Q: Academia to the non-profit world is an interesting transition. Why did you come to JDC?
A: What am I doing here? It’s a question I keep getting asked. Why does an American law professor leave a university to become the head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee? That’s another common question.
For me, it’s very simple. It’s about the fantastic mission of the organization which not only inspires me, but resonates with me because of my family history.
I am named for my grandfather, who died before I was born. He came from a small village in Western Ukraine, and his parents died shortly after his younger siblings were born. He was raised by his grandfather but unfortunately, his grandfather was then killed in a pogrom. When my grandfather was about 16 years old, which is a year older than my eldest child, he was responsible for taking care of his two younger siblings.
When the Russian Revolution began, there was real chaos in the country. One day, some soldiers came to the village looking for Communists and when they didn’t find them, they decided to shoot villagers. My grandfather was up against a wall with some other people, and they were about to shoot him. At that moment, some Communists showed up and a shooting battle began, which gave my grandfather and the other people the opportunity to run away. That was the signal that he needed to move to the United States.
The rest is history, and obviously, I had a very different childhood, which was much easier than his. Now it’s true that the New York Mets had a number of losing seasons, and while that was a source of great pain to me, otherwise I have had a very comfortable and privileged life. For me, it’s so meaningful to be able to give back, helping people who are facing the same kind of difficulties that my grandfather dealt with.
Q: Can you tell us a story of how JDC has impacted your personal life?
A: I was at a bat mitzvah, and while I was speaking to the father of the bat mitzvah girl, he mentioned that his dad was a Holocaust survivor. I asked if he knew if the Joint played any role in helping him. He said, “I don’t know. Let’s go ask him.” So, we went over to his father and my friend started speaking German to him. I don’t speak German, but I recognized my name and “American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.” And so did my friend’s dad.
As soon as he heard that, he looked at me and said in English, “You’re from the Joint?” I said yes, and as he touched my jacket, he told me that when the Americans liberated his Nazi concentration camp, they didn’t have clothes, so they gave him Nazi SS uniforms to wear. I think it was obvious that my face fell when I heard that, because it is such a terrible thing.
He told me that you could still see the Nazi insignia, even though they had removed it. Then he smiled and he said, “The Joint gave me better clothes,” and talked about how in the liberated camp, Americans provided only one meal a day, while JDC gave him the other two meals.
The point is that we have been centrally involved in caring for needy Jewish people over the years, and I think it resonates with everyone. It certainly resonates with me because in every Jewish family, someone has dealt with very difficult times. It’s really only a question of when.
Q: In your own words, what do we do at JDC?
A: The mission is 102 years old, but it’s very simple to describe: We save Jewish lives and we build Jewish life. In so many places in the world, Jewish people are living in really difficult conditions. I’ve been to Ukraine, and I’ve met elderly people who live on pensions that are $2 a day, because the currency in Ukraine has declined so much in the last few years. These people depend on us to live meaningful lives, to be able to function. We also are so committed to the idea of helping Jewish communities become better organized, so they can provide for themselves.
If you think about it, in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union (FSU), the 20th century was a very difficult time. The Nazis did their best to wipe out the spark of Judaism from Europe, and then the Communist regimes were committed to keeping people from practicing their religions. I have a colleague who I saw in Odessa; she grew up there. I said to her, “What was it like to grow up as a Jewish kid here?” She said, “I have no idea,” and I was puzzled. Then she said, “It’s because my parents didn’t tell me I was Jewish until I was at university.”
This is not uncommon there. I’m proud to say that now, if you go to Eastern Europe or the FSU, you will see Jewish community centers (JCCs) organized by JDC. You will see vibrant community programs, and young Jewish kids getting together doing Hesed work and good things for the community, and also getting to know each other. It’s really a wonderful renaissance of Jewish tradition, and we at JDC play an important role in that.
Q: What about JDC’s work in Israel?
A: One of the key qualities that you can say is in JDC’s DNA is problem-solving through creative approaches. Though it may be hard, we figure out how to do it. One of the places that we see that a lot is in our work in Israel: We basically run social experiments with the government of the State of Israel. We come with new ways to deliver social services, to help elderly people and at-risk children, and to assist people with disabilities. We will then test the experiment in a few places to see how it works.
If we succeed in our trials, and we usually do, the Israeli government then takes it on, and scales it up to run throughout the entire country, while we move onto our models. We are dynamic in our approach, and are always changing the way the Israeli government takes care of people. It’s a real honor to be a part of that.
Q: Why does the world need JDC?
A: We work in 70 countries to save Jewish lives and to build Jewish life. There are so many needy people throughout the world. For example, we have 122,000 elderly clients in the FSU, who have lived through incredibly difficult conditions. They don’t have a safety net — it’s JDC that keeps them alive. In Israel, there are elderly people who need care, and JDC partners with the Israeli government to provide that assistance in an innovative way.
It’s not only about care, however. Part of what we need to do is to make Jewish communities more vibrant all over the world, from Mumbai to Moscow. During the 102 years that JDC has been around, there have determined forces trying to take the spark out of Jewish life, but it hasn’t worked. In fact, JDC has been able to ensure that if you are Jewish, and want to live a Jewish life anywhere in the world, we will help you.
Q: What is unique about JDC?
A: One of the things that is so striking about JDC is not only does the organization have a heart, but it’s the heart and the brain together. We understand that this is really about the results that we can produce, the people we can help, and the difference we make.
We have these incredibly creative people, who think of these brilliant ideas. We partner with amazing organizations. I think it’s a pretty special thing that when the Israeli government wants to pilot a new program to help people with disabilities, elderly people, children at-risk, and unemployed individuals, they call JDC. Hundreds of thousands of people can benefit as a result.