On November 27, 1914, the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for Relief of Jewish War Sufferers was established by the merger of two existing American Jewish relief organizations.
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Today, nearly a century later, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or “Joint” as it is now known, in full and for short, is a worldwide organization offering assistance to Jewish communities both in Israel and the Diaspora, and to victims of humanitarian crises everywhere. In 2010, it spent nearly $334 million on projects.
The impetus for creation of the Joint was the start of World War I, in August 1914. The U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., received a desperate request for aid from the Jewish community of Palestine, which then numbered 59,000, and which had been cut off by the outbreak of hostilities from its normal sources of support. Morgenthau cabled Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall, both prominent members of the American Jewish community, in New York, with a note that said, in part, “Serious destruction threatens thriving colonies Fifty thousand dollars needed.”
Within a month, the money had been raised: Schiff kicked in $12,500, the merchant Nathan Straus matched him, and the American Jewish Committee contributed $25,000.
As requests for more assistance continued to come in, two existing relief organizations – the American Jewish Relief Committee and the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews, the latter an Orthodox body, joined forces on November 27 for a more efficient distribution of funds. They were joined early the following year by the labor union-based People’s Relief Committee.
Even after the U.S. entered the war, in April 1917, the Joint found ways to continue to channel both money and needed food and supplies to Jewish communities both in the Land of Israel and in war-torn Europe.
When the war ended, the dissolution of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the Russian Revolution engendered their own humanitarian disasters. As just one example, the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21 is said to have made 275,000 Jewish children orphans. The Joint responded to these crises, sending not only money and supplies, but also its own teams of health-care professionals and social workers to build new institutions and programs. In 1919, it established the Palestine Orphan Committee, which provided shelter and other assistance to more than 4,000 children during its first decade.
Almost by definition, the Joint has always been active in some of the world’s most dangerous and politically repressive countries. In cooperation with Stalin’s Soviet Union, the “Agro-Joint” helped resettle and train some 250,000 Jews on farms in Ukraine and the Crimea; in the 1930s, it helped 110,000 Jews emigrate from Nazi Germany, and later supported 15,000 Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe who ended up in Shanghai, China, among many other efforts.
In more recent decades, it has played a major role in assisting Jews in the Former Soviet Union either to resettle in Israel or to rebuild their own communities in the newly independent republics where open Jewish life had been forbidden for so long. It also was involved in airlifting and resettling in Israel of Ethiopian Jews in both Operations Moses and Solomon, in the 1980s and 1990s.