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A Joint Effort: JDC's Beginnings, 1914-1921

The battle among European Empires in summer 1914 soon engulfed much of the world. World War I was catastrophic for Jews in Eastern Europe, already at risk from relentless poverty and prejudice, and for Jews in the Yishuv in Palestine, cut off from all support. To provide substantive help, American Jewish relief groups united to create a Joint Distribution Committee. In less than seven years, JDC had spent $41 million, working with local groups, governments, and welfare agencies to create a wide safety net of rescue and relief. JDC transitioned into rehabilitation and reconstruction programs to prepare a shattered people for a fully realized future.

In Depth

The Creation of JDC

In August 1914, war between European empires quickly escalated across countries and continents. Jews living in Eastern Europe, long at risk from relentless poverty and discrimination, were now caught in the central region of combat and faced targeted attacks and forced exile. Jews in the Yishuv in Palestine, cut off by Turkish blockades from their European sources of support, faced imminent starvation. Fear for their wellbeing permeated Jewish communities in America.

 

On August 31st, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, cabled New York philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff urgently requesting $50,000 in emergency aid for Palestine’s Jews. The money was raised within days, but a more far-reaching response was also set in motion. Two distinct groups of American Jews, troubled by worsening news accounts and mounting pleas from abroad, took action. In October, each formed a fund-raising entity.

The American Jewish Committee – chiefly Reform Jews of German background – had been established nearly a decade earlier to safeguard Jewish rights. Most were well-established in America; many were wealthy. After convening a national conference, they formed the American Jewish Relief Committee for Sufferers from the War. Meanwhile, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations – largely comprising Eastern European immigrants with strong personal ties to communities abroad – had started the Central Relief Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War. The two aid committees joined forces a month later to ensure the most effective, far-reaching relief. They placed the funds raised separately into the Joint Distribution Committee of Funds for Jewish War Sufferers (generally known as the Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC).

One year later, a third member-organization joined JDC: the socialist-oriented People’s Relief Committee of America, formed in August 1915 to assemble funds from labor groups and individual workers. Although JDC’s constituencies differed widely in background and perspective, they were unified in intention – to help all Jews suffering from war according to need. They could not see the full extent of difficulties ahead, but the significance of their mission kept them on course.

As it saved lives with emergency food, clothing, shelter, and medical assistance, JDC came to serve as an affirming, tangible representation of American Jewish support for millions of Jews in war-torn countries. In the first six and a half years of its existence, the fledgling organization spent an unprecedented $41 million to create a wide safety net of rescue and relief, and to launch the first phase of a comprehensive program of reconstruction.

The War Years: 1914-1918

JDC played a crucial role in sustaining Jewish lives throughout the war zones, but it primarily focused attention on Palestine and those Eastern European countries with the largest populations of Jews at risk: Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Latvia. At first, JDC transferred funds and supplies to Jewish communities in need with the help of foreign consuls and relief organizations already operating abroad. Through these conduits, JDC shipped food, clothing, medicine, and money; supported soup kitchens and other meal programs for starving people; and enabled individual American Jews to send help to their loved ones abroad. Once America entered the war in the spring of 1917, the usual methods of distribution were cut off. JDC sent representatives to neutral Holland to organize and oversee a branch office in The Hague.

In the Aftermath of War: 1919-1921

 

At the war’s end, JDC found new ways to help devastated Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Palestine, and beyond. It entered numerous partnerships with the U.S. government and with private relief agencies like the American Friends Service Committee, American Red Cross, and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. In 1919, JDC sent shiploads of food and supplies to the starving people of Poland through the auspices of the American Relief Administration.

After the Armistice, continual changes on the ground enabled—and required—closer involvement and flexible decision-making from JDC. A team of trained representatives arrived in early 1920 to monitor conditions and administer services. They soon became regional directors for Poland and other countries with the greatest need. Going forward, their firsthand experience in the field greatly informed JDC’s programs and policies.

Since most transportation in Poland was at a standstill, JDC established its own fleet of vehicles. Field representatives now brought funds, goods, and individual remittances to thousands of previously inaccessible communities. JDC helped feed, clothe, and house Jewish war orphans, and provide them much needed health care. It contributed to Jewish educational and cultural life, assisting rabbis and supporting religious schools and universities. Kosher meat was supplied, and for Passover, matzoh.

In post-war Eastern Europe, peace was slow in coming. Where old empires had been carved up into new countries, bloody territorial disputes followed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled or were forced from regions under fire; already limited supplies dwindled; disease spread like wildfire. JDC sent urgently needed medical and sanitary aid, helped create temporary shelter and quarantine stations, and otherwise assisted the dislocated. It played a key role in reuniting families and friends.

In Palestine, JDC initiated programs for orphans, vocational training, and health care, including providing extensive funding for Hadassah’s medical and social service work.

 

The Start of Reconstruction: 1919-1921

During this period, JDC also began recovery programs to strengthen Jewish self-reliance and stimulate cooperation among “divergent groups, organizations and institutions.” It supported mutual aid societies and cooperatives offering interest-free loans: small business owners now invested in new ventures; producers of goods opened factories; and skilled artisans acquired tools, supplies, and apprentices. A pilot series of vocational and technical classes prepared unskilled workers for gainful employment. Farm colonies and agricultural training opportunities taught Jews how to live on the land and readied those interested for emigration to Palestine. JDC also sent health professionals to stem the spread of disease and assemble needed supplies; it subsidized nurses’ training and expanded medical staffs.

Through an American-styled system of support, vision-driven yet pragmatic, JDC programs targeted the specific needs of recipients while benefiting the widest populations. The guiding principles of JDC took root in these formative years, midst an onslaught of catastrophic events:

  • a determinedly non-political commitment to Jews based on need
  • a responsive support for Jewish communities in their place of choice
  • a respectful inclusiveness for diverse Jewish beliefs and viewpoints
  • a clear intention to help Jews help themselves – furthering self-sufficiency among individuals and communities

In this formative period, JDC did all it could to protect a shattered people, and then to prepare them for a fully realized future of a life worth living.

Note:

Among those crucial to JDC’s early development, Boris Bogen has been singled out for this exhibit. His involvement in events of that time reflected JDC’s evolving role.

The countries featured in these photographs are referred to as they were known at the time. Country names follow in parentheses if they have subsequently changed. Whenever possible, the spelling for cities and towns comes from the period caption.