Telling JDC's Story: Q&A with Merri Ukraincik

Meet Merri Ukraincik, the writer behind “I Live. Send Help.”, the sweeping new book chronicling JDC’s first 100 years of service. An engaging mix of history and stunning archival photographs, documents, and artifacts, the book demonstrates – forcefully and compellingly – that the history of JDC is nothing less than the history of the Jewish people.

A former JDC employee whose work took her to much of the JDC world for more than a decade, Ukraincik knows firsthand JDC’s unique and vital role in caring for the world’s most vulnerable Jews. She took some time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about writing the book.

Q: Tell me about the process by which you put together “I Live. Send Help.”

A: I have a long background with JDC. I was a Goldman Fellow in 1992 and worked at JDC for 13 years. To put together a book of this breadth in the short timeframe we had was daunting. But my JDC knowledge, together with my sensitivity toward and love of Jewish history, made it possible. The idea was that I wasn’t writing a JDC history, but rather a history of the Jewish people entwined with JDC over the past century – and still today. The book puts the Jewish people at the forefront, while showing that JDC was always there, every step of the way.

Q: Coming from a background of 13 years with the organization, what did you want the reader’s JDC takeaway to be?

A: I want to hand the book to someone who knows nothing about JDC and say, “This belongs to you. All of this is yours. The people on these pages are your family, and this is an organization that represents you.” There’s something Jewishly universal about what JDC does that everyone can find a place in, both inside the book and in the communities where JDC operates. I want readers to feel like they are holding a personal photo album, inspiring them to think, “I own this. This is a part of who I am.”

Q: When you look at the Jewish philanthropic landscape, what do you see as JDC’s unique role?

A: It hears the voice of the people it’s working with to let the communities guide what the next steps should be. Going all the way back to rebuilding communities after World War I, JDC set the goal of self-sufficiency and gave communities the freedom to determine their own future. That’s unique, to come in without a specific agenda, and to hear what your partners are looking for from you.

Q: How do you think JDC shaped the person you are today?

A: That was something I got in the field, a real understanding of what gratitude is. We’d go to visit someone who lives in a wooden hut without indoor plumbing, living on meals brought from the local community, thanks to JDC. Our visit makes their day, and we ask, “Do you need anything?” and the answer is, “No, I have everything.” Nothing could be more humbling!  I think I live in a reasonably modest way, but thinking about those visits makes me very aware of and grateful for the essentials we need to survive:  food and shelter and warm clothing and heat and human companionship and a connection to Yiddishkeit. If you have to take away everything else, that’s what I would cling to – I would choose my family, a roof over our heads, food on our plates, and a warm home to come to at the end of each day.

Q: What do you see as the connection between JDC’s mission and Jewish values?

A: The organization is rooted in core Jewish values. The essence of JDC is hesed and tikkun olam, feeding the hungry and showing compassion for those in the greatest need. These are all ancient Jewish values, and that’s the foundation of what JDC does. 

“I Live. Send Help.,” an exhibition celebrating JDC’s Centennial, will open June 13, 2014 at the New-York Historical Society.

To purchase the book: http://jdc.org/purchase-JDC100th-book

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