Turning the Tables on Poverty

Rebecca Neuwirth

– Director, JDC Ambassadors

Chaim barely had enough money to put food on his table for his family. A member of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel, he married very young, but had no skills or prospects for the employment market, and an education that left him wholly unprepared for the modern workforce. So, when he learned about an opportunity to serve in the Israeli military in a special unit created for Haredim that promised to teach him software repair skills, he joined up.

Skip forward a bit in time: Chaim was working in a computer lab where many screens were coming back flawed. Army regulations said they needed to be replaced — at a cost of $180 per screen. Examining the screens, Chaim found a small piece causing the problem that could be replaced at a cost of $8. And so Chaim, formerly a charge of state welfare, saved the Israeli government 2 million shekels.

At a recent JDC Ambassadors program in New York, Galit Sagie cited this wildly successful outcome as one of JDC’s key strategies to help turn the tables on poverty in Israel.

Teaching in a culturally sensitive way and empowering people with skills that help them to find employment and become self-sufficient is the ultimate way to reduce poverty over the long-term. In Israel, JDC has been creating precisely these kinds of solutions for vulnerable populations, from Haredim to Israeli Arabs to at-risk youth. Many of its initiatives are picked up by the Israeli government and brought to full scale throughout the country. In this manner, Federation, private donor, and foundation dollars act as a jumpstart for innovative, effective, and needed programs – a philanthropist’s dream.

The situation is more complex in the massive area of the former Soviet Union, where, after the fall of Communism, the social infrastructure completely collapsed. To this day, many governments are not able or do not find it politically necessary to expend resources on providing care to those in need that even approximates the most basic requirements.

The elderly and handicapped are in the worst predicament, with many left destitute, hungry, cold, and without adequate medicine or human care. The situation for Jews is especially difficult.  Many have lived through Nazi occupation and murderous anti-Semitism, they have experienced prejudice in access to higher education and better jobs in the Soviet Union, and most have no families left to help care for them.

Rina Edelstein spoke about JDC’s role as a lifeline in this vast territory. She explained how JDC’s work in fostering grassroots young leadership in the Jewish community is done with an eye toward the future, when these young people will be able to take on more responsibility within their local communities for those in need. In the meantime, JDC — with funding from the German government via the Claims Conference and from Federations, individuals, and foundations — is helping to care for some 160,000 individuals on a daily basis.

Finally, JDC’s work in the wider world, where poverty and crisis abound, needs to be targeted carefully. Unable to take on the full scope of major development issues, Mandie Winston explained how JDC can still call upon a vast set of experience-based knowledge and best practices — from expertise in disaster mitigation to deep understanding of how to build strong community and capacity. In Haiti, Indonesia, and Rwanda, for example, JDC has made measurable differences — building projects with carefully identified local partners, and, when possible, including and empowering local Jewish community members. Here, too, JDC is committed to the principle of sustainability, and to building models that can, and often are, replicated in other regions.

Gideon Herscher moderated this global tour-de-force, looking for the strong common elements in JDC’s approach to poverty and recognizing the challenges unique to each region. Jayne Lipman, Ambassadors co-chair and JDC Board member, who recent returned from Haiti, introduced each speaker.  Mark Sisisky, JDC Board and Ambassadors Steering Committee member, concluded the forum with a moving story about his experience with children’s hunger in a Baltic city.

JDC Ambassadors will be hosting a major Symposium on December 3. Ambassadors is the premier way for interested individuals and families to learn about JDC and get involved. For more information, contact Rebecca Neuwirth at rebeccan@jdcny.org or (212) 885-0878.

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