History of JDC: 1914-19191914: War and Emergency Relief— Establishment of the JDC
On August 31, 1914, Henry Morgenthau Sr., then U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, cabled New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff, asking for $50,000 to help sustain the Jews of Palestine (then under Ottoman Turkish rule), who had been cut off from their normal sources of support by the outbreak of World War I. The money was raised within a month, and subsequent pleas for help from war-torn Europe led to the founding in New York of the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers. Later known as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—and more popularly as the “Joint” or JDC—the new organization was charged with distributing overseas the funds being raised by the American Jewish Relief Committee and the (Orthodox) Central Committee for the Relief of Jews to aid Jews in Europe and Palestine. The People’s Relief Committee joined this effort in early 1915, further illustrating JDC’s pioneering and enduring role as a cementing force in American Jewish communal life.
Throughout the war years, even after the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, JDC found ways to channel the funds raised by its constituent groups to Jews suffering from hunger and malnutrition, who had lost homes and livelihoods in the belligerent countries of Europe and in Palestine. In March 1915, some $1.5 million was sent to Palestine on the SS Vulcan, along with 900 tons of food and medicine; a second shipment reached Palestine the following year. In an outpouring of generosity from the American Jewish community, more than $16 million had been raised by war’s end, with $6 million collected in 1918 alone.
Even as the war drew to a close, JDC found itself facing tremendous new crises. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the liquidation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe fell victim to disease, famine, pogroms, and new outbreaks of hostilities. In coordination with the American Relief Administration, JDC sent convoys of trucks with food, clothing, and medicines to devastated Jewish communities. Steadily broadening its efforts, it dispatched its own staff of doctors, public health experts, and social workers to this volatile region to help in establishing relief programs and new health and child care facilities. Soup kitchens were set up, hospitals rebuilt, and orphanages opened. In 1919, JDC established the Palestine Orphan Committee to care for over 4,000 children orphaned in the war and its aftermath. Existing religious, cultural, and educational institutions were also heavily supported, and JDC helped arrange the repatriation of Jewish prisoners of war from POW camps in Siberia.