Stories Come to Life

A glimpse into the depths of the JDC Archives warehouse

By Emily Levine, East Coast Community Manager, JDC Entwine

Last spring I had the opportunity to visit the JDC Archives warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. Upon arrival I found an array of shelves filled with meticulously organized containers. Inside them were immigration papers, letters, photographs, and physical artifacts—all documenting the 100+ years in which JDC has served the worldwide Jewish community.

Entwine is JDC’s young adult platform which exists to help folks in their 20s and 30s strengthen their Jewish identity and connect with global Jewish communities and causes. My role as JDC Entwine’s East Coast Community Manager involves connecting with our participants and helping them engage with JDC’s story. When someone travels with Entwine they are able to see and experience a snapshot of the work JDC does in the country they visit. When they return home, many of our participants are eager to learn more about JDC and continue to explore the storied history of this organization. The JDC Archives helps us tell this story. We’re able to use documents, art, and artifacts to uncover the stories of individuals whose lives were impacted by JDC throughout history.

I visited the archives facility along with a cohort of about ten other JDC staff members and Abby Lester, JDC Archives Director showed us around, pointing out just a few of the millions of items that make up the archives collection. The artifact that stood out most to me was a tallit (prayer shawl) that was given out in a Displaced Persons (DP) Camp after WWII. JDC distributed food, clothing, tools, equipment, and educational materials to the Jewish DPs in Germany, Austria, and Italy, who numbered close to 250,000 by 1947. JDC also brought in religious items, including tallitot such as the one that is now in the warehouse. This tallit, tattered and yellowed and clearly well-worn, is inscribed with the words “GIFT FROM JOINT” in small letters on one of the seams. It was received by Josef Friedman while he was interned at Muenchenberg DP camp in Kassel. Friedman was born in Cluj, Romania, and liberated from Buchenwald Germany. Josef’s son Steven Friedman donated the tallit to JDC almost 70 years after it was originally distributed.

Previously, I was aware that JDC gave assistance to Jews in DP camps after the war, but seeing this physical artifact made that narrative come alive for me in a new way. My thoughts turned to Josef. He had been persecuted for his religion and was forced to hide any practice of Judaism including prayer. After the war it was JDC’s gift that encouraged him to not only pray, but to proudly wrap himself in a prayer shawl. Josef continued to use the tallit for many years, and generations later it was donated to the archives as a way to preserve this memory.

This wool tallit was distributed by JDC at the displaced persons camp (DP) in Kassel, Germany, c. 1945-1947. JDC Archives

These stories from the archives were so inspiring that I knew we needed to share them directly with our community of alumni. We were able to organize a tour for a group of participants in NYC to explore the Archives warehouse and deepen their relationship with the organization that has helped them connect with Jewish communities around the world.

Of course, most of our alumni aren’t able to physically explore the Archives warehouse. When I speak about JDC’s work to our community of young adults, I’m able turn to these artifacts as proof of its lasting impact on individuals and communities. For example, we’ve used a photo exhibition of Jewish communal life from around the world to help folks in our lay-leadership program visualize the story of JDC throughout time. Participants are then asked to bring a photo that illustrates a significant Jewish experience they’ve had in their own life, thus seeing themselves as part of the story of global Jewish peoplehood. By tapping into the rich resources of the past in the JDC Archives collection, we can help Entwine’s community foster deeper connections with the worldwide Jewish community through JDC’s work.