– Executive Director, JDC Former Soviet Union Programs
In January 1988, JDC leaders stepped foot on Soviet soil for the first time since the closing of Agro-Joint exactly 50 years earlier. Their meeting with government officials led to JDC’s return to what was then still the Soviet Union. On the 25th anniversary of that visit, JDC's new Executive Director of Former Soviet Union (FSU) Programs describes the challenges facing JDC in that vast region today:
I’d like to share with you what I call the FSU Challenge of JDC, a challenge I learned about soon after I joined the JDC family this past July.
That this challenge has many dimensions is obvious to anyone trying to comprehend the scale of work JDC is doing in this unique area.
We are doing so through an impressive infrastructure of 15 field offices that work with over 160 Hesed welfare organizations and 50+ JCCs. That means that we are directly in touch with 20% of an estimated current Jewish population of more than one million—our target population.
We use one name to refer to this region – the FSU – the former Soviet Union, but this is misleading. One needs to understand that we are operating in a diversified territory, which may have once been one state—the Soviet Union—but today comprises 12 countries differing from each other in many dimensions and aspects. These countries sometimes are in conflict with each other, or with various constituent parts.
And much as we have a tendency to look at this region as one culture - it is not. We work with people, and to interact with people you must respect and understand their particular culture. Georgia is not Russia and Moldova is not Ukraine, and that is without diving into the differences between east and west Ukraine.
After 70 years of communist oppression, the Jewish identity challenge in this area is very different from what we encounter in Israel, the US, Europe or Latin America. Most of the amazing young people whom we are engaging today in our work have come to learn about their Jewish identity at a late age and are bringing it back home to their families, friends, and communities. These young people, who are the future of the Jewish communities in this area, are bringing new ideas and enthusiasm to the concept of Jewish identity.
As we mention the concept of "community," we need to appreciate that while JDC works with communities, "community" is a concept that was diminished in this area for 70 years. Either you were a Party member or you were on your own. “Community” in the sense of ownership and group responsibility is just now starting to emerge in the FSU.
We are also challenged from an operational point of view. We are managing one budget denominated in US dollars, but we are implementing it in different currencies, in different economic systems—with varying laws and regulations, and in an operating environment that is culturally different from what we are used to in the western world.
Taking this scale and diversity into consideration helps us to better appreciate and understand the scope of the JDC challenge in the FSU. But more than that, it makes us better appreciate my predecessor, Asher Ostrin, and his team for building this amazing JDC infrastructure that is making sure that we can deliver on our commitment to see that "No Jew is Left Behind."
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