Undeterred by Covid-19, conflict, social strife, natural disaster or economic decline, the Jewish humanitarian organization JDC (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) deploys life-saving solutions and innovative platforms for care and community that build a future filled with opportunity for generations to come.
Equalizing Israel’s playing field
Just three miles from the Gaza border, at Kibbutz Magen, 50-year-old Fabian Stark is a proud employee of the Magen Eco-Energy factory. He works on the assembly line putting together devices for swimming pools. “I come to work every day and I love what I do, but the road to get here is dangerous,” he admits. “We're used to having alarms. When we're at home or at work we have safe places to hide. But if the alarm catches you on this short drive to work, you can only pray the missile will miss you.”
Just like Fabian, many Israelis are still grappling with the aftermath of the latest security crisis with Gaza, wondering when the next conflict with flare up. At the same time, they are struggling with slow pandemic economic recovery and the ongoing health crisis. To address these concerns, the factory got involved in JDC's Skill Up initiative. The program, which offers Israeli workers new skill training and professional development courses, is a partnership with the Israeli Government and companies looking to strengthen their workforce for the future.
“Covid-19 impacted all parts of Israeli society and its economy, but the most vulnerable were hit hardest. Low-wage workers and unskilled laborers were the first to lose their jobs and the last to return to work. They need the skills and the tools to be relevant in an ever-evolving job market,” said Dr. Sigal Shelach, Executive Director of JDC-Israel. “JDC’s employment programs help further our central goal in Israel: boosting the quality of life for the most vulnerable Israelis, fostering equal opportunity for populations on the margins, and narrowing socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society.”
Through Skill Up, Fabian advanced his computer and tech skills, thus adapting himself to the changing requirements of his job. Throughout the pandemic, and during the recent crisis, the factory and Skill Up’s trainings remained open, helping Israelis like Fabian develop their skills and increase their resilience to current and future crisis.
“With the great technological advancements during Covid-19, we implemented new IT systems,” said the factory’s Vice President of Human Resources. “Participants of the Skill Up program had the confidence and the ability to use technology in an improved manner. Skill Up opened up more options to advance low-skilled employees into higher skilled and better paid positions.”
Across Israel, 65% of Skill Up participants received salary increases and more than half have been promoted. More than 20,000 Israelis like Fabian benefited from JDC’s employment initiatives in 2020 –programs that were especially impactful for families facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.
“Before Skill Up, when I used the computer, I was afraid to make mistakes,” says Fabian. “Now I don't only have the confidence to use it, but also to keep learning new things all the time and make myself valuable to the work force. If I learned anything during the time of Covid-19, it is that I must stay up to date and not be left behind.”
“JDC aims to move the needle on Israel's most pressing socioeconomic challenges,” notes Dr. Shelach. “Whether through quality employment, social mobility, optimal aging, independent living for people with disabilities or efficient social systems, we create opportunity for all Israelis.”
Hope for the world’s neediest Jews
Ada Marey, a 90-year-old from Zaparozhe, Ukraine, is a former gymnastics champion and was part of the Soviet national team in her youth. Today, she’s one of 80,000+ poor Jewish elderly across 11 time zones cared for by JDC with lifesaving food, medicine, and homecare.
Ada feared for her life when Covid-19 spread. She also grappled with loneliness, a condition leading to depression, declining health, and physical debilitation among seniors under lockdown. To address this challenge, JDC launched Jointech, a pilot initiative reducing loneliness among the elderly and innovating eldercare with tech solutions.
Jointech puts digital technology in the hands of impoverished seniors who never had a smartphone or tablet before and are outfitted with specially designed, age-friendly software. They can then connect with their JDC-supported Hesed social service center and its emergency services and online social programming, as well as their friends and family. Jointech is a partnership with Tech4Good, the Israeli social impact organization, with lead support from the Claims Conference and UJA-Federation of New York.
Ada was transformed after she received her smartphone. She looks forward to online meetings with her friends and communicating with the lecturers and fellow volunteers who have become a second family. “It’s one thing to be sustained by the care I get from JDC and Hesed, for which I am forever grateful. But the bread of life is my community and my friends and now that I can connect with them at the push of a button, I am back to myself. I have hope again,” she said, pointing to an outsized need to expand this program for thousands more lonely seniors.
Jumpstart for the new Jewish poor
In addition to health challenges, the pandemic’s economic toll impacted growing numbers of Jews. These mostly middle class families never needed support before. JDC and local Jewish communities stepped in to ensure they would not become entrenched in poverty or despair by deploying a humanitarian aid program providing funds for food, medicine, rent, and utilities.
The program is a 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. Working in 18 Jewish communities in Europe, as well as Jewish communities in Tunisia, Morocco, India and Argentina, the program is assisting more than 1,300 households every month, helping 6,300 Jews in need thus far.
One of these Jews is Zoja Gor, a former event planner in Tallinn, Estonia. With restrictions and shutdowns, Zoja’s industry was decimated overnight and she lost everything. As a driven, enthusiastic professional, Zoja did not just accept the help she gratefully received from the Jewish community, she gives back tenfold, volunteering to deliver food to homebound Jewish elderly. As recovery moves at a slow pace, Gor keeps perspective and is always ready to lend a helping hand. “This support is like two outstretched arms ready to embrace you and welcome you. While I am not sure when I will be able to fully work again, I know for sure the Jewish community will be there for me – it will not abandon me or others in need,” said Gor.
Jewish leaders build community for tomorrow
Jewish life has oscillated recently between return to some in-person activities and virus surges and variants that keep it suspended for large parts of the globe. That challenge did not stop Jewish communities and leaders from keeping the flame of Jewish tradition alive.
The Jewish community of Cuba has been adversely affected by a near-shutdown of all local gatherings. JDC worked closely with the community to take inventive steps to keep Jewish life afloat. In a local first, the community moved Shabbat services, Sunday school classes, and its popular Rikudim dance classes onto WhatsApp with record participation.
This DIY spirit is also found among Jewish youth in the post-Soviet space. Among the participants of Active Jewish Teens (AJT) – JDC’s 3,200-person Jewish teen network in the former Soviet Union powered by a partnership with BBYO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group – the pandemic generated grassroots innovation. “The pandemic put certain limits to our activities, but also made us think outside of the box,” said Andrey, a AJT leader from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who has been involved since he was 14. “Every day I am involved in different digital activities, from online meet-ups to educational sessions. We work fast and help many teens stay connected.”
Each week, AJT members created and led an average of 40+ hours of programming. This included AJTorah, a series of online seminars strengthening familiarity with Jewish text and tradition, and the creation of the largest virtual Shabbat event in the former Soviet Union, which drew 850 participants of all ages from ten countries and 90 cities.
That entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of JDC Entwine, JDC’s platform for young professionals. Catalyzing a sense of global Jewish responsibility among more than 30,000 young Jews worldwide, Entwine used the pandemic period to create highly accessible and scalable virtual service and education programming building connections to Jewish communities and causes this cohort cares about. With the return to in-person experiences, Entwine now offers a fully hybrid set of program offerings which strengthen Jewish identity and develop leaders for the Jewish world.
Entwine recently began organizing day-long field trips, connecting with and learning about the global nature of local Jewish communities, often refugee-based, in participants’ hometowns. Recent visits with the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Brooklyn informed audiences about the fuller mosaic of Jewish life.
Entwine has also been a champion of emerging Jewish communities, having deployed a number of volunteers to Dubai over a four-year period. Currently, the JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, Sarah Tagger, is embedded in the local Jewish community, helping shape community activities and responding to local needs. She is also helping to create the program strategy for Dubai’s first-ever Jewish cultural space, the Abraham’s Miracles Centre for Learning, set to launch in the fall. Reflecting on the interconnected nature of the global Jewish community and the possibilities for this new outpost in Jewish life, Tagger notes, “Invest in a place, invest in its future, and then watch how it reinvests in us.”
When disaster strikes, a Jewish response
In addition to supporting Jewish communities around the world, JDC fulfilled the Jewish people’s desire to aid their non-Jewish neighbors by recently responding to the Covid-19 surge in India and devastating earthquake in Haiti.
In India, where it has worked since 1950, JDC partnered with the local Jewish community and nonsectarian partner SEWA Cooperative Federation, to deploy dozens of Israeli-made ventilators to local hospitals and provide desperately needed oxygen, filtered masks, and other medical supplies. JDC also helped recruit American and Israeli ICU doctors to consult with their Indian peers in a telemedicine program that is maximizing the support provided to ICU patients in rural communities.
In Haiti, JDC drew on its network of partners from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 to save lives after the earthquake in August. To date, the organization has treated more than 2,000 people through a mobile medical clinic it established with Heart to Heart International, and delivered more than 2,500 pounds of medical equipment to local hospitals and medical facilities with the Afya Foundation. Additionally, the organization sent ultra-sound machines to remote areas, with Partners in Health, and with ProDev, provided shelter to local teachers and delivered food to more than 900 families.
United for good, around the world
JDC’s global impact embodies the power of partnering with philanthropists committed to addressing the Jewish world’s most urgent needs. JDC's major historic partners 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), in addition to tens of thousands of individual donors and foundations.
“Thanks to the passionate dedication of these philanthropic leaders, we fulfill our commitment toarevut, Jewish mutual responsibility, and tikkun olam, repair of a broken world. We’re leveraging our vast reach, boots on the ground, and historic experience to bring about a future imbued with hope, and a Jewish people stronger and more resilient than before,” said JDC President Mark Sisisky and CEO Ariel Zwang.
For more information, visit the JDC website