Photo Credit: Donald M. Robinson
Kessim (religious leaders) mark the opening of a synagogue in the village of Gomenge, Ethopia, one of five built in Gondar with JDC aid, 1988 Courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, New York. (Photo Credit: Donald M. Robinson)

One hundred years after it began distributing massive funding to shattered communities in Eastern Europe and Palestine in the wake of World War I, the American Joint Distribution Committee continues to fulfill its mission of helping Jews in need all over the world.

Founded in 1914 to help Jewish victims of pogroms, war, famine and epidemics, the JDC was the first Jewish organization to take on large scale relief funding. While it now has an annual budget of $350 to $360 million, the organization began with Henry Morgenthau Sr., then United States Ambassador to Turkey, asking well-known philanthropist Jacob Schiff for $50,000 to help Jews living in Palestine who had been cut off from their usual sources of funding by the outbreak of World War I. It took just one month to raise the needed funds and as additional requests for funding continued to arrive, the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers was formed, eventually evolving into the JDC. All told, the JDC raised over $16 million during World War I to benefit Jews in Palestine and Eastern Europe.

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“We have been part of the Jewish journey for the last one hundred years,” JDC’s media director Michael Geller told The Jewish Press. “It is a history of triumph and tragedy and we have been a constant companion to Jews of all stripes.”

Throughout the early 1900’s the JDC provided financial support for healthcare initiatives in Poland, Russian, Romania, Lithuania and other areas in Eastern Europe, to promote economic development in Palestine and to rebuild synagogues, mikvaos and Jewish schools in Europe and Palestine. The JDC ran multiple programs throughout World War II, helping thousands of Jews flee the Nazi regime and settling them in safer surroundings, including the Dominican Republic and Shanghai and smuggling over 1,000 Jewish children to Spain and Switzerland. In the years following the war, the JCD’s assistance was crucial, distributing clothing, medicine, tools, books, sifrei Torahs, religious articles and food for Jewish holidays and supporting medical facilities, schools and synagogues while simultaneously attempting to create a sense of order in the overcrowded and understaffed DP camps that had popped up throughout Europe.

As the decades continued to unfold, the creation of the State of Israel and the changing face of the Soviet Union gave birth to massive financial needs and the JDC rose to the challenge. By the turn of the century the JDC was administering funds from a class action suit against Swiss banks and other institutions to Holocaust survivors living in the former Soviet Union; over 250,000 Holocaust survivors received aid in 2001 alone. It also continued its efforts to revitalize Jewish life and rebuild communities in the former Soviet Union and, by the end of 2007 the JDC’s efforts were impacting the lives of Jews in almost 3,000 areas in the former Soviet Union.

It also provided assistance in Israel, creating summer camps that served 300,000 children during the Intifada in 2002, aiding Israelis living in the northern part of the country during the 2nd Lebanon War in 2006 and creating numerous programs when rockets rained down in Sderot, including children’s programming and respite for the elderly and disabled. The JDC, which offered specialized training for local municipalities and increased volunteerism to better serve communities, was awarded Israel’s highest civilian award, the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel in 2007 in recognition of its years of service. Recent disaster relief efforts include providing aid to victims of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the South Asia tsunami in 2004, the 2008 Pakistan and China earthquakes and the 2008 Myanmar cyclone.

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