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History of JDC

History of JDC: 1914-1919
History of JDC: 1920s
History of JDC: 1930s
History of JDC: 1940s
History of JDC: 1950s
History of JDC: 1960s
History of JDC: 1970s
History of JDC: 1980s
History of JDC: 1990s
History of JDC: 2000s


Founded during World War I, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was the first Jewish organization in the United States to dispense large-scale funding for international relief. World War I left in its wake the seeds of many additional catastrophes—pogroms, epidemics, famine, revolution, and economic ruin—and JDC played a major role in sustaining Jews in Palestine and rebuilding the devastated communities of Eastern Europe.

JDC’s relief activities, emigration aid, and rescue operations were critical following the Nazi rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. After the war, JDC mobilized to support and resettle survivors, help reconstruct the remnant communities of Europe, create a network of social welfare services in the fledgling State of Israel, set up an extensive assistance program for Jews in North Africa and the Muslim world, and provide discreet relief behind the Iron Curtain. With the fall of Communism, JDC established cultural and educational programs to foster a sense of Jewish identify in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and developed a broad welfare system for needy elderly and holocaust survivors.

Active today in more than 70 countries, JDC and its partners work to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and help Israel overcome the social challenges of its most vulnerable citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish. JDC’s reach extends beyond the global Jewish community by providing non-sectarian disaster relief and long-term development assistance worldwide.




History of JDC: 1914-1919

1914: 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.

History of JDC: 1914-1919

History of JDC: 1920s

1920: Post–World War I: Relief and Reconstruction

Continuing in its postwar relief efforts, JDC was providing financial support for OZE, the Russian Jewish Health Organization, thereby enabling JDC to expand its operations and bring modern medical practices to Lithuania, Romania, and other parts of Eastern Europe. In Poland in 1922, JDC also initiated the founding of TOZ—the Society for the Preservation of Health— and funded its life-saving medical activities and public health programs. In Palestine, JDC subsidized the Malaria Research Unit and helped finance the American Zionist Medical Unit that was sent by the Hadassah organization in 1921.

Concerned for the welfare and well-being of tens of thousands of Jewish children in need, JDC set up kindergartens and summer camps and provided food supplements, medical care, and dental treatment. In Poland in 1923, JDC founded CENTOS—the National Society for the Care of Orphans—which remained active until World War II.

Turning its attention to the rebuilding of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, JDC joined with the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) to establish the American Joint Reconstruction Foundation. To help community members regain their ability to support themselves and their families, the foundation created a network of loan kassas, cooperative credit unions that provided low-interest loans for craftspeople and small businesses, as well as interest-free loans for the poorest families. With ORT (the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), JDC organized vocational training courses for young adults, thus further encouraging the attainment of economic self-sufficiency.

In Palestine, JDC helped establish the Palestine Economic Corporation in 1925 in order to promote economic development. It also subsidized the Rutenberg Hydroelectric Association and set up the Kupat Milveh credit union for the issuing of small loans. In cooperation with the ICA and other bodies, JDC established the Central Bank of Cooperative Institutions, which financed a variety of agricultural projects and encouraged the growth of the citrus industry.

The restoration of Jewish religious and cultural life was also a priority. JDC rebuilt community institutions such as synagogues and mikva’ot (ritual baths) and funded Jewish schools and yeshivot in both Europe and Palestine.

In the Soviet Union, JDC set up the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation (Agro-Joint) in 1924, a bold initiative undertaken in cooperation with the Soviet authorities to settle so-called nonproductive Jews as farmers on agricultural settlements in Ukraine and the Crimea. About 70,000 Jews had been resettled by 1936, when the Soviet industrialization program and the extension of citizens’ rights to formerly deprived classes lured settlers to the cities, where some continued to receive support and training through specialized Agro-Joint departments. In 1938, Agro-Joint was forced to leave the Soviet Union, and most of the remaining settlers were ultimately killed by the Nazis.


History of JDC: 1920s

History of JDC: 1930s

1930: Rescue Efforts in the Nazi Era

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the passage of the economically restrictive Nuremberg Laws pauperized the Jewish community in Germany, and JDC’s support became critical. Channeled through local Jewish relief organizations, JDC funds subsidized medical care, Jewish schools and educational activities, welfare programs, loan funds, emigration, and centers for vocational and agricultural training, including a hachshara (training) program for prospective immigrants to Palestine. Later, support was extended to Jewish communities in Nazi-annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia.

Emigration aid soon became the priority, as JDC focused on helping Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. JDC provided food, shelter, and medical care for stranded refugees; it helped cover travel expenses and landing fees; and it secured travel accommodations and all-important visas for countries of refuge. By the end of 1939, JDC-supported organizations had helped some 110,000 Jews emigrate from Germany—30,000 in 1939 alone. In 1940, JDC was helping refugees in transit in more than 40 countries. From the outbreak of World War II through 1944, JDC enabled over 81,000 Jews to emigrate.

JDC allocated funds to assist refugees in temporary European havens and tried to help them find permanent refuge in the United States, Palestine, and Latin America.
It set up a Jewish agricultural settlement in Sosua, in the Dominican Republic, in response to General Trujillo’s offer to open his country to European refugees. In 1939, when some 900 German Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis were denied entry into Cuba, JDC’s round-the-clock negotiations opened European doors to the passengers, saving many.

Following the outbreak of World War II, JDC opened shelters and soup kitchens for thousands of Jewish refugees in Poland, aiding some 600,000 in 1940. It subsidized hospitals, child care centers, and educational and cultural programs and even shipped in tons of Passover supplies.

With U.S. entry into the war in December 1941, JDC could no longer operate legally in enemy countries. JDC representatives borrowed money locally and used a variety of international connections to channel aid to Jews living in desperate conditions behind what were now enemy lines.

From its wartime headquarters in Lisbon, JDC chartered ships and continued to help thousands of refugees escape from Europe through various routes. In France, JDC financed legal and illegal organizations. It funneled in funds to support some 7,000 Jewish children in hiding and to smuggle over 1,000 more to Switzerland and Spain, and it smuggled aid to Jewish prisoners in labor camps.

In Shanghai, a JDC relief program supported some 15,000 Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. Packages were shipped from Tehran to Polish and Ukrainian Jews who had fled to Central Asia; supplies were parachuted into Yugoslavia; and funds were delivered to the Polish Jewish underground, some of them to help finance preparations for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto revolt.

History of JDC: 1930s

History of JDC: 1940s

1940: After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives and Jewish Life

As the war in Europe drew to a close, JDC marshaled its forces to meet a crisis of staggering proportions, racing to ensure that tens of thousands of newly liberated Jews would survive to enjoy the fruits of freedom. A massive purchasing and shipping program was instituted to provide urgent necessities for these Holocaust survivors in the face of critical local shortages, with 227 million pounds of supplies shipped to Europe from U.S. ports.

By late 1945, some 75,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi horrors had crowded into the displaced-persons (DP) camps that were hastily set up in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Conditions were abominable, with many subjected to anti-Semitism and hostile treatment. Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, asked Joseph Schwartz, JDC’s European director, to accompany him on his official tour of the camps. His landmark report called for separate Jewish camps and for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) participation in administering them—with JDC’s help.

To provide that help, Schwartz virtually re-created JDC, putting together a field organization that covered Europe and later North Africa and designing an operational strategy that valued action and initiative.

Supplementing the relief supplied by the army, by UNRRA, and by UNRRA’s successor agency—the International Refugee Organization—JDC distributed supplies that nourished both body and soul: food, medicine, clothing, tools, equipment such as typewriters, and educational, cultural, and religious materials, including books, Torah scrolls, ritual articles, and holiday provisions. JDC funds supported medical facilities, schools, synagogues, and cultural activities, while JDC personnel helped organize communal life in many camps and other installations and represented the DPs before the military and other authorities.

Over the next two years, the number of Jews in the DP camps more than tripled, with a new influx of refugees from Romania, Hungary, and Poland who had been helped to reach Western occupation zones. They included many of the Polish Jews who had returned from their wartime refuge in the Soviet Union, only to flee once again (westward, this time, through Czechoslovakia) in the face of renewed anti-Semitism and the July 1946 Kielce pogrom.

At the same time, JDC was helping sustain tens of thousands of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe, as well as thousands of others living in the West outside the DP camps, in communities whose fledging reconstruction efforts were soon fostered by JDC with funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference). In 1946, some 120,000 Jews in Hungary, 65,000 in Poland, and over half of Romania’s 380,000 Jews depended on JDC for food and other basic needs.

By 1947, JDC was supporting 380 medical facilities across the continent, and some 137,000 Jewish children were receiving some form of JDC aid: nutritious food, medical care, educational programs, and health-building recreational opportunities. [Falling victim to Cold War tensions, JDC was expelled from Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria in 1949, from Czechoslovakia in 1950, and from Hungary in 1953; it was able to return to work in these countries at various points in the ensuing decades.]

When the time came to shift from emergency relief to long-term rehabilitation, JDC set up loan institutions, producers’ cooperatives, and work projects across the continent, as well as vocational training and hachsharot (training) centers, which provided agricultural and other training for those seeking new lives in the Jewish homeland. JDC also provided personal counseling and established a tracing service and a vast emigration program for survivors, the majority of whom subsequently resettled in Palestine—and later, Israel.

Realizing that the Jewish refugee problem would be solved only by so-called illegal immigration to Palestine, Schwartz actively supported the activities of the Bricha and Aliyah Bet. His opinion ultimately prevailed at New York headquarters, and in a departure from established policy, JDC provided funding and supplies for these activities and intervened with Washington and the army on issues of borders and refugee quotas. And when the British began interning illegal Jewish immigrants in detention camps on Cyprus, JDC was there to furnish medical, educational, and social services for the detainees.

History of JDC: 1940s

History of JDC: 1950s

1950: Jews in the Muslim World: The Ingathering to Israel and Aid for Those Left Behind

The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 triggered one of history’s greatest organized mass migrations. By the end of 1950, some 440,000 Jews had reached Israel with the aid of JDC, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel. In addition to over 270,000 European refugees, this total included some 167,000 Jews from the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Some of those countries were themselves standing on the threshold of independence, and expediting the departure of their Jewish populations was, in many cases, of utmost urgency.

In one of the most dramatic of these rescue efforts, called Operation Magic Carpet, JDC organized and financed the airlift of some 48,000 Yemenite Jews—almost the entire community—from the British Protectorate of Aden to Israel. These Jews had trekked across 200 miles of desert to reach Aden, where food, clothing, shelter, and, above all, medical aid were provided for the malnourished and often ill refugees. This massive exodus involved nearly 450 flights on huge JDC-chartered aircraft; it began in December 1948, and the last plane left Aden on September 19, 1950.

In 1949, JDC financed Operations Ezra and Nehemia, which brought thousands of Kurdish and Iraqi Jews to Israel. In those same early years of the Jewish state, JDC provided care and maintenance for Algerian Jews transiting through France on their way to Israel; it sustained Libyan Jews awaiting permission to emigrate and arranged for their evacuation; and it aided Jews fleeing Egypt, especially after the 1956 Suez Crisis. In the early 1960s, JDC helped evacuate thousands of Jews from Algeria to France, working with local Jewish organizations to provide them with food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

The condition of the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East had first come to JDC’s attention during World War II, when JDC was searching for sanctuaries for Jews fleeing the Nazi juggernaut and when camps for Jewish refugees were being established in Morocco. JDC found that many Jews in this part of the world were living in poverty, packed into overcrowded and unhealthy mellahs, or Jewish Quarters, plagued by malnutrition and attendant diseases. The misery of the Jewish population was made worse by outbreaks of violence after the founding of the Jewish state.

JDC’s early aid efforts led to the 1949 establishment of a full-scale assistance program for the remaining Jewish communities in North Africa, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East. Even as those communities’ numbers and resources steadily diminished, they faced the need to care for a disproportionate number of aged, chronically ill, disabled, and impoverished individuals. In the ensuing decades, JDC helped them provide a full range of services, and it furnished strong support for homes for the aged and for the Jewish school systems operated by Alliance Israelite Universelle (Ittihad), ORT, Chabad Lubavitch, and Ozar Hatorah. Feeding and health programs in Jewish schools; milk distribution stations; and infant clinics and preschool centers helped combat malnutrition and child mortality, while relief programs, medical care (often in cooperation with OSE, a French Jewish humanitarian organization), and vocational training helped fight poverty and added to the dignity of life.

History of JDC: 1950s

History of JDC: 1960s

1960: Helping the New State of Israel Care for Its Most Vulnerable Citizens

The May 15, 1948, birth of the State of Israel represented the fulfillment of the dreams and yearnings of thousands of generations, and it brought massive numbers of new olim (immigrants) from both Europe and the Muslim countries whose needs quickly threatened to overwhelm the capacities of the newborn—and newly besieged—Jewish State.

Among the Jews arriving from Europe were some 100,000 veterans of the displaced-persons camps, including many thousands of aged, sick, or disabled survivors of concentration camps whose broken bodies made them utterly dependent on assistance. TB was a scourge of alarming proportions, and less than half the newcomers were able-bodied adults.

By late 1949, the government of Israel had invited JDC and the Jewish Agency to join forces with it to confront these challenges. The outcome was MALBEN—a Hebrew acronym for Organization for the Care of Handicapped Immigrants.

Over the next few years, MALBEN rushed to construct a network of a hundred institutions, converting former British army barracks and any available building into homes for the aged, hospitals, TB sanitariums, sheltered workshops, and rehabilitation centers. MALBEN also funded the training of nurses and rehabilitation workers. In 1951, by agreement of all parties, JDC assumed the entire obligation for MALBEN, while the Jewish Agency took on all responsibility for immigrant transportation and resettlement, tasks it had previously shared with JDC.

MALBEN rehabilitation programs opened new worlds to the disadvantaged, enabling them to contribute to the building of the new country. Disabilities once deemed hopeless responded to treatment and therapy. During the 1950s, as hundreds of thousands of new olim continued to stream into Israel from Europe and North Africa, MALBEN accounted for almost 50 percent of JDC’s worldwide annual relief budget.

At the same time, Israel’s local and national government agencies were building capacity, and by the end of the decade—with the emergency relief phase receding—JDC began to chart a fresh course. Pressing challenges that had been overshadowed could now come to the fore.

JDC became a social catalyst by encouraging and guiding Israeli government and private agencies to join forces in order to stimulate awareness of unmet needs, evaluate those needs, and develop programs, skills, and services to address them. JDC’s original mandate—to serve disadvantaged olim—broadened to a concern for all of Israel’s aged, disabled, at-risk, or vulnerable populations, and JDC seed money fueled many innovative projects.

Institutional care for the aged was replaced whenever practicable with initiatives that enabled older people to live at home in their communities. In 1958, JDC and the Ministry of Health established a joint Psychiatric Trust Fund to develop modern, integrated mental health services and to train qualified staff. That same year, the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work, first created by JDC in France to help those working with refugees from myriad cultures, was reestablished at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to professionalize social services.

In 1964, JDC engaged a Harvard University consultant to survey the needs of children with disabilities, and the concept of the Child Development and Assessment Center was born. Based on the principle that early detection and treatment optimize outcomes, Child Development Centers spread all across the country.

Throughout the 1960s, JDC worked closely with the Israeli voluntary agencies that were serving children with physical and mental disabilities, helping them set up therapy programs, kindergartens, day centers, counseling services for parents, and summer camps. It also advised the organizations on fund-raising strategies to help them become financially independent.

Increasingly in that decade, JDC’s programming was being redirected from the operation of specialized institutional services to subsidization of a broad spectrum of community-based programs. A growing number of local public and voluntary agencies began coordinating their activities with JDC in order to create and expand services in areas of unmet needs.

By 1969—20 years after creation of the State of Israel—more than 1.3 million olim had arrived. JDC had assisted more than 250,000 people. The population of aged had risen sharply. That year JDC and the government of Israel inaugurated ESHEL—the Association for the Planning and Development of Services for the Aged—to extend a network of coordinated services to underserved elderly by pooling resources locally, regionally, and nationally. ESHEL has since transformed the quality of life available to Israel’s seniors.

The trend in JDC’s role in Israel was clear. By the end of 1975, JDC had transferred its MALBEN facilities to the government and divested itself of all direct services.

JDC’s ethos of social pioneering continued into the next period in Israel, when JDC would turn its attention to the economically and socially disadvantaged sectors of Israel’s society.

History of JDC: 1960s

History of JDC: 1970s

1970: JDC Adapts to a Rapidly Changing World

A series of dramatic events affected Jewish lives and Jewish communities in the 1970s, including the October 1973 Yom Kippur War; the UN General Assembly’s 1975 adoption of the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution—and a resulting surge in global anti-Semitism; the beginnings of the modern exodus of Soviet Jewry; and the historic visit of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel in November 1977, which led to the Camp David peace talks and the subsequent signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Throughout the decade, JDC continued to uphold its basic criterion for determining JDC action: to ameliorate Jewish need and to fulfill that mandate in a nonpolitical manner.

To clearly identify its role in a rapidly changing world, JDC commissioned a self-study in 1976 whose report led to the formation of the governance structure that exists today. Among other things, the report recognized the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. It called for increased emphasis on manpower training to hasten the transfer of responsibility back to newly strengthened Jewish communities in the West, as well as a concerted effort to reach out to small and distant communities worldwide. It advocated the development of long-term-planning capabilities and the maintenance of a so-called culture of flexibility, with the goal of maximizing JDC’s power to deal with emergencies and respond to unprecedented conditions and emerging needs.

In Israel, the 1970s saw JDC move its headquarters from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and focus on developing innovative model programs that would stimulate social change and responsive community action throughout the health, education, and welfare sectors. JDC’s commitment to professionalism in social service led to the creation of the Joseph J. Schwartz Program to train management for the burgeoning community center movement. The program’s emphasis on research, evaluation, and institutional planning resulted in the establishment of the Brookdale Institute of Gerontology and Adult Human Development, which has evolved into today’s Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute.

In the Soviet Union, the trickle of Jews allowed to leave for Israel for family reunification purposes had by the mid-1970s become a veritable stream, soaring to over 51,000 émigrés in 1979 in response to escalating political and diplomatic efforts. The struggle to achieve emigration rights for Soviet Jewry was beyond JDC’s nonpolitical mandate. However, as the agency that historically provided care and maintenance for Jews in transit, JDC became directly affected when increasing numbers of émigrés insisted on remaining in transit countries to apply for entry to the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Backlogs quickly developed, with thousands of transmigrants requiring food, shelter, medical services, and social services for months on end. And to fill idle time responsibly, JDC supported a range of educational, religious, and cultural activities.

This “dropout” phenomenon evoked a pressing need for an organized Jewish communal response—a “global Jewish strategy.” In 1980, the Soviet government began to reduce the number of Jews receiving exit visas, but the dropout phenomenon—and the need for a concerted response—would recur with greater force in the ensuing decade.

In North Africa, where the Jewish communities in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt continued to diminish in size, JDC maintained an active concern for their well-being, helping them sustain the institutions necessary for Jewish life. It provided support for education in Morocco and Tunisia and enabled the Jewish aged, sick, and poor in all four countries to live with dignity.

In Western Europe, the French Jewish community—due to its changing demographics—continued to receive substantial JDC funding in the 1970s. The massive Jewish influx from North Africa in the turbulent 1960s had swelled the community’s numbers to an unprecedented 700,000, and JDC continued to provide organizational and financial assistance to help meet ongoing communal needs. Since 1961, JDC had also been nurturing the European Council of Jewish Community Services as an umbrella for serving the increasingly self-sufficient communities of Western Europe.

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, JDC had an agonizing sense of incompleteness about its postwar reconstruction effort in Europe, because its Cold War expulsions from the Soviet satellite countries placed most of Eastern European Jewry out of direct reach. Yugoslavia alone never expelled JDC, and the Polish government invited JDC to return in 1958 (primarily to care for Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union), only to expel it once again in 1967 following the Six-Day War. The Romanian government, in contrast, invited JDC to resume operations in March 1967, and it did not succumb to the anti-Israel clamor following the June war. JDC’s return to Romania literally meant the difference between life and death for many in this deprived population, left behind when the vast majority of Romania’s able-bodied Jews were allowed to make aliyah. JDC’s welfare and medical assistance sustained thousands of lonely Holocaust survivors and freed the community to invest its sparse funds in Jewish education and cultural life.

When Ralph Goldman began his tenure as executive vice president in January 1976, a primary goal he set for JDC was to reenter Eastern Europe “through the front door”—through direct negotiations with the Eastern European communist governments. Hungary, home to the largest Jewish population in the Soviet satellites, was the first target. JDC consulted with numerous experts and conducted protracted and sensitive negotiations with the Hungarian government. In December 1979 a draft agreement was prepared, setting the terms for JDC to reenter Hungary in January 1980 and leading to a new era of JDC involvement in Eastern Europe.

History of JDC: 1970s

History of JDC: 1980s

1980: Expanding JDC’s Reach as New Opportunities Arise

In 1981, JDC began to witness the “radiating effects” promised when it negotiated its 1980 return to Hungary, as first Czechoslovakia and then Poland invited JDC to resume direct operations. JDC could now provide needy Jews in those countries as well as in Romania and Yugoslavia with adequate food, clothing, and winter relief—along with any amount of “food for the soul” that each government would allow.

Well before the fall of communism in 1989, JDC was investing its Eastern European activities wherever possible with Jewish cultural components to help each community reawaken its own Jewish voice. Jewish communal workers were trained, access was furnished to leadership development programs, youth activities were encouraged, camping venues were refurbished and new programs established, and Jewish holidays were enhanced with religious supplies from abroad. The Brookdale Institute was commissioned to study the aging of Jews in Hungary, thereby contributing to social welfare solutions while creating a bridge to Israel.

For decades, JDC had also extended an indirect lifeline to Jews in the Soviet Union— enabling refuseniks who had lost their livelihoods after applying to leave for Israel and other Jews at risk to continue to put food on the table. This delicate lifeline, however, could not provide the food for the soul that a massive Jewish population had been denied for 70 years. With JDC’s return to the Soviet satellites, Executive Vice President Ralph Goldman began consulting with trusted advisers to advance the long-term goal of returning to the Soviet Union. A 1986 New York breakfast at which Rabbi Arthur Schneier strategically seated JDC leaders next to the Soviet Minister of Cults resulted in a coveted invitation for JDC to visit the Soviet Union.

In January 1988, JDC set foot on Soviet soil for the first time since the closure of Agro-Joint exactly 50 years earlier. Asked to re-create an updated Agro-Joint program, JDC leaders declined, declaring that their primary interest now was to Judaize the Jews of the Soviet Union. Yet in the prevailing atmosphere of glasnost, JDC was permitted to return to the Soviet Union. By the close of the decade, it had established contact with numerous Jewish communities and shipped hundreds of thousands of religious and cultural items that they had requested. It raised Jewish spirits by organizing Jewish music concerts for sellout crowds in major cities; it planned a training program for cantors; and it prepared an inventory of available Russian-language Jewish books as a prelude to offering turnkey Judaic libraries to any community or group that could host one.

Meanwhile, in the first half of the decade, the Soviet Union had continued to restrict the outflow of Jews. In 1980 fewer than 22,000 departed, less than half the 1979 figure; by 1984 the number was down to 896. Exit figures began to rise in 1987 under glasnost, and JDC was called upon once again to provide care and support for large numbers of Jews on the move. In 1988 JDC assisted some 18,000 émigrés from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—helping shelter these transmigrants in Vienna, Rome, and Ladispoli, Italy. The numbers exploded in 1989, when JDC, with considerable support from the U.S. government, provided an allowance for food and housing and a network of auxiliary services for 68,510 Jewish émigrés.

In late 1989 improving relations between Israel and the Soviet Union spawned a breakthrough: direct flights from the Soviet Union to Israel were approved, setting the scene for the floodgates to open and the massive aliyah that soon followed. Combined with a new U.S. government policy mandating that all processing for U.S.-bound Soviets take place prior to their emigration, issues of Jews in transit soon evaporated.

In Western Europe, the JDC-supported European Council helped reinforce Jewish identity in the 1980s—especially among small and scattered communities—by developing communal workers and young leadership and providing resource personnel to broaden community life. While emphasizing technical support, JDC aided specific community initiatives in Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Scandinavia, and a manpower development program in France became a replicable model for communal growth. In Latin America as well, JDC had a special concern for the more remote communities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. It brought lay leaders and professionals from Latin America, the U.S., and Israel together to enhance resource development, Jewish education, and leadership efforts. The LEATID Latin American training program was a prime result.

In the early 1980s, following the Ethiopian government’s closure of the ORT program that JDC had been supporting, JDC engaged in lengthy negotiations to re-create a lifeline to Ethiopian Jewry. In 1983, as a deepening famine made isolation no longer an option for the regime, JDC was granted permission to operate in Ethiopia and be based in the Gondar region, where a large Jewish population resided, but on condition that its relief and medical programs would be nonsectarian. The projects it subsequently undertook included emergency famine relief, electrification, agricultural recovery, well drilling, and brick making—efforts that earned JDC the trust of the government’s health and welfare sectors.

Aliyah was the dream of all of Ethiopia’s Jews. When the hardiest Jews began to flee across the border to Sudan in an attempt to reach Israel, the relatives remaining behind suffered materially. Israel’s Operation Moses lifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel in 1984–85. The Ethiopian authorities ultimately granted JDC the right to attach cottage industries to local synagogues, and the modest income stream derived from these “industries” aided many of the diminished families.

Many of JDC’s projects in Ethiopia were funded by an open-mailbox program, established in 1984 to enable North American Jews to respond to the famine crisis as a community, and by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and others. Though JDC’s history is filled with instances of non-sectarian assistance, in 1979 it established the first open mailbox of this nature—to give concerned American Jews a way of assisting Cambodians fleeing to Thailand to escape the Khmer Rouge regime. Similar mechanisms were set up in late 1980, when an earthquake struck near Naples, Italy, and in 1985, when an earthquake hit Mexico and a volcano erupted in Chile. As 1986 drew to a close, JDC chose to make non-sectarian aid a formal part of its mandate by creating the JDC–International Development Program.

The severe earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in December 1988 elicited an overwhelming open-mailbox response. Chartering an El Al plane (a historic flight to the Soviet Union by Israel’s national airline), JDC airlifted 61 amputees and crush trauma patients for surgery, prostheses, and successful therapy in Israel, and it constructed a child rehabilitation center in the severely hit city of Leninakan. Teams of Israeli therapists were sent to train Soviet paramedics and nurses, and in the process, introduced the professions of physical and occupational therapy to the region. The tremendous goodwill engendered would ease JDC’s first steps on its return to the Soviet Union to help revitalize Jewish life.

In Israel in the 1980s, to assist with emerging needs, JDC became a research agency and catalyst for and a coordinator of projects to absorb newcomers from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. To protect its delicate standing in Ethiopia, it created a separate society called Amishav to carry out activities related to the Ethiopian olim. JDC intensified its focus on the health and well-being of children and youth as well as its supportive cooperation with the Israel Association of Community Centers, thereby helping strengthen programs serving socially and economically disadvantaged populations and special needs populations. Emphasizing local initiative and control, it concerned itself less and less with the management of programs, working instead to encourage, advise on, and fund the development of new programs that—once their value was demonstrated—were carried out largely by other entities.

During that period, the JDC Brookdale Institute expanded its role as a national resource for society-wide efforts on behalf of the elderly, focusing on long-term care and the training of geriatric professionals, while ESHEL pioneered day care centers for frail elderly and helped establish regionwide services. Manpower development needs in Israel gained high priority, and ELKA was established in 1983 through the combined initiative of JDC and the Israeli government to improve the level of management in the civil service, “especially in fields concerned with social issues.” Since 1982, the Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel (now the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel) has been striving to enhance the policy-making process with regard to those issues, with the aim of advancing the well-being of all Israelis.

History of JDC: 1980s

History of JDC: 1990s

1990: Rescue, Relief, and Renewal Remain JDC’s Hallmarks as the Twentieth Century Draws to a Close

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the political and economic changes that transformed the Eastern European nations and other parts of the world in the 1990s created new challenges for the world Jewish community—and new opportunities for JDC to engage in its three-pronged mission of Rescue, Relief, and Renewal. Working together with the Israeli Government, the Jewish Agency, various advocacy organizations, and successive U.S. administrations, JDC helped secure the release of Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Syria. And when Yugoslavia imploded and ethnic hostilities flared there and in other parts of the former Soviet bloc, JDC helped rescue and care for Jews who were in danger or distress.

The Ethiopian saga was perhaps the most dramatic, culminating as it did in Operation Solomon, the massive airlift over a 36-hour period of some 14,000 Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel on May 24 and 25, 1991, just as the city was about to come under rebel attack. JDC assisted in the negotiation and planning of that miraculous rescue, which came on the heels of the comprehensive health and welfare program it had been operating for the thousands of Jews who had gathered in Addis Ababa preparatory to making aliyah. At its height, that yearlong program had some 23,000 beneficiaries, and it was made possible by JDC’s prior track record in Ethiopia, where it had been offering non-sectarian assistance in the Gondar region since the early 1980s.

JDC later facilitated the emigration of some 6,000 additional Jews from Ethiopia’s isolated Quara region. It also organized programs to boost the health and well-being of the Felas Mora, Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry who were living in poverty in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, awaiting Israeli government processing of their requests to settle in Israel.

Equally compelling stories revolved around the 11 rescue convoys that JDC operated from war-ravaged Sarajevo during the 1992–95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The convoys succeeded in bringing some 2,300 Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Jews to safety in other parts of the former Yugoslavia and beyond. JDC also supported the Sarajevo Jewish community’s non-sectarian relief efforts in that besieged city, and later in the decade, it helped the Belgrade community assist the many Jews affected by Serbia’s economic difficulties as UN-mandated trade sanctions took a growing toll.

In the former Soviet Union (FSU), JDC’s early involvement in a U.S. government food relief program helped it begin to uncover the extent of need among elderly Jews. As the region’s social welfare system unraveled, inflation became rampant, pensions were cut or disappeared entirely, life savings began to disappear, and economic calamity loomed for many in this age-group. JDC quickly mobilized a massive support program, helping local communities establish a network of Heseds, or welfare centers, that by January 2000 had succeeded in connecting with and providing various forms of welfare assistance—food packages, hot meals, meals on wheels, home care, and social and cultural activities—for over 190,000 elderly Jews. Many of those Jews were living in conditions of poverty, ill health, and isolation unimaginable to those accustomed to Western standards. Specially equipped vans, called Hesed-mobiles, extended the reach of the Hesed network, and a newly conceived Warm Home program helped combat isolation and was subsequently replicated in Israel and Eastern Europe. The Heseds served also as community-building tools, with community volunteerism encouraged and training provided for both professionals and volunteers.

At the same time, JDC refused to be deflected from its original quest to help the Jews of the Soviet Union acquire the knowledge and skills needed to shape an authentic, indigenous Jewish life of their own choosing. By 1999 JDC had helped establish 71 Jewish community centers and 164 Jewish libraries across the FSU; OFEK Jewish book festivals were being organized annually in 76 communities; a family retreat program spearheaded outreach efforts to the unaffiliated; and JDC had become heavily involved in the development of academic Jewish studies programs and adult Jewish education. Leadership development was an important priority, and by the end of the decade JDC was helping operate Hillel centers in 22 cities and had trained 200 local leaders through its Israel-based Buncher Community Leadership Program.

In Eastern Europe, as the changeover to a market economy brought cuts in government programs and an increase in the cost of basic necessities, JDC’s life-sustaining assistance for impoverished elderly Jews became more vital than ever. Throughout the decade, JDC continued to facilitate the process of Jewish renewal, helping stimulate the growth of Jewish cultural, religious, educational, and youth activities. Expanding upon an increasingly popular summer camp program begun in Hungary in 1985, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary, was established in 1990. Its informal educational program has subsequently helped thousands of Eastern European Jewish youth reconnect to their heritage and their people. JDC encouraged communities to undertake actions that would help them move toward self-sufficiency, and it promoted the development and training of both lay and professional leaders.

Leadership training and community building also characterized JDC’s work in Western Europe and Latin America, and by the end of the decade, JDC was beginning to see many of the young leaders trained through its LEATID program take over the presidencies of their communities. Its efforts to bring Jewish communities together were also bearing fruit, with the first-ever European General Assembly bringing 620 participants from 39 countries together in Nice, France, in May 1999, and the seventh Latin American leadership gathering, held in March 2000. A change in Cuban law in 1991 enabled JDC to reenter Cuba, where it helped provide humanitarian assistance—in the form of food, medicines, and medical consultations—and facilitated the resurgence of this remarkable Jewish community. As economic conditions deteriorated in Argentina in the second half of the decade, JDC ramped up its technical assistance to a community already weakened by the tragic bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the central community building in 1994, helping the community develop new programs to respond to the social welfare needs engendered by the increasing impoverishment of the middle class.

JDC’s International Development Program expanded its reach in the 1990s, and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief was created to provide a unified Jewish response to international crises on behalf of U.S. and foreign Jewish agencies. Among the decade’s highlights were relief and recovery efforts for Rwandans ravaged by Rwanda’s civil war, an eye treatment project in Zimbabwe, the initiation of self-help and empowerment programs for women with breast cancer, the establishment of a Middle Eastern health program, training for social service workers in Hungary and Ukraine, reconstruction efforts in Central America following Hurricane Mitch, a comprehensive response to the Kosovo refugee crisis, and earthquake relief and recovery projects in Turkey.

In Israel, JDC continued to help the nation find new and better ways to respond to the needs of its most vulnerable population groups. Some 700,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel from 1989 to 1993, overwhelming the absorptive capacities of the nation just as the needs of over 20,000 new olim from Ethiopia needed to be addressed. JDC developed a variety of training and job-related initiatives to facilitate the integration of adults from both groups while concentrating its efforts on helping those in the Ethiopian-Israeli community make the painful adjustment from their familiarity with non-Western environments to Israel’s technologically advanced society.

Focusing on the particular needs of Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters, in 1997 JDC initiated the Coalition for the Advancement of Ethiopian Education, with the first PACT (Parents and Children Together) program launched the following year in Beersheva. Fueled by partnerships with North American Jewish federations, PACT subsequently provided preschool enrichment frameworks that have narrowed the social and educational gap between Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters and their veteran Israeli peers in 14 Israeli towns. Program offshoots and additional initiatives have benefited older children and young adults from a variety of immigrant backgrounds.

Established in 1998 in response to a sharp increase in child abuse as well as juvenile delinquency and disaffectedness, JDC’s Ashalim partnership with UJA–Federation of New York and the Israeli government pooled financial resources and professional expertise to pioneer new services on behalf of some 350,000 children and youth at risk of abuse and neglect. Over the next decade, it would develop and pilot over 300 programs for youngsters of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

Through its ESHEL partnership with the Israeli government, JDC continued to improve the quality of life for Israel’s seniors, introducing its innovative Supportive Communities model and a new quality assurance program for nursing homes. The needs of Israelis with disabilities were also addressed, and the training programs provided by JDC-ELKA helped improve the overall delivery of human services. At the close of the decade, JDC responded to a government request that it develop a comprehensive program to integrate members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the workforce, thereby foreshadowing the larger, TEVET Employment Initiative that it currently has under way.

History of JDC: 1990s

History of JDC: 2000s

2000 to Present: JDC in the New Millenium: Touching Lives, Transforming Communities

The new millennium brought with it unprecedented events in JDC history. For some of the poorest Jews in the world, vital assistance became possible through a class action suit brought by Holocaust survivors against Swiss banks and other entities. Under one of the classes of the 1998 Swiss Banks Settlement, Chief Judge Edward R. Korman of the U.S. Federal Court of the Eastern District allocated $138 million over a ten-year period (2001-2011) for Holocaust survivors now living in the former Soviet Union—”double victims” of both Nazism and Communism. In 2001, the Court appointed JDC as the agency to administer welfare services to these victims in the FSU via its network of Hesed welfare centers. That year, JDC’s Hesed network served a peak caseload of over 250,000 elderly survivors.

At the same time, efforts to revitalize Jewish life and rebuild communities in the former Soviet Union were expanded. Jewish activities and programs for all ages continued to operate through scores of Jewish Community Centers throughout the FSU, including family retreats and summer camps.

As of year-end 2007, JDC’s welfare or Jewish renewal activities were reaching people in nearly 3,000 cities, towns, and shtetls in the vast region of the FSU.

Ongoing movement toward a unified European community, which culminated in the 1993 formation of the European Union, was also reflected in the increasing connectedness of the continent’s Jewish communities. Against this backdrop, JDC positioned its future role in Europe as an expert in community development and organization. In partnership with the Weinberg Foundation, JDC introduced a regional structure to its activities to promote interchange and larger-scale programming among Jews from proximate geographic areas with similar linguistic, cultural, and historic backgrounds. Participant-driven gatherings and mass annual events for young adults in the Balkan Black Sea Gesher, Danube Weinberg, and Baltic regions are positive indicators of JDC’s partnership and progress in building a borderless Jewish community in Europe.

JDC’s most critical intervention in Latin America to date came following the December 2001 economic crash in Argentina, which plunged more than one-third of the local Jewish population below the poverty line. At its peak, JDC’s network of social assistance centers organized in partnership with local Jewish organizations provided essential relief—including food, medicines, and utilities and rent subsidies—to more than 36,000 beneficiaries. As the Argentinean Jewish community rebounds, it is increasingly taking over responsibility from JDC for the remaining assistance programs, with JDC’s complete phase-out of relief programs expected in 2011.

Immediately following the South Asian Tsunami of 2004, JDC collected over $19 million dollars and mounted its largest-scale non-sectarian effort to date through its International Development Program (JDC-IDP). Partnering with Israeli and local organizations in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, JDC-IDP launched myriad programs, largely focusing on trauma therapy and training, rebuilding demolished schools, creating model refugee housing, empowering women through employment, and rehabilitating devastated fishing villages.

Responding to the outbreak of intifada terrorist attacks in Israel in 2002, with funding from the UJC /Federation Israel Emergency Campaign, JDC provided summer camp experiences for 300,000 children as well as other services to ease the strain on communities under fire.

Four years later, the summer of 2006 saw one million Israelis—Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze—on the front lines as Hezbollah’s katyusha rockets bombarded Israel’s north during the Second Lebanon War. Leveraging its partnership with the Government of Israel and extensive infrastructure in the country, JDC mobilized immediately, focusing on bringing vital relief to Israel’s most vulnerable citizens—children, elderly, immigrants, the disabled—as they were under attack and in the immediate aftermath. JDC’s Toward a New Galilee initiative aims to help the north not only overcome the impact of the war, but also put in strong community frameworks and boost economic opportunity to bring longer-term vitality to the region.

To offset the devastating impact of escalating missile attacks and a deteriorating security situation in Sderot, the Gaza border region, and the southern conflict zone in 2007-8, JDC expanded its already substantial activity in the area to include: children’s programs such as trauma therapy and emotional support; respite trips for vulnerable elderly and disabled individuals; capacity training and emergency consultation for municipalities to enhance their services; and increasing volunteerism as a community resource to ensure that assistance reaches all of those in need.

A celebration of JDC’s lifelong work in Israel since 1914 came when it was awarded the esteemed 2007 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel, the Jewish state’s highest civilian honor.

In August 2008, as the conflict between the Russian Federation and Georgia reignited, JDC staff traveled under fire to ascertain the whereabouts and well-being of Jewish families and elderly welfare clients—and to ensure that they continued to receive food, medicine, and other basic necessities. This was but the latest example of JDC’s ongoing commitment to ensure the safety and security of Jews wherever and whenever they are in need.

History of JDC: 2000s

A Perspective on JDC: Prof. Yehuda Bauer

In the videos below, world-renowned historian and Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer traces the historic trajectory of JDC from its beginning in 1914, focusing on its global impact and its life-changing work in places like the Soviet Union, Germany and Poland.

Chapter I

The Establishment of the JDC

This chapter describes the climate in the American Jewish community that led to the establishment of JDC; the merging of three organizations to a “Joint” Distribution Committee; and the early activities of the JDC in Palestine.


Chapter II

JDC in the Soviet Union

This chapter covers JDC ‘s work in the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s and the establishment of Agro-Joint in Crimea and Ukraine.

Chapter III

JDC in Poland and Germany

This chapter highlights JDC activities in Europe during the inter-war period, including loan kassas (loan bureaus) across Eastern Europe; the socioeconomic situation of Polish Jews in the interwar period; and the experiences of the German Jewish community during the rise of Nazism.

Chapter IV

JDC As a Global Organization

This chapter details the transformation of JDC into a global organization, including JDC’s work during World War II and in the aftermath of the war in displaced persons (DP) camps across Europe; Bricha; and JDC’s operations in Israel, North Africa, and elsewhere across the globe.