JDC Symposium: Where Survival Meets Responsibility

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is anything but complacent when speaking at the morning session of JDC Ambassador’s all-day Symposium on October 15.

In the ballroom of Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), the event’s co-sponsor, some of the most distinguished leaders of the Jewish community have devoted the day to exploration. The roster is a who’s who – including Will Schneider, executive director of Slingshot Fund, which works to strengthen innovation in Jewish life by developing next-generation fundraising leaders; Rabbi Michael Paley, an inspirational voice at UJA-Federation of New York; Andres Spokoiny, the President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network; and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Congregation Shearith Israel; and incredible Jewish leaders who have worked to make measurable and positive change around the world through JDC.

Hirschfield is used to working a high-powered crowd. The assembled share a sense of purpose: today is about making the connection between philanthropists who care and those in need around the world. Gideon Herscher and Hirschfield, who joined together to create the JDC Interface experience, use the morning to open up personal questions about the parameters of humanitarian outreach. Those questions will be answered throughout the rest of the day in discussions about how JDC leaders and Ambassadors have contributed to lifesaving work in over 70 countries around the world. The larger theme is reflected in the Ambassadors tagline: philanthropy that changes lives – the lives of those we help, and in the process, our own lives.

A short video shows JDC’s intervention in the aftermath of the 2009 earthquake in Haiti. Children are measured for prosthetic arms and legs, a school is organized in a refugee camp, hot meals are distributed, a hospital is rebuilt and furnished with supplies, volunteers wrap blankets around emaciated men, and everywhere there are smiles that make you proud to be human.

When the lights come on, a question is projected on screen: “Is Jewish the Way, or does it get in the way?” A woman speaks up: “I am not sure if this is the right form of philanthropy. We have to worry first about our own survival.”  

The respect for “smart-giving” and the Jewish willingness to consider every side of an issue are accorded their due. Another woman counters that these sorts of efforts contribute to Israel’s security by transforming negative views of Israel and Jews in the wider world. 

Rabbi Hirschfield asks, “If you take a walk in Central Park and a child falls into the reservoir, are you going to inquire if he’s Jewish before you jump in and save him?” 

But this crowd is not so easily persuaded. 

“Ok, but what’s Jewish about this?” a gray-haired gentleman in a suit wants to know.

This is an opportunity for a little biblical exegesis. Rabbi Hirshfield speaks to the assembled about how we are the only tribal people whose account of creation begins not with our own story but with the creation of the entire world and all of humanity. Though he says he’d never expect any of the assembled to take the Genesis story literally, we can still look to this version of creation for meaning. It tells us our fate is bound up with the fate of others and that all of humanity was created in the image of God.

“But in the end of days, we need to survive,” calls out another woman in front.

For me, the question remains: Do the Jewish people need to survive for survival’s sake? Or do we need to survive because we have something essential to contribute? 

Then one man remarks that it comes down to just one thing: the Jewish people’s intimate knowledge of suffering and loss. There is no way as Jews we can stand by and allow it to happen to others.

Over coffee, we are all thanked for having engaged in the discussion. We are also reassured that JDC, about to celebrate its centennial year, is able to both look after Jews and do the most effective humanitarian work on the planet.

“There is seamlessness,” says the now-beaming rabbi, “between being a Jew and being human.” 

The next hours are devoted to immense needs and JDC’s projects to address them in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. It’s eye opening to learn, and exciting to think about how meaningful it is to contribute.

To learn more about JDC Ambassadors, visit: www.jdc.org/ambassadors.

Susan Reimer-Torn, member of the JDC Ambassadors’ Women’s Impact Network is a freelance journalist and author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections of Rupture and Return.

All photos credited to Nancy Borowick.  Nancy is a photographer based in New York City.

Quotes from the day:

“I am often exposed to start-up projects in Jewish life, which are "close to the ground" and therefore can do a great job providing meaningful engagement to their participants. It's great to see participants of an established organization like JDC so fulfilled by their experience. So often participants are invited to a cocktail party with a slideshow, but JDC participants are given the chance to participate in the core work of the organization.” – Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot Fund

“I am at this event, not because I am paid by the JDC, but because I love the work that the JDC does.” - Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, Co-founder of JDC Interface

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