hope to Jewish communities worldwide during the pandemicCredit: JDC
David Zeller
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When the pandemic hit – causing dramatic medical, social, and economic upheaval – JDC was able to harness more than a century of experience responding to a variety of existential challenges, such as war and genocide, economic collapse and public health crises, to match Jewish resilience with can-do innovation.

Start-up nation’s pandemic ingenuity

For many years, Shaul Chen has had difficulty standing on his feet. Like thousands of other Israeli older adults, lockdown isolation has exacerbated his limitations. Prior to the pandemic, 77-year-old Shaul attended a special geriatric rehabilitation center for elderly facing functional decline. The center, part of a network created by JDC in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Health, provides programs to build physical strength and enable seniors to live more independently.

Dina Velikovskaya is able to celebrate Jewish holidays and receive life-saving care thanks to JDC and its partners

But Covid-19 required the transformation of this in-person facility into a remote service. While there were challenges, including the lack of physical contact between rehabilitation therapists and patients, new methods, including Zoom evaluations and virtual physical therapy, worked successfully. Today this model has been integrated into geriatric rehabilitation centers nationwide, with hundreds of remote treatments taking place monthly. Shaul attests to the success: “I made progress quickly. I can already stand today, even half a minute if not more. Before, I could not stand at all.”

Another emerging challenge facing Israel was providing remote services to those lacking digital literacy and technological infrastructure, like Haredim, Israeli-Arabs, and people with disabilities. In many cases, everyday technologies made the best solutions.

Holiday celebrations at the JDC-founded and supported Evelyn Peters JCC in Mumbai, India have gone virtual, drawing growing participationCredit: JDC

“We had to deploy remote learning platforms for our children’s development in language, math, physical education, and science,” says Rada Eloubra, an early childhood education director in the Bedouin village of Al-Atrash in the Negev. Her team came up with a plan, in coordination with JDC and the Ministry of Education, drawing from basic technologies already in use at home that made it easier for parents and children to work together. They also developed a new curriculum, including pre-recorded videos of lessons, and opened a group on WhatsApp, a platform that was already in use by parents. These innovations enabled the school to remain open virtually and for teachers to monitor each child’s development despite nationwide school closures.  

JDC’s experts on Haredi workforce integration utilized the same digital tools to respond to the needs of Haredi youth looking to integrate into the job market. They developed culturally adapted solutions that facilitated continued learning and skill-building from home. JDC set up a digital learning system, including videos, tutorials, and podcasts that have wide reach within the community and can be utilized beyond the pandemic. Similarly, a model developed with Digital Israel and the Azrieli Foundation enabling people with disabilities to access information about services and rights online will be the vanguard for post-pandemic service provision.

Investing in systemic solutions is one of the key components of JDC’s work. In partnership with the Israeli government and local municipalities, JDC mapped the digital capabilities of 175 local authorities. Going forward, JDC will help equip those municipalities with infrastructures and skills to develop and provide services remotely.

JDC and its partners ensure access to hand-washing stations in rural Africa to stem the spread of Covid-19

“The State of Israel was best positioned to transform this crisis into manifold opportunities. The innovations we’ve deployed were once a distant dream, but social distancing made them a reality overnight,” says Dr. Sigal Shelach, Executive Director of JDC-Israel. “Long-term investments in digital literacy and widespread access to technology will allow us to emerge from this crisis better positioned for the future and prepared to share our learnings with the Jewish world and beyond.”

 Fresh hope for “the Old Country”

Belarus’s bitter winter is crushing for Dina Velikovskaya, whose life has been filled with challenges. But the 74-year-old, who lives alone and is homebound because of the worsening effects of Parkinson’s disease, finds healing warmth in the embrace of a Jewish community that cares for her. She’ll hear the Chanukah blessings sung out over Zoom by local volunteers and will be visited by the homecare worker who attends to her needs, including cooking and bathing. Dina also remains connected to her community through her weekly participation in virtual classes for isolated elderly Jews provided by JDC and its local Hesed social service center. “Thanks to these online activities, I have a reason to live,” she notes emphatically.

Dina is one of the more than 80,000 poor, elderly Jews across the 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who are served by JDC with life-saving food, medicine, and more than 22 million hours of homecare. They live on meager pensions as little as $2 a day and their lives have been made more burdensome because of Covid-19 and its plague of loneliness.  

Outdoor activity by JDC and its partners for children with special needs and their families.Credit: Tamir Alterman, JDC

And yet JDC-supported community Chanukah celebrations, broadcast online, and the special holiday packages that will be prepared and delivered by local volunteers, trained with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, offer connection, respite, and hope for a return to normalcy.  

JDC continues this work uninterrupted and has deployed tech innovations to ensure these seniors have a new virtual lifeline for human connection and care. In Ukraine and Moldova, JDC recently launched a new pilot program to put digital technology in the hands of hundreds of elderly. They receive smartphones with software specially designed for them to connect with the local JDC-supported Hesed social service center, its online social programming, and their friends and other community members isolated because of quarantine or lockdowns. This pilot is part of an initiative with Tech for Good, the Israeli social impact organization, made possible with support from the Claims Conference and UJA-Federation of New York.

The new Jewish poor

Amid growing global unemployment and economic decline, Jews and Jewish communities are being financially impacted. The result has been the emergence of new poor families and elderly now turning to their local Jewish communities for support for the first time.  

JDC, in partnership with philanthropic leaders and foundation partners – including the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, Genesis Philanthropy Group, and several U.S.-based Jewish Federations – and Jewish communities worldwide responded to this emerging crisis by deploying a humanitarian relief program to aid these growing numbers of needy.

The effort is currently aiding 1,600 Jewish households a month, impacting an estimated 6,000 people in 12 countries in Europe – including Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Greece, and Bosnia – as well as Jews in Argentina, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The initiative, launched in April, not only sustains these families but often strengthens their participation with local Jewish communities. The Krispin-Anastassov family of Sofia, Bulgaria, is one such family. Living in the capital city, which has experienced growing unemployment in the wake of the pandemic, 44-year-old parents Yana and Yordan and their 8-year-old daughter Hannah were suddenly faced with income loss when their freelance jobs in the film industry ended. They turned to Shalom, the main organization of the Bulgarian Jewish community, for help. They received food vouchers and financial assistance through JDC’s humanitarian aid program to bridge them beyond the crisis.

The support they’ve received has enabled them to make ends meet, prepare for re-entering the job market, and gotten them more involved with the Jewish community after previously being unaffiliated. Yana has taught online DIY home improvement courses for community members, utilizing her talents as a costume designer and, for the first time, the family celebrated Rosh Hashanah with the community.

“It’s been a very hard year, with worries about money and health taking a toll on all of us. The Jewish community has done so much for us, helping us get past this tough time and embracing us with open arms,” said Yana. “We’ve started a new chapter in our lives with the Jewish community at the center.”

Thriving virtual Jewish life

By moving Jewish life online and introducing platforms for Jewish community connection, education, and cultural programming, JDC has helped communities bring in new and widening audiences. In Europe, the region’s network of JDC-supported JCCs, summer camps, and leadership development programs has transformed Jewish learning and training by deploying new programming and ongoing virtual activities.

JDC’s Judafest, the wildly popular annual Jewish street festival in Budapest, was transformed into a four-day online event drawing thousands of participants from around the world. These viewers got a taste of the diversity and innovative nature of Hungarian Jewish life today through local music, educational, and cultural fare and experienced global Jewish life in sessions like a cooking class from Athens, Greece with a renowned food blogger.

At the same time, JDC Entwine – JDC’s platform for young professionals, known for its myriad overseas service and educational programs catalyzing a sense of global Jewish responsibility among more than 30,000 young Jews worldwide – adapted quickly to the pandemic reality. It quickly innovated new ways to bring the global Jewish world to audiences now stuck at home through a variety of virtual program offerings, including virtual trips to places like Morocco and Argentina, exclusive briefings with JDC experts, and giving circles which provided ways for young Jews to impact global needs.

Another unique opportunity enabled young Jews to volunteer for an hour per week over three months with isolated elderly and teenagers in JDC’s programs in the former Soviet Union and Israel. Participants receive pre-service training and process their experiences as a cohort through a customized Jewish learning curriculum. For those drawing from the Russian-speaking Jewish community in the U.S., connecting with JDC clients in countries from which their families once hailed has especially deep significance. “This opportunity truly nourishes the soul in a challenging time in our world. It’s an absolute joy to be able to put my Russian to use and to connect with a teen client in Odessa,” said Shoshana from Ohio.

For humanity's sake

In addition to supporting Jewish communities around the world, JDC is also fulfilling the Jewish people’s desire to aid its non-Jewish neighbors by working in places like Africa and South Asia to combat Covid-19’s spread. JDC has promoted best practices for disease control, provided hand-washing stations, food and hygiene kits, and facilitated a knowledge-sharing platform for medical professionals working worldwide. JDC also convened the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief to rally the Jewish community’s response to pandemic needs among vulnerable non-Jewish populations.

 A global partnership for good

JDC’s global impact embodies the power of giving via philanthropic partners committed to addressing the Jewish world’s most urgent needs. They include the Jewish Federations across North America through cooperation with JFNA and UIA Canada, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, World Jewish Relief (UK), and tens of thousands of individual donors and foundations.

“Thanks to their boundless dedication to sustaining Jewish lives and building Jewish life worldwide, we provide a powerful light of hope, like the menorah itself, to beat back the darkness of a world beset by distress and fear,” said JDC President Mark Sisisky and Interim CEO Darrell Friedman.

For more information, visit www.jdc.org