New Year Reflections from Steve Schwager

During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewish communities around the world are taking the time to reflect, recount, and reenergize for the year ahead. We here at JDC are no exception. Steve Schwager, our CEO, shares his own thoughts about the legacy of JDC, what we’re doing to help Jews in need, and who is still in need of our support. Excerpts below.

I do not, as a rule, take much time each day for personal introspection. I focus on my responsibilities and the great deal of work to be done. But these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur require very personal introspection—and my musings press me, asking: “What have you accomplished and what can you do better?”

Surely JDC’s founders never imagined that the organization would still be around 96 years later, serving as the 911 of the Jewish world and trying to meet the needs of Jews living not in one country, but in more than 70 countries around the globe. They would be impressed, of course. But would they also be disappointed? Would they pat us on the back for meeting the basic needs of about 1 in 10 Jews living outside of North America and Israel—or would they question why we can’t do more?

In the former Soviet Union, we serve about 160,000 elderly Jews living in 2,800 cities, towns, and villages. We used to serve many more. Decreased funding, the devaluation of the dollar, and inflation have caused us to remove tens of thousands of poor elderly Jews from the caseload. I struggle with this all the time, knowing full well that but for the grace of God, these elderly Jews could be my parents or grandparents—or yours.

Our founding fathers would be proud that we also serve more than 27,000 poor Jewish children and their families around the globe in partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). Yes, we provide for these children’s basic needs, and extend job training and counseling to their parents. But there are another 25,000 needy Jewish children that we do not reach because we have insufficient funds.

Surely our founding fathers would be proud of and amazed at our programs that ensure a Jewish future in communities worldwide. Just let them visit our summer camp at Szarvas in Hungary, where more than 1,000 youngsters experienced the beauty of Judaism in camp this year. And this is just the beginning of their journey—today Szarvas graduates are found in lay and professional Jewish leadership positions across Eastern and Central Europe. Our founders would appreciate the process: instill in children a love of their Jewish heritage, then teach them how to share that love with their own parents and grandparents, as well as with the next generation.

And surely our founders would be proud of our work to bolster the most vulnerable citizens in Israel. Articles in newspapers talk about the need to train and employ the Ultra Orthodox and Arab populations so they can more fully participate in Israeli society. Our TEVET initiative has trained over 5,000 of these citizens and placed them in meaningful employment. We also create critical, enriching programs for the elderly, children at risk, people with disabilities, and hard-to-absorb immigrants.

Here, the continued key to our success is the strategic partnership we have created with the Government of Israel. Our programs are based on a funding partnership: For every $1 we bring, the government and other partners add $4. This is huge leverage for our work and allows us to create programs that touch the lives of vulnerable Israelis throughout the country. “Do you always have that $1 to bring to the table?” our founders would ask. This is our challenge

There are many other countries where we work—enduring communities in the Muslim lands, our work in Latin America, or Africa. You are familiar with what we do, down to the 2 Jews we assist in China. And our founding fathers? They would expect no less.

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