JDC aiding Hurricane Matthew victims in Haiti

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, is responding to Hurricane Matthew's widespread destruction in Haiti, focusing on medical aid and other basic needs provision for beleaguered storm victims. JDC – which deployed extensive relief and rebuilding efforts aiding hundreds of thousands in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010 – is providing medical supplies and medical team assistance through its partner on the ground, Heart to Heart International. Donations for JDC's efforts can be made at http://jdc.org/hurricanematthew

“Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, and the wider region, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s devastation. All too familiar with the acute needs facing Haitians, JDC activated its network of international and local partners and is mobilizing relief efforts in an expression of humanitarian solidarity and Jewish values,” said Alan H. Gill, JDC’s CEO. “Our response to this crisis is especially poignant during the Jewish High Holidays, when we examine carefully our actions in the last year and recommit to our obligation as individuals and a global people to aid those in dire need.”

JDC’s relief work in Haiti will focus on the hardest-hit areas in the south of the island where reports of torrential rains, flooding, and strong winds were accompanied by damage to homes, farming stock and land, and infrastructure like bridges. JDC is in communication with its local civil society and NGO leadership contacts and long-term partners in Haiti to assess needs and ensure the most vulnerable victims are cared for in an expedient manner.

JDC has provided immediate relief and long-term assistance to victims of natural and manmade disasters around the globe, including Ecuador, Macedonia, Italy, Nepal, the Philippines, Japan, and South Asia after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and continues to operate programs designed to rebuild infrastructure and community life in disaster-stricken regions.

JDC's disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. JDC coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction, and the United Nations.

For Donations to JDC's Hurricaine Matthew Relief Work:

Online: http://jdc.org/hurricanematthew

By Phone: 212-687-6200

By Mail:

JDC Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
P.O. Box 4124
New York, NY 10163
United States

Please make check payable to: JDC’s Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters. For more information, visit www.JDC.org.

Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community, JDC help flood victims

Members of the tiny Jewish community of Macedonia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee distributed hundreds of aid packages to victims of deadly floods that forced thousands out of their homes in the Balkan nation.

The Joint, or JDC, along with the Jewish Community of the Republic of Macedonia and the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia, created and distributed 1,000 hygiene relief kits throughout the hardest-hit areas, JDC said in a statement last week.

Macedonia, which used to have more than 10,000 Jews before the Holocaust, currently has about 250 of them, according to JDC and European Jewish Congress.

The packages, created at a Jewish community volunteer event on August 14, will help address personal and household hygiene needs, a critical component in flood recovery zones.

Torrential rain and floods in the Macedonian capital have left at least 17 people dead, six missing and sent 60 others to the hospital, authorities said earlier this month.

Koce Trajanovski, mayor of the Macedonian capital, Skopje described the damage as “the worst Skopje has ever seen,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

“Our response puts into action the Jewish teaching that every individual life has value and it is our duty to offer care and relief in in times of disaster, no matter a person’s background or faith,” Alan Gill, CEO of the JDC, said in a statement earlier this week.

The hygiene relief kits distributed included medical soap, disinfection solutions, and cleaning supplies to sanitize homes filled with flood debris. They reached approximately 5,000 people in Stajkovci, Smiljkovci, Brnjarci, Indzikovo, and Chento, JDC said.

Inside the mind of Andres Spokoiny

As president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Andres Spokoiny offers guidance and advice regarding the expenditure of billions of Jewish philanthropic dollars. Based in New York, the Argentinian-born Spokoiny helps shape the philanthropic visions of more than 1,500 funders from the U.S., Israel and Europe. Before joining JFN, he served as the CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal and lived in Paris for 12 years as Northwest Europe’s regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). He talked to the Journal recently about why he dropped out of rabbinical school, the role of philosophy in philanthropy and the biggest crisis facing the Jewish world.

Jewish Journal: What was it like growing up as a Jew in Argentina?

Andres Spokoiny: My mom raised me and my brother on her own, at a time when it was very hard to be a single mom, during the military government in Argentina, during the junta, in a very secular, very Zionist, culturally Jewish home. I went to a Zionist socialist Jewish day school and grew up with pictures of [Haim Nahman] Bialik and [David] Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir on the wall. The Jewish community became a refuge for me, both in terms of being able to express a lot of things that were forbidden in the general society, and having a refuge from the ugliness that was all around. It was a very repressive society and the Jewish community was made of havens of freedom and openness and warmth. There was nothing religious about it; it was just the feeling of being part of something, some transcendental sense of belonging that was very meaningful. 

JJ: Your biography includes seven years in rabbinical school, though you were never ordained. What drew you to that path?

AS: I fell in love with the learning itself, with the act of wrestling with the text. When [people] think of Judaism as a closed and dogmatic thing, nothing is more alien to my own experience. In my experience, Judaism was exactly the opposite: The society [in which I lived] was closed, dogmatic, repressive. But in Judaism, you could read a text and have total freedom to interpret it in any way you want. And in those years, there was an American rabbi called Marshall Meyer, who was extremely committed to the human rights movement, and he made a point of saying, ‘I’m fighting for this because I’m a rabbi, and I’m fighting for this because I am Jewish,’ and that left a very, very strong mark on me. 

JJ: Why did you ultimately decide not to pursue the rabbinate?

AS: I never fully adopted a totally observant life. I was in it much more for the search to know — and the more you know, the more you want to know — than for the willingness to actually become a religious leader. I also thought I could contribute a lot to the Jewish people without becoming a rabbi.

JJ: How did that experience change you?

AS: What I got out of it was a deep understanding of the plurality and richness of traditional Judaism. And the sense of mystery, of transcendental belief, of feeling yourself connected with a long chain. It’s a way of coping with mortality, I guess. 

JJ: You have a little bit of the philosopher-poet in you, which makes you something of an anomaly in the Jewish nonprofit world. Do you ever feel like a fish out of water?

AS: I think reflection and ideas in the Jewish world today are devalued. We’re extremely focused on programs and on rapid fixes to social problems, and we’re good at it. We come up with really creative programs. But we’re not so good at dealing with the underlying causes of the problems we’re trying to solve. And philanthropy is about solving problems. So I make a point of elevating the conversation and including these more thoughtful elements in the communal discourse, because if we don’t tackle the quest for meaning in the Jewish world, at some point all of our programs are going to run out of steam. 

JJ: What are the biggest mistakes Jewish philanthropists make?

AS: They don’t fund enough capacity building. They are very afraid of overhead, and that’s extremely problematic because we’re starving Jewish nonprofits of the capacity they need to operate. And it’s an obsession we have, by the way, only when it comes to nonprofits: When I go to Starbucks, I don’t tell them, ‘Deduct 50 cents, because I don’t want to pay for your rent.’ The second mistake [funders make] is that they try to go at it alone. Even Bill Gates, with the billions of dollars he gives away, partners up with other people. Networking and collaboration is critical if you want to really move the needle. Another one is that philanthropy doesn’t have any built-in feedback mechanism. If you have a business and you’re bad at it, you go bankrupt. If you are a grant-maker and you make a bad grant, what happens? You get a gala in your honor. No one tells funders the truth. They need their money. They’re intimidated. 

JJ: What are the biggest problem areas the Jewish community needs to address internally?

AS: If you woke me up in the middle of the night and you asked me what the biggest problem is, I would tell you polarization — the radicalization of positions and the decadence of the civil discourse in the Jewish community. This is a serious problem because it’s part of the American political culture today. But I also think that we’ve been making a mistake by focusing on separate age groups and thinking that one specific age group is the critical one. We have to provide avenues for Jewish engagement for every age group and see Jewish life as a journey and make sure that every stop of that journey is catered to. And pluralism is critical, too: In Israel, we have big challenges between the Arab population and the ultra-Orthodox population, and that’s a ticking bomb that we have to address.

JJ: You’ve said JFN does not set philanthropic agendas. But I wonder how you utilize your own wisdom and vision and observation without establishing certain priorities?

AS: That’s a very delicate tune that I have to dance with, because I have to balance top-down with bottom-up. When I have an intuition or data that an issue is critical, I do put issues on the table when I think something deserves to be looked at by the philanthropic community, but I’m not going to make that issue one in which JFN is going to advocate to the detriment of others. 

JJ: Does it ever frustrate you that you can’t exercise more power?

AS: Sometimes, yes. But sometimes, the more you know, the more humble you become. The trends facing this community are so complex that I may be wrong. The fact that I say things with a lot of authority doesn’t make them right. So I’m very careful. The beauty of JFN is that I don’t need to put the [whole] network behind a single issue. You know the Greek fable about the hedgehog and the fox? The hedgehog knows one big thing, and the fox knows a lot of little things; I prefer a network of foxes than one of hedgehogs.

JJ: If you had $100 million to spend however you wanted — philanthropically, of course — what would you do?

AS: In the Jewish world, there are several issues that need an influx of capital and thinking. One is the issue of Jewish affordability. If you’re below the poverty line, you are eligible for all sorts of things. If you are rich, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re in the middle, that’s when you struggle to pay day-school tuition or synagogue membership or summer camp or what have you. If we could find a way of closing that circle, that would be great. 

Nepal: How you can help

Jews in Israel and abroad are responding to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25 —resulting in the death of more than 4,000 Nepalese people — through action and financial campaigns.

“The people of Nepal are in desperate need right now,” American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) spokesperson Michael Geller said in a phone interview from New York.

The organization (jdc.org) has set up a Nepal Earthquake Relief fund that will provide urgent assistance, with a focus on medical relief and providing aid supplies. JDC is also helping the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with the setting up of an Israeli field hospital in the region, Geller said.

“A lot is happening,” he said. “JDC is partnering with the IDF field hospital, as we have done since the [2010] quake in Haiti. And we are providing them with equipment, such as neonatal incubators, and also partnering with Tevel b’Tzedek, which is an [Israeli] organization operating on the ground, and also with UNICEF.”

Geller was unable to provide an up-to-date total of JDC’s fundraising efforts thus far.

Another organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is collecting tax-deductible donations for the Nepalese via its Earthquake Emergency Relief Fund (ajws.org). AJWS representatives were not immediately available for comment.

In addition, Chabad has a full time operation in Kathmandu, and the organization is raising money for the relief effort, working with organizations such as JDC, on the ground. To donate, visit Chabad.org/Nepal.

 Jay Sanderson, CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a partner organization of the JDC, expressed empathy for the victims of the disaster, saying Angelenos know the consequences of earthquakes all too well.

“Living in Los Angeles we understand earthquakes are something you can’t predict, you can’t control,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

While Federation is not participating in this particular relief effort — Sanderson said the organization has other responsibilities at this time — the Federation leader recommended that people donate to either JDC or IsraAID (israaid.co.il), an Israeli-based agency that provides disaster relief .

“We have so many hot spots in the Jewish world that we have to focus on that we’re recommending people make gifts to other organizations,” he said. “We’re not conducting any kind of campaign. … We’re recommending if people want to make gifts through a Jewish lens, to [give to] either IsraAID or the JDC.”

IsraAID, the IDF, Tevel b’Tzedek, and Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, are among the Israeli-based organizations that are involved with the Jewish State’s wide-ranging relief effort in Nepal. Their work includes dispatching search-and-rescue teams to aid Israelis tourists of the region and to rescue premature babies of Nepalese surrogate mothers who are connected with Israeli adopting couples. (Israel has laws restricting its gay couples from adopting from Israeli surrogate mothers, leading some to look abroad — to places like Nepal — for babies.

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, was among the hardest hit areas of the earthquake. Trekkers at Mount Everest were also affected, as the earthquake triggered an avalanche. Meanwhile, the region has had many aftershocks in the aftermath of the earthquake, prompting Sanderson to describe what’s happening as a great humanitarian crisis.

“There are so many people living out[side] … not even willing to live in any kind of structure because they’re afraid of aftershocks,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible crisis, affecting tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands who live in that country.”

In Lugansk, an icy Ukraine winter tests a war-torn community

In an unheated synagogue with no running water, a dozen Jews are trying to keep warm as temperatures here veer toward the single digits.

Not moving too much helps keep the warmth under their thick coats, they say, a technique developed as the group gathered at least once a week to maintain a sense of community in a city torn by ongoing conflict between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army.

“We usually stay for about two hours,” says Igor Leonidovich, the synagogue’s gabbai, or caretaker. “We pray for peace. In this cold, two hours is enough.”

Half of Lugansk’s population of 425,000 has fled since July, when the fighting that claimed some 4,500 lives erupted in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Among those who fled were two-thirds of the city’s nurses and doctors, according to the World Health Organization, rendering medical services almost nonexistent.

Earlier this month, a psychiatric institution in the Lugansk suburb of Slavyanoserbsk reported that 50 of its patients died from cold and exhaustion. Like many parts of Lugansk and the surrounding area, the hospital had no electricity, heat or water.

About 2,000 Jews remain — a fifth of the Lugansk prewar community — but even that determined group is struggling now that the winter cold has arrived.

“We stay because it’s our birthplace, our land,” says Leonidovich, who draws encouragement from the fact that fighting in Lugansk proper has largely died down in recent weeks after a truce went into effect in September. “We don’t want to leave, but it’s getting harder to stay because of winter.”

Near the synagogue, a few elderly people rummage for blankets in heaps of uncollected garbage on a street scarred by mortar craters and littered with the carcasses of abandoned pets. In the distance, explosions can be heard echoing from the suburbs.

As they face these hardships, Lugansk Jews have received assistance from international Jewish groups, including food from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or IFCJ. The distribution of the packages has been coordinated in part by the Lugansk Chabad emissary in exile, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, who is in Israel.

Earlier this month, some 300 people gathered at the synagogue to receive food packages from the IFCJ, the second such distribution in recent weeks. The donation of a generator last month provided the synagogue with lights for the first time since the power went out in August.

On Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening, the community plans to light candles in the synagogue during the day because of a rebel-imposed curfew that restricts movement after dark. Traveling at night also increases the chance of falling prey to the robbers and looters who have emptied the city’s supermarkets and car rental agencies.

Being openly Jewish in Lugansk is not particularly dangerous because the rebels who control the city generally do not display anti-Semitic attitudes, Leonidovich says.

Asked whether Lugansk was in any way extra dangerous for Jews, a rebel officer who identified himself only as Vladimir tells JTA, “There is no racism here. If a person, Jewish or Christian, is law abiding, they will not be harmed.”

Even without being specifically targeted, the dangers in Lugansk are evident. In July, the Jewish community lost two of its members, Svetlana and Anna Sitnikov, in the fighting. The mother and daughter died instantly when a mortar round exploded outside a grocery where they had gone to fetch food for Anna’s 5-year-old son.

Like many septuagenarians here, Ernst Kuperman, one of the synagogue regulars, has not been able to collect his pension for months. He gets by thanks to JDC’s Hesed program, which provides the needy with food and medical services.

Others, like Anna Sosnova, who was wounded over the summer by an explosion near her home, would have left but stayed because of family obligations. Sosnova’s house has electricity, but she still had to get a generator to administer drugs to her mother, a bedridden diabetic with only one leg.

“There is no way currently to safely get her out,” Sosnova says.

During the fighting, a mortar round exploded near the small house that the Sosnovas share with three cats and a puppy left behind by neighbors. The explosion weakened an external wall and the house has been slowly collapsing, developing cracks and shifting. Some doors can’t be closed.

“I hope it won’t collapse on us,” Sosnova says.

Across the city, many buildings carry similar scars from the shelling that brought life here to a halt this summer. The situation is even worse in the outskirts, where vast sunflower fields that should have been harvested in the fall are withering in the snow along roads dotted with burned-out tanks that lead to shelled ghost towns.

Before the fighting, the Beit Menachem Jewish school here had more than 150 students. But they never returned to school after the summer vacation and now are scattered across Russia, Israel and Ukraine, according to Sergei Kreidun, the principal.

Although the school is empty, Kreidun still arrives daily to deter looters. He shows off the spacious campus, which has a small Holocaust museum and kosher kitchen, with a mix of pride and melancholy. Pride for what he has helped build over the past 15 years with funding from the Ohr Avner Foundation, melancholy over what became of the school.

“As you can see, we’re ready for the kids here,” he says, gesturing toward a locker containing a former student’s books and hairbrush. “Now all we need is the peace that will bring them back.”


Lew to JDC: U.S. will move against Iran sanctions busters

The United States is prepared to move against violators of its sanctions against Iran, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Our enforcement of the sanctions regime will be as unflinching as ever, so any CEO, general counsel or businessperson who thinks now might be a time to test our resolve better think again,” said Lew, who received the JDC’s Morgenthau Award from the JDC on Wednesday to commemorate the group’s 100 years of partnership with the U.S. government at its Centennial Dinner. “We are watching closely, and we are prepared to move against anyone, anywhere who violates, or attempts to violate, our sanctions.”

His remarks at the dinner in Washington, D.C., came a day before the Treasury and State departments made public the names of several companies and individuals for evading international sanctions against Iran and for providing support for Iran’s nuclear program.

Lew voiced his support for sanctions against Iran, saying “we have a moral obligation to use all diplomatic and economic means of achieving a change to the maximum extent possible, and reserve force as a last option when other means fail.”

He said the sanctions relief offered during the interim agreement negotiated by world powers with Iran, under which Iran will slow its nuclear production, is minimal. Lew noted that during the six months of the agreement, Iran will continue to lose nearly $30 billion in oil revenue. 

“This agreement does not prevent us from implementing our existing sanctions or imposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or its abuse of basic human rights,” he said.

Lew praised the JDC for its partnership and for its work around the world.

More than 350 people, including administration officials, ambassadors, members of Congress and Jewish leaders, attended the dinner. Henry Morgenthau III helped present the award named for his grandfather.

Also Wednesday, the JDC presented its Or L’Olam Award to the Republic of the Philippines for its role, together with JDC and the Frieder family, in saving more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. Jose Cuisia, the Philippines envoy to the United States, accepted the award and thanked the JDC, the Jewish community and Israel for its current efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Report: Coerced contraception behind 50 percent decline in Ethiopian-Israeli birth rate

Israeli and Jewish aid officials are denying an Israeli TV report alleging that Ethiopian immigrant women have been coerced into taking contraceptive shots.

The report, which aired Saturday night on Israeli Educational Television, charged that coercive contraception is behind a 50 percent decline in the Ethiopian birth rate in Israel over the last decade.

Ethiopian women interviewed in the program, called “Vacuum” and hosted by Gal Gabbai, said they were coerced into receiving injections of Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control drug, both at Jewish-run health clinics in Ethiopia and after their move to Israel.

Rachel Mangoli, executive director of the WIZO chapter in Katz Village, told the TV show that she realized something was amiss when during a full year in her Ethiopian program just one Ethiopian baby was born.

“I went to the health clinic and I was told that Ethiopian immigrants were given the contraception because they couldn’t be relied upon to take the pills every day,” Mangoli said.

In the report, a woman identified as S. said she was told at the Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, “If you don’t get the shot, we won’t give you a ticket.”

She recalled, “I didn’t want to take it. They wanted me to take it. But I didn’t know it was a contraceptive,” she said. “I thought it was an immunization.”

Another Ethiopian interviewed for the program, Amawaish Alane, said, “We said we won’t accept the shot. They told us, ‘You won’t immigrate to Israel. You also won’t come into this clinic. You won’t get help and medical treatment.’ ”

“We had no choice,” Alane said. “That’s why we took the shot. We could only get out with their permission.”

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs the health clinics in Ethiopia for prospective immigrants to Israel, says it offers contraception among its array of services but that it is purely voluntary.

“At no time did JDC coerce anyone into engaging at family planning at its clinics. Those options were totally voluntary and offered to women who requested it,” a JDC spokesman in New York said. “They chose the form of contraceptive based on being fully informed of all the options available to them.”

The TV program alleged that coercive contraceptive tactics continued once the Ethiopians immigrated to Israel, where health clinics have been administering the contraceptive shots. The shots, which must be taken every three months, normally are given to women who cannot be relied upon to take daily pills, such as the mentally ill, according to health experts cited in the program.

The TV show sent a hidden camera into an Israeli health clinic, where an employee told the undercover reporter that Ethiopian women are given the contraceptive shots “because they forget,” “explanations are difficult for them” and “they essentially don’t understand anything.”

The Israeli Health Ministry has denied any systematic suppression of Ethiopian pregnancy or coerced contraception.

Watch the show here (Hebrew):

General Assembly: Three Jews in Baltimore

If you’ve ever been to one of those giant auto shows where hundreds of gleaming new car models are lavishly displayed in a convention hall the size of Montana, you’ve got an idea of what it felt like last Sunday morning when I entered the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (commonly known as the “GA”), which is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The scores of booths laid out in giant rows are what the organizers call The GA Marketplace, a modern-day shuk of Jewish causes where advocates seduce you with free chocolate or other goodies so that you’ll hear about some new village they’re building in Africa, or some new Web site that will “revolutionize” Jewish education, or some new movement that will attract the “new generation.”

Not all causes in the shuk are revolutionary. Many booths promote venerable institutions like the “Joint” (JDC) or Hillel, various marketing vendors or even book publishers (yes, they still have those). But regardless of the causes, the larger-than-life quality of the assembly gives the enterprise a certain grandeur and headiness.

You feel this headiness when you attend the GA’s many conferences, which are spread out over three days and attract top speakers from the Jewish world.

You can tell from their titles that the conferences deal only with the big stuff: “Words of Hate, Words of Hope: When External Events Shape Jewish Identity,” “Can the Jewish World Leverage Israeli Expertise in the Developing World,” “Legacy Versus Innovation: A False Dichotomy” and “Connecting the Dots in the Global Jewish Network,” among many others. 

While I certainly enjoyed the conferences, I have to say that what stuck with me the most — besides the fact that I collected a briefcase full of business cards and brochures — was my Sunday encounter in the shuk with three Jews.

These are not the kind of Jews I might bump into in my Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

One was a Karaite Jew, the other a Humanistic Jew and the third a leader of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.

I had heard of Karaite Jews, but I had never met one. So, when I saw a Karaite banner over one of the booths, I didn’t need any chocolate to draw me in. The lady behind the booth seemed amused by all my questions. 

“We’re Jews, just like you,” she kept saying.

Well, yes and no. Karaite Jews are a lot more rebellious than I am.

As it says in one of their brochures, “Karaism accepts the Jewish Bible as the word of God and as the sole religious authority,” while rejecting “human additions to the Torah such as the Rabbinic Oral Law.”

In other words, Karaite Jews reject what is generally considered the most important interpretive text of Judaism: the Talmud. That’s one reason, for example, why they allow cheeseburgers and don’t light Shabbat candles.

They believe that theirs is “the original form of Judaism commanded by God” and that “every Jew has the obligation to study the Torah and decide for him/herself the correct interpretation of God’s commandments.” 

After my encounter with Jews who reject our talmudic Sages, I discovered Jews who reject God Himself: Humanistic Jews. (Seriously, how much can a tolerant Jew from Pico-Robertson take?)

Actually, Humanistic Jews do have a sort of deity: His name is Darwin. They don’t go for all that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” biblical stuff. They’re the Big Bang Jews, and their big bang is peoplehood.

Language is important to them. Humanistic Jews don’t “pray” in “synagogues.” They celebrate in their congregations. And what they celebrate is the story of the Jewish people and the continuation of that story and culture. They just leave God out of the picture.

By the time I met the leader of a Jewish LGBT rights group, I think I was relieved to meet a Jew who rejected neither God nor the Talmud.

Idit Klein is the executive director of Keshet, a group “working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.”

She didn’t flinch when I told her I wasn’t raised to be very accepting of things like a man becoming a woman, or vice versa, but she did say, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

We spent a good hour in one of the more honest and difficult conversations I’ve had in a while. This is a very delicate area, especially for a Jew raised in the Orthodox tradition, but her sensitivity and decency in the way she expressed herself (“full acceptance strengthens the core of a community”) is what moved me.

The truth is, it’s only when I meet Jews who are very different than I am — whether religiously, politically or culturally — that my love of “Big Tent Judaism” is really tested.

To pass this test, I have to be at my best — my most curious, my most open and my most honest. How ironic that encountering sharply different Jews can bring out the best in me.

Maybe it’s because it puts me in touch with one of the deepest things we can have in common: simple human decency.

It’s not the Talmud, it’s not God, and it’s not the big stuff you hear in conferences about the Jewish future, but it’s something.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Eastern European giving

Wearing an elegant dress and a name tag, Dasha Fedoseeva flitted among the tables during a recent Jewish community dinner in Moscow just after Rosh Hashanah.

Fedoseeva wasn’t just a guest. She was part of a team of young Jewish volunteers whose goal was to mingle and charm older guests into increasing their donations to local Jewish charities.

Organized by the Russian Jewish Congress, the gala dinner and auction raised $85,000. In 2011, the Congress allocated $385,000 to a Jewish orphanage in Moscow — all the money was raised locally in fundraising drives.

The raising of substantial funds here is a sign of something almost unthinkable just a few years ago in former Soviet bloc countries. For years, the Jewish communities there subsisted on Western help for welfare and community-building. But these communities are becoming increasingly self-reliant — evident both in the growing culture of local volunteerism and homegrown philanthropy.

“Over the past few years, we see more volunteering by young Jews and more donations, which are aspects of the same trend of giving,” said Matvey Chlenov, deputy director of the Russian Jewish Congress.

“In the 1990s there was a feeling we were struggling to survive in the post-communist upheaval,” he said. “Now in Russia we have more time and money, and some people are looking for a way to do positive things for the community.”

Chlenov says this applies not only to Jews but to Russian society in general.

In Ukraine, a $70 million Jewish community center in Dnepropetrovsk due to be dedicated this month was funded entirely by local philanthropists. Elsewhere in Ukraine, JCCs are encouraging activism and philanthropy among young Jews while accustoming older members to paying fees.

In Poland, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) recently received its first significant donation from a local philanthropist.

Promoters of Jewish life in Eastern Europe say getting people to donate time and money is difficult in the former Soviet bloc, where bitter memories of “forced volunteering” remain, and there is deep-rooted skepticism toward the idea of sacrificing for the common good.

“Former Soviet countries have little culture of giving or volunteering, and I know exactly why,” said Karina Sokolowska, director of the Poland office of the JDC. “Growing up in communist Poland, I remember attending ‘compulsory-voluntary action’ every month. We would go somewhere and do what they told us. It profoundly affects your attitude to community work.”

Mariya Zarud, 22, of Odessa, encountered this barrier to community work at home.

Zarud, the regional coordinator for the JDC-funded Metzuda program for developing Jewish leadership, said she had to plead with her parents to convince them that her unpaid role in the Jewish community was a good thing.

“Initially, it was pretty tough. I had to make them see I wasn’t wasting my time,” Zarud said of her teen years, when she first became involved with JDC programs. Like many people who grew up under communism, her parents were wary of organizational activism, she said.

While her parents’ generation looks askance at volunteering, young Jews recognize that it is up to them — not just international Jewish aid groups — to build their communities, she says.

In Odessa, the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center, which was dedicated in 2010 thanks to American Jewish donations, collects fees for all cultural activities, according to Ira Zborovskaya of the local JDC office.

“Even if it’s only symbolic, everyone has to chip in and pay something for services,” Zborovskaya said.

In Soviet times, “charging fees for cultural activities was unthinkable — it was all free,” said Kira Verkhovskaya, director of Odessa’s other JCC, Migdal. Fees are also collected as a matter of policy there, but most of the budget comes from subsidies from Jews in the West.

“Some older people are not happy when they are asked to pay,” she said.

Both Migdal and Beit Grand have programs that encourage young Jews to contribute time and effort to the community.

Beit Grand also operates a luxury Jewish kindergarten for 40 children whose well-off parents pay a monthly fee of $500 — approximately double the average national monthly salary. The kindergarten is so popular that it has a long waiting list. The annual income of $240,000 from fees helps cover other programs, including charitable activities.

Nevertheless, the culture of giving is still far less widespread than it is in the West, experts say.

Russia has a Jewish population of 265,000, according to a 2010 official census, and the World Jewish Congress says it estimates the number is at least 330,000. Despite the community’s size, local philanthropy comes mostly from a thin layer of “oligarchs or super-rich Jews,” Chlenov said.

“What we are missing is a trusted brand for small donations from middle-class donors, like what the Jewish federation system does in the U.S.,” he said.

Attempts to raise donations from that sector yielded some results, according to Chlenov, but never beyond a total of $150,000 per fundraising campaign.

In Ukraine, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says the Jewish middle class still isn’t opening its wallet.

“Since the mid-’90s, we are seeing the same 10 to 15 very rich Jews funding charity,” he said. The donor pool is “sadly not expanding.”

This means that with a Jewish population of 360,000 to 400,000 and many thousands of welfare cases, Ukrainian Jewry would “face a humanitarian disaster” if it weren’t for American money, Dolinsky added.

Polish architects design five sukkot for display in Warsaw

Five sukkot designed by Polish architects are being displayed in a public square in Warsaw.

The Poland office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which initiated and organized the Warsaw sukkot exhibition, had the temporary Jewish ceremonial dwellings placed at Grzybowski Square in the Polish capital.

The idea was to find “a more innovative and open way to educate the general public about some Jewish customs,” Karina Sokolowska, JDC country director for Poland, told JTA.

Sukkot are built as a reminder of the biblical tale of the nomadic period which the Israelites spent after their liberation from Egyptian slavery.

The exhibition, Sokolowska added, also was meant to serve as an “inauguration” for the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, though — like the ancient Israelites during their desert wanderings — that center is without a permanent address.

“At this moment the JCC is still operating without walls, but hopefully will soon find its permanent location,” Sokolowska said.

Piotr Lewicki, an architect from Krakow who designed one of the sukkot with his business partner Kazimierz Latak, described the structures as natural additions to Warsaw’s chaotic urban landscape.

“Public spaces in our cities are usually ruled by mess,” he told JTA, adding that Warsaw’s streets are no strangers to “shacks and stalls.”

Instead of a traditional canopy of branches, the two architects from Krakow used wicker, a common material used in traditional Polish masonry.

JDC appoints Darrell Friedman interim CEO

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee named Darrell Friedman as interim CEO following the abrupt resignation of longtime CEO Steven Schwager.

Schwager, who had been at the helm of the JDC for 10 years, announced last Friday that he’d be stepping down as CEO effective June 30.

Friedman, a Jewish organizational consultant, has been working with the JDC for the past nine years as an inhouse senior consultant to Schwager, according to the JDC. He will start his interim position on July 1. Friedman had served for 17 years as the CEO of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“Darrell’s proven leadership and expertise, along with his years of experience with JDC, will be of great value to our organization over the coming months as we continue to address the critical challenges faced by Jews worldwide,” JDC’s president, Penny Blumenstein, said in a statement Tuesday.

Friedman also will serve as an adviser to the JDC board’s international search committee for a new CEO.

JDC CEO Steven Schwager stepping down

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s CEO is stepping down.

The JDC announced Friday that Steven Schwager would step down as CEO at the end of June and will retire from the organization in January 2013.

Schwager has served as CEO since 2002 and has been with the Jewish international humanitarian assistance organization since 1989.

“Following careful soul-searching, I concluded that after nearly 23 years serving this marvelous organization, it was time for me to retire,” Schwager said in the press release. “I do this with the deepest of pride, knowing that the work we have done together has helped ensure that Jews around the world face their future a little less hungry, with deeper connections to their Jewish identity, and with the profound hope to build a better tomorrow.”

Opinion: In Japan, pride in the Jewish response to tsunami

As I sit here in Tokyo with the first anniversary of the tsunami fast approaching, I recall my surprise the first time a Japanese person thanked me, as a Jew, for Israel’s immediate response to the disaster. It was certainly not the time to instruct that well-meaning person that not all Jews are from Israel—the average Japanese does not make a distinction between them—so instead I proudly basked in the thought of Israel being the first country to come to Japan’s aid with its emergency field hospital.

The second time, however, I was not caught off guard: I had prepared a little speech in which I told of what the the Jewish Community of Japan, of which I am the rabbi, was doing together with the global Jewish community to help people in the face of crisis. I was able to report on stories of individual members of our community—mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews—who in the first hours after the disaster purchased tons of flour and food, and managed to deliver it to the displaced. I also told them about the many local Jews who organized food drives, raised money and took time from work to volunteer with the cleanup.

Most especially, I told them the tale of the 11-year-old girl from our thriving Hebrew school who singlehandedly organized the first bicycle drive through which she collected nearly 100 pairs of shoes to distribute in a destitute town in the north of Japan.

I have told these stories many times. But what really impresses the people here is the story of the almost instantaneous global Jewish response to the disaster. The effort came in many forms, such as Chabad, the Israeli field hospital or IsraAID. For us at the Jewish Community of Japan, the effort manifested itself in our partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which reached out to us within 24 hours of the earthquake offering its support.

In the first days after the disaster, those who remained in Japan felt the urgency to do something. This desire was combined with the fear and anxiety caused by the conflicting reports about the situation. It was a “time to act for the Lord,” but it was not clear what we could do. Some 2,000 Jews are living in Japan, and none of us had been affected irreversibly by the quake, thank God. However, the tragedy we faced as a nation was overwhelming.

As such, it was deeply important that our individual efforts at the time were soon combined with the help of those from outside Japan. It represented a powerful vehicle for us to act quickly and collectively on our natural desire to help. After all, we wanted our country to know that we care for her and her people, as the Talmud says, “at a time when the community is in distress, none should say: I’ll go to the privacy of my home and have a party.”

Since those early days, we have made a lasting impact on the life of tens of thousands of individuals. By combining the Jewish Community of Japan’s local guidance—including accessing our friends and family, business relationships and closeness to Japanese society—and the JDC’s expertise in disaster relief, we’ve put programs into action to support various groups in the disaster areas – for children, the deaf and hearing impaired, the elderly, the physically disabled and the displaced. Among our many achievements, we have brought in Israeli post-trauma specialists who have worked and trained the local social workers and teachers to help children suffering in fear, and found ways, in addition to our other work, to provide meals for those living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing.

But what I believe is the biggest success yet is the establishment of 13 community cafes in Ishinomaki, the town hit the hardest by the tsunami. I knew full well about these cafes, a venue for displaced people of the area to gather and receive informal psychological support while participating in activities, classes and programs, or plain, old-fashioned schmoozing.

I was pleasantly surprised to have another moment of Jewish pride, when at one of the many interfaith meetings I attend, a church minister lauded the cafes as a successful example of outreach and support. At that moment I could not help myself and expressed with true satisfaction that these cafes had been possible thanks to the generosity and expertise of the Jewish community. Seeing the look of positive surprise on the faces of my fellow clergy, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the bread coming back to us upon the water?”

Perhaps no greater example of this connection between the Jews of Japan and our neighbors is our project to repair the Buddhist Komyogi Temple in Oshu. As part of the effort, we are creating a joint program to provide a respite for the beleaguered children of Rikuzentakata, a city devastated by the tsunami. Through children’s activities and numerous opportunities for exchange between our families and theirs, a dialogue between our communities will be built on the ideals of mutual responsibility and human compassion. All of this, of course, would not be possible without the support of Jews from abroad.

A constant source of “naches” for me as a rabbi, this outpouring of help speaks to one of the Jewish values I cherish most, tikkun olam. It also highlights, perhaps better than anything I have ever seen, the strengthening of bridges existing between the Japanese people and Israel and the Jews. Despite my initial reaction to the compliment from my Japanese neighbor, I have seen in the last year that we are one people. And together we can save lives, wherever in the world we are needed.

Antonio Di Gesu, a native of Italy and graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan.

Turkey earthquake: How you can help

If your organization is involved in helping victims of the Turkish earthquake and you would like it included in our list, please email pertinent information to webmaster@jewishjournal.com.


In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey on Oct. 23, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has begun collecting funds for relief efforts. Responding to initial reports of hundreds of deaths and wide-spread building collapse, JDC is working with its local partners—including Turkey’s Jewish community—to ensure the victims’ immediate needs are addressed. JDC’s past humanitarian interventions in Turkey have included the provision of aid and training after earthquakes in 2010 and 1999. JDC’s staff experts are currently determining what next steps are necessary, especially in the hardest-hit Van Province.

To Make a Contribution:

Online: www.jdc.org/turkeyrelief
By Phone: 212-687-6200
By Mail: check payable to:

Attn: JDC
P.O. Box 4124
New York, NY 10163

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters. To learn more, visit www.JDC.org

JDC helping Christchurch Jews to rebuild

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is helping the Jewish community of Christchurch to rebuild following the city’s devastating earthquake.

JDC funding will contribute to Christchurch Jewish community efforts to repair a damaged local synagogue and homes, replace household goods, provide financial stipends and temporary relocation costs, and support community service or children’s programs for the wider community, the organization said in a statement.

“As we extend our deepest sympathies to the families of Christchurch locals and Israelis lost in the earthquake, we’re cooperating with the Jewish community to ensure that people on the ground can start to rebuild their lives,” said Steven Schwager, the CEO of JDC. “As we have done in the past, JDC is delivering much-needed assistance to Jews and others in the wake of a disaster.”

In addition to lost property, and damaged homes and businesses, the Jewish community’s synagogue was damaged and the Chabad House was destroyed by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck on Feb. 22. Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, is home to 600 Jews. Jewish settlement in the region dates back to the early 1860s, according to the JDC.

“It means a lot to us to know that we are not forgotten, even though we are just a small community far away,” said Bettina Wallace, acting president of the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation.

The Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva, which has two New Zealand groups, launched an international appeal to provide immediate assistance for the 250 synagogue members.

JDC staffer to chair Obama’s faith-based panel

President Obama named a top American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee official as chairman of his faith-based council, as well as a top Conservative rabbi to the council.

Susan Stern, the government affairs adviser to the JDC, will chair the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a Feb. 4 White House announcement said.

“We are incredibly proud that Susie has been recognized by President Obama for her unparalleled leadership and lifelong devotion to repairing the world, contributing to America’s future, and improving Jewish lives around the globe,” JDC CEO Steven Schwager said in a statement.

Another of the 12 appointees is Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

One of the appointees, Lynne Hybels, has been active in Middle East peace advocacy through the Willow Creek Community Church.

The advisory council is the outcome of White House-led sessions last year with an array of religious leaders, including from the Jewish community.

Obama sought to continue President George W. Bush’s efforts to devolve community assistance to faith-based groups while reinforcing constitutional separations between church and state.

JDC opens Baltics job centers

Job centers pioneered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Argentina were launched in the Baltics.

Ariel Job Centers opened recently in Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the JDC.

The centers have helped Argentina’s Jews recover in the wake of their country’s economic crisis by providing seminars, classes and training on job hunting, interviewing and resume building, as well as computer and other professional skills.

“At a time when innovative, global solutions to overcome the financial downturn are in demand, we’re proud that our Ariel Job Center model could be easily transplanted and tailored to address the growing needs of Jews in countries suffering from some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe,” said JDC CEO Steven Schwager. “Our centers are designed to operate and succeed during the toughest of crises, and that’s why they are already helping people in Riga and Tallinn overcome their hardship.”

JDC has seen a rise in the number of Jews requiring welfare services, particularly in the Baltic nations, which among European countries are the slowest to recover economically. In 2010, JDC expects to be serving more than 7,000 Baltic Jews in need, an increase of 50 percent in one year.

Briefs: Methodists don’t ‘divest,’ Jewish groups mobilize for Myanmar, Reno TV anchor sues

Methodists Reject Divestment Proposals

Methodists overwhelmingly defeated measures calling for divestment from companies that allegedly enable Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The resolutions, targeting companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures tractors, and Motorola, which manufactures security systems, had drawn much media scrutiny before last week’s United Methodist Church General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jewish groups were even more offended by a background document prepared in connection with the motions than they were by the notion of divestment itself. According to Jewish groups, the document was dismissive of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism and ventured into “replacement theology,” the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism.

An alliance of grass-roots church activists, who nurture ties to the Jewish community, helped defeat five divestment resolutions, often in the early stages of the conference. The activists also helped pass resolutions opposing the proselytizing of Jews and promoting Holocaust awareness and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together national and local organizations, attended the conference. He credited outreach by Jewish groups across the country to sympathetic Methodists and called the defeat of the resolutions a “turning point.”

“The church has spoken that they don’t want this one-sided approach to their witness,” Felson said Friday, the final day of the conference. “This wasn’t about a national campaign, it was about community to community. This was about relationships.”

U.S. Orthodox Rabbis Assail Israeli Rabbinical Court on Nullifying Conversions

American Orthodox rabbis slammed the decision by an Israeli rabbinical court to nullify conversions by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said Tuesday that the ruling, which retroactively nullified the conversions performed under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, was “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice,” is a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and constitutes a “massive desecration of God’s name.”

“The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued by that court,” according to a statement by the organization.

According to the RCA, it has received assurances from Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the ruling by the Rabbinic Court of Appeals has no legal standing.

The episode is the latest to rouse concerns over who is authorized to perform conversions recognized by the Jewish state.

In February, the RCA announced an agreement with the chief rabbinate recognizing 15 American courts and some 40 Orthodox rabbis in North America authorized to perform conversions. A group of liberal Orthodox rabbis said the agreement represented a capitulation to the increasingly stringent standards of the Israeli rabbinate.

Jewish Groups Mobilize For Myanmar

Both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and B’nai B’rith International have opened disaster relief funds to send aid to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, where at least 22,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless after the May 3 cyclone.

The JDC’s International Development Program, which responds to natural and manmade disasters providing immediate relief and long-term assistance, collects funds on a nonsectarian basis. The JDC is helping some of the region’s estimated 10 Jews.

The B’nai B’rith disaster relief fund will allocate $10,000 to help IsraAID send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar. The team is cooperating with the local United Nations office and Israel’s embassy in the region.

Tel Aviv-based IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, is an umbrella organization of more than 35 Israeli and Jewish nongovernmental organizations active in development and relief work.

For more information, contact the JDC at www.jdc.org or (212) 687-6200; or B’nai B’rith at www.bnaibrith.org/support/disaster_relief.cfm.

To donate to the LA Federation’s Emergency Relief Fund, call (323) 761-8200 or send a check to: The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048. Please make checks payable to The Jewish Federation with the words “Myanmar Relief Fund” in the memo line.

To contribute to AJWS, visit www.ajws.org, or call (800) 889-7146. Checks can be sent to: American Jewish World Service, Burma Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

London Mayor Critical of Israel Loses Bid for Re-election to Third Term

Ken Livingstone, a frequent critic of Israel, was beaten in London’s mayoral election.

The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson received 53.2 percent of the vote last Saturday to 46.8 for Livingstone, the Labor incumbent. Johnson was sworn in the same day.

Livingstone has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and refused to apologize after comparing a Jewish journalist from London to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The first person to serve as the mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Livingstone served two terms.

Johnson has worked to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been a supporter of Israel. He opposed a call last year by Britain’s University College Union to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.

During a trip to Israel in November 2004, Johnson visited Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market shortly after a suicide bombing and toured the West Bank security fence, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Judaism Trumps Nationality Among Israelis

Jewish identity takes precedence over national identity for most Israelis, a poll found.

According to the survey in Tuesday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, 65 percent of Israeli Jews identified primarily as Jews and only then as Israelis, whereas 14 percent said the reverse. Nine percent said they don’t know in which order they identify.

Asked whether they want Israel to be more Jewish or more democratic, 47 percent said the former and 43 percent the latter, with the rest undecided.

The poll reflected mixed feelings among Israeli Jews about their country’s future as it celebrates its 60th Independence Day, though most made clear they would not want to live elsewhere.

Asked to rate their “personal mood” on an ascending scale of one to 10, the average number given was seven. The “national mood” was a more gloomy 5.8.

A ‘Promise’ to Help Jews Overseas

A 100-year-old Jewish woman, whose closest relatives are dead, lives in a one-room walk-up apartment in the former Soviet republic of Moldova that she hasn’t walked out of in four years.

The thought of Klara Kogan, who exists on a paltry government pension, haunts Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which provides relief and welfare to Jews abroad.

“We owe it to those people” to care for them, said Schwager, whose group provides Kogan with a home-care worker — and her only human contact. “Those people could be us.”

Making the case for funding overseas needs has become increasingly difficult for the North American Jewish federation system, which raises money for local, national and international needs.

Jewish federations have increasingly put their campaign dollars toward local social service and educational needs; today, roughly 30 percent of funds raised by federations go overseas, down from 50 percent in earlier times.

But the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of the federation system, wants to change that.

At its annual conference held in Toronto in mid-November, the UJC heavily promoted “Operation Promise,” a special campaign to raise $160 million over three years primarily to finance the aliyah of an estimated 17,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent known as the Falash Mura.

The funds will also go toward the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, caring for the Jewish elderly of the former Soviet Union and invigorating the identity of its Jewish youth.

Despite the fanfare around the special campaign, launched in September by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and endorsed by him via video conference at the General Assembly, there is real concern about how it will resonate with donors across North America.

But Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency of Israel’s board of governors, said there was great urgency in expediting the aliyah of the Falash Mura and reuniting families.

“It’s our every expectation that they will provide the necessary funds to complete this chapter of Jewish history,” she said, referring to UJC and the federations.

The campaign comes amid another major development in the federation system’s overseas work — the creation of a new allocations system.

With the 1999 creation of the UJC — a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal — came the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD), which comprised a cross-section of federation leaders to determine allocations overseas with the aim of increasing overseas dollars.

Fraught with politics and bureaucracy, the committee has cost several million dollars and has not substantially increased the allocation of overseas funds.

The system’s major overseas partners are the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs aliyah and Zionist education worldwide.

While the federations’ annual campaign, which tops $800 million, increased by 4 percent since 2000, dollars overseas have dropped by more than 4.5 percent since 2001.

The UJC board of trustees unanimously voted to replace ONAD with a system that allows the Jewish Agency and the JDC to hammer out their own agreement for the next two years. A group of federation officials will monitor the process and the UJC board must then approve the deal by the two agencies.

Some hope the new format — a modified return to pre-ONAD days, when the Jewish Agency and JDC negotiated their funds — will restore a spirit of cooperation to the process.

Others call the resolution a compromise document that will satisfy no one, and some lament the lack of minimum amounts required by federations to allocate overseas, given past shortfalls.

In fact, the critical issue of shoring up overseas funds remains in question.

“Nothing much will improve unless there’s an increase in overseas allocations, and that takes more than a document,” said Ellen Heller of Baltimore, the JDC’s president. “That takes advocacy.”

There is no formal advocacy committee, UJC President Howard Rieger told JTA. But the resolution allows for an aggressive approach to raising overseas funds, he said.

It asks federations to increase overseas giving, provides incentives for those that do and calls for the consideration of punitive measures against noncompliant federations.

For many local federation leaders, making the connection to overseas needs in general and Operation Promise in particular is tough amid so many competing local demands.

People don’t see overseas concerns as their responsibility because they have never seen the problems firsthand, said Michael Nissenson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara

Federations are also facing increased local costs due to growing numbers and budgets of local agencies like day schools, said Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Still, Rakitt said that “sometimes a special campaign has a way of providing a laser focus,” suggesting the new campaign will generate additional funds overseas.

“We have a responsibility to Jews wherever they live and an elderly person who’s hungry in Atlanta or hungry in Belarus is our responsibility.”

Operation Promise has already raised $32 million in pledges, according to UJC officials.

Several federations are responding to the campaign by soliciting individual major donors rather than rolling out a massive campaign.

Privately, several officials said they didn’t want to conduct a “second-line campaign” because it would raise questions among donors, who understand that the annual campaign already funds these types of overseas needs.

The UJA-Federation of New York, which has been a leading proponent of the push to expedite the aliyah of the Falash Mura, has already appropriated $5.7 million to the cause.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the New York federation, said his federation would provide an additional $18 million over the next three years for the other elements of Operation Promise.

“This is our way of fully participating in Operation Promise,” he said. Jay Sarver, a UJC board member from St. Louis and the budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency, said that although the needs of Operation Promise are contained in the federations’ annual campaign efforts, the urgency of the situation demands more funds in a shorter time frame.

In Cleveland, the community has already pledged nearly 90 percent of its goal to raise almost $6 million for Operation Promise, said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

These pledges come on top of its annual campaign as well as a $137 million capital campaign.

Success comes “if you ask and you take the time to explain why you’re asking.”

Still, it may be a tough sell.

“It’s going to take some real strategic marketing and an incredibly intensive fund-raising effort to reach the $160 million goal, and if we don’t reach that goal the Jewish Agency and JDC are going to be in a tremendous debt situation,” said Richard Wexler, a UJC board member from Chicago.

Moshe Vigdor, director general of the Jewish Agency, said that “if we have less, we will be able to do less, unfortunately.”

But the aliyah operation is unlikely to be halted, even in a funding crisis, according to senior UJC and Jewish Agency officials.

“We have an obligation here,” Rieger said.

He noted that Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that officials say could prompt the Ethiopian immigration to begin in December.

The $100 million cost of funding the aliyah is broken down as follows: $23 million for preparing and educating the Jews before they immigrate, $40 million for their needs in Israeli absorption centers and $37 million for programs that integrate Ethiopians once they have moved out of the absorption centers, Vigdor said.

Zeev Bielski, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, which will assume the bulk of responsibility for the education and preparation for the Falash Mura aliyah, said he hoped that the entire immigration would be completed by the end of 2007.


Read All About It

The very thought of editors of Jewish publications gathering in an Oxford manor house cries out for a Rodney Dangerfield punch line.

Yarnton Manor was once a holding of the Spencer-Churchill family, as in Princess Diana and Sir Winston. Juxtapose its dark wood-paneled rooms and sweeping Jacobean gardens with a bunch of hunch-shouldered journalists whose profession is rarely accorded much respect inside their communities, much less among landed gentry — you get the picture. It was easy for me to sit in the manor’s 17th-century great room and imagine generations of Spencers and Churchills cartwheeling in their graves.

But a decade ago, the house was purchased by a Jewish family who turned it over to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The American Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) International Centre for Community Development chose it as a convenient midway point for a first-ever gathering of 13 editors and publishers of Jewish publications from North America, Europe and Israel.

The early September meeting was the brainchild of Alberto Senderey, the JDC’s director of international community development. Senderey is a model Jewish professional, and not just because he invited me as one of five Americans included for the four-day symposium in beautiful Oxford.

An energetic, optimistic burst of Argentine energy, he recognized that Jewish media have a unique and underappreciated perspective on Jewish communal life. In increasingly dispersed and diverse communities, Jewish newspapers and magazines can serve as virtual community centers, a place where all voices can be heard and where, in the best of circumstances, all a community’s important issues and problems examined.

Jews have a complicated relationship with the Jews who write about them. On the one hand, they want us to do the stuff of journalism — gather and present news accurately without fear or bias, hold leaders and institutions accountable and present a diversity of opinions, regardless of their popularity.

On the other hand, they want us to do all this without offending them, attacking them, upsetting their fundraising or giving press to points of view they despise. The relationship is often rocky and inherently uncomfortable. We are outsiders writing about outsiders — the Jews of the Jews.

But the JDC, which works with endangered and emergent Jewish communities from South America to Siberia, understands that for many Jews, the local Jewish press is their first or even main connection to Jewish life. In a time when traditional forms of Jewish expression — synagogues, JCCs, federations — have struggled to retain the loyalty of a new generation, Jewish papers and magazines continue to thrive.

Consider this nugget mined from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey: For the majority of Jews in the vaunted 35-44 age range — the ones whose child-rearing will set a new generation on the path toward Jewish life — the No. 1 nonreligious Jewish activity in which they engage is reading a Jewish periodical.

In this age group, 47 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, 45 percent contribute to nonfederation Jewish charities, 25 percent contribute to their local federation. But these numbers are easily surpassed by the 68 percent who read a Jewish newspaper or magazine.

To some degree, this statistic reflects the general promise of niche publications in an increasingly fractured media market. New Times’ multimillion dollar purchase this week of former rival LA Weekly’s parent company, Village Voice Media Inc., is but one example.

But another possible explanation for this astonishing statistic — how likely is it that 68 percent of Jews would agree on anything? — is that newspapers and periodicals offer a low barrier of entry to Jewish life. There’s no membership, no dress code, no judging. In some cases, as with this paper, there is zero cost, as well. That means people who want to affirm or explore their connection to Judaism can do so easily, every week, at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

The fact that young people aren’t joining Jewish organizations doesn’t mean they’re dropping out, said conference participant Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. “They’re looking for new ways to identify.”

For a new generation of Jews, the Holocaust and even the Six-Day War are ancient history. The touchstones of Jewishness have shifted, and media outlets, which can change content monthly, weekly or, on the Internet, hourly, are poised to adapt more quickly than synagogues or large organizations. That makes these long-undervalued participants in Jewish communal life more important than ever.

Not surprisingly, Joshua Newman, the editor of the controversial, youth-skewed Heeb, was one of the editors invited. His magazine has successfully explored the intersection of Jewish and secular culture, and has attracted a large audience of the even more elusive 18- to 35-year-old Jews. It has done so, in part, by tweaking or ignoring coverage that traditional Jewish magazines emphasize: Israel, the Holocaust, organized Jewish life.

One thing we editors agreed on was that the nature of our profession is, like much in the Jewish world, changing.

In the not-so-recent past, much of what we wrote about, even as exposes, was parochial compared to the general press: which Jewish organization did what to whom, the latest from Israel, the most notable Jew of the week (astronaut, movie star, baseball player — you name it).

But beginning with the front-page news of the Oslo accords, Jewish news became international news. Certainly after the election of George W. Bush and the terror attack of 9/11, the coverage of faith, ethnic identity and how they dovetail with the world at large took on a vital importance.

“The Jewish story became the national story,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward. “Religion reporting became central to all reporting.”

The intifada and the subsequent vilification of Israel in much of the mainstream press only upped the ante for Jewish papers. “We became a source for more accurate reporting,” said Meir Waintroter, who edits L’Arche, a Parisian-based monthly.

In fact, the reality of anti-Semitism in our daily professional life was one glaring difference between the American editors at the conference and their European and Eastern European counterparts. We Americans rarely look over our shoulders to see which non-Jewish enemies will take issue with what we print. For some of our colleagues, such trepidation is a fact of life.

When it comes to such issues as Israel and anti-Semitism, Jewish papers are able to provide depth and context that mainstream papers sometimes overlook.

But here’s the balancing act. Just as we recognize our unique role in providing deeper coverage of issues Jews care about, including unsavory aspects of our own communities, there’s also an element of outreach to our mission. If we define “Jewish” too narrowly, we risk alienating large segments of our current and potential readership.

“If we narrow ourselves to issues that are only Jewish defined,” said one editor, “we fail to appeal to readers who feel that Jews have a universal message. We end up creating a Jewish community where most Jews don’t belong.”

And there are not just a few of those Jews. Originally the youth-oriented magazine Heeb sought to “speak to an alienated voice” of disassociated and disconnected young Jews, said Heeb editor Newman. In so doing, the magazine effectively created a new Jewish community.

That, ultimately, is the threefold power of the Jewish press: to strengthen Jewish community through the practice of journalism, to extend the opportunity of Jewish communal life to as many people as possible and, not incidentally, to provide a first draft of Jewish history itself.

Or, as my fellow Yarnton Manor pal Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”


JDC’s Priority:

Elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union are in a desperate situation as a result of the transition from Communism to capitalism, said Michael Schneider, executive director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Schneider, in Los Angeles last week to talk with top Jewish leaders and don-ors about the urgent financial needs of the 84-year-old international Jewish-aid organization, told The Journal that the JDC is in the midst of the third-largest relief and welfare operation in its 84-year history. The largest was the displaced-persons camps at the end of the World War II. Next was aiding Jews in the Pale of Settlement after the World War I. And now, the JDC’s biggest priority is providing relief and care to 170,000 elderly and impoverished Jews throughout the world. About 140,000 of them are in the former Soviet Union, and the remaining 30,000 are scattered throughout Eastern Europe, Muslim countries and elsewhere.

In Russia, many elderly may have been badly affected by the inflated ruble, which has lost more than half of its value since mid-August. Many are living on little more than a pound of bread a day, Schneider said. The JDC distributed 800,000 food packages in the former Soviet Union, each weighing about 20 pounds, he said. In addition, 1 million hot meals have been delivered.

But the situation is dire. On its existing funds — about $40 million a year, most of which comes from the monies collected by Jewish federations across the U.S. — the organization can just about handle its caseload of 140,000 people.

But it’s possible the number of needy could double in light of the ruble’s recent free-fall in Russia, Schneider told Los Angeles Federation leaders. Many elderly who are just hanging on could be pushed over the edge. “Feeding hungry, elderly Jews is a sacred obligation that we cannot deny,” said Schneider, who has headed the JDC since 1987. According to Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel, about $5 million of the money raised by the Federation’s United Jewish Fund helps fund the JDC’s relief, rescue and community work.

In addition to its relief work, the JDC is deeply involved in trying to renew Jewish communal life in the former Soviet Union. “Seven decades of Stalinism virtually destroyed Jewish knowledge, life, religion, culture,” Schneider said.

The JDC has spent the past 10 years helping to restore the infrastructure of Jewish life in these lands, once brimming with Yiddish culture. Schneider ticks off numbers to help tell the story of what has been accomplished: Establishing 54 full-time Jewish day schools, 225 Jewish supplementary schools, 59 Jewish community centers and 17 branches of Hillel in universities; providing 250,000 Jewish textbooks to schools and 150 containers of Russian-language Jewish books, which become instant Jewish libraries; training hundreds of lay and professional leaders. “There was nothing there 10 years ago,” Schneider said. But with the enthusiastic help of local Jewish communities, a huge renaissance of Jewish life is under way.

Since its founding in 1914, the JDC has been expected to go out of business because its purpose would be fulfilled. “But in every decade, we have had to react to the fortunes — and misfortunes — of history,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we’ll go out of business any time soon.”