Giving Voice to JDC’s Story

September 19, 2023

Zvi Feine (second from the left) celebrates Tu Bishvat in Bucharest in 1993. JDC Archives


A recent JDC Archives oral history project curated testimonies from key former employees involved in some of the organization’s biggest moments.

When a paper trail is difficult to follow, first person testimonies add color and texture to the historical record. That’s why JDC launched its 2021–2022 Oral History Project — a collection of intimate and gripping interviews conducted with retired JDC leaders around the globe.

Sarah Bogen (right) inaugurates a Hesed social welfare center in St. Petersburg in 1999. Photo: Scott Richman. JDC Archives

The initiative is composed of conversations with 18 senior staff members who served the Jewish world from the early 1970s through the early 2000s, and has given voice to individuals who responded at key moments of JDC history. Staff reflect on their experience in the midst of wars, natural disasters, evacuations, and the rebirth of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kept under lock and key for 35 years — standard practice for historical archives — almost all films, photographs, letters, and documents related to JDC’s post- Soviet work remain sealed from public view. That’s where the Oral History Project comes in, shedding light on the most recent chapters of JDC’s monumental work.

Zvi Feine, former Deputy Director of JDC Israel (1980–2009) and Regional Director of Europe and Asia (2006–2009), has lived and breathed the organization’s mission. During his tenure, Feine spearheaded life-saving programs for vulnerable Jews of all ages, many of which still exist today — like the Healthy Living Program, an initiative that helps at-risk children and their families, which he helped launch in Israel in 2010. Despite the archival records from his career, he still felt that something was lacking: individual voices.

“I was bothered for many years, knowing that my colleagues’ stories — stories of them carrying out critically important activities — weren’t necessarily being documented,” Feine said. “But now we have them, and they aren’t always included in JDC’s written archives.”

A young Holocaust survivor picks oranges in Israel in the 1950s. JDC Archives

These stories run the gamut of modern Jewish history: the 1991 Operation Solomon airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel; the 11-year war in former Yugoslavia and JDC’s rescue operations during the 1992–96 Siege of Sarajevo; the renewal of Jewish life in post-communist Europe; the establishment of programs for vulnerable Israelis, like Ashalim, focusing on children and youth at risk, and ESHEL, for older adults; the creation of the Myers-JDCBrookdale Institute for Research; school programs in Morocco and Tunisia; the creation of Hesed social welfare centers to support elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU); and JDC’s nonsectarian disaster response in places like Rwanda and the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sarah Bogen — JDC’s former Division Head for Community Centers in the FSU — helped revive Jewish life across the region, spearheading a vast network of Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and Heseds.

Despite her foundational work, Bogen said she never had the chance to tell her own story — what it was like on the ground when Jews were rediscovering Jewish life after decades of repression. Sharing her testimony was a chance to reflect on the enormous impact JDC made in the first few years after Soviet rule ended.

“When I was working in the field, I didn’t look at myself from the outside,” Bogen said. “I didn’t even think at the time how daring it was, how innovative it was, how emotional it was. But when I was talking about it, it all came back. And when I interviewed my colleagues — all vatikim (senior staff) — I realized we had all struggled with the same challenges and questions.”

Testimonies like Bogen’s have caught the attention of historians. The moment Josh Tapper heard about the Oral History Project, he was enthralled. A Stanford PhD who studies post-Soviet Jewish revival, Tapper was overwhelmed by the richness of stories he couldn’t find anywhere else.

“Oral history done right can fill in the gaps that exist in a standard archive,” Tapper said. “And without these testimonies, piecing together the shape and contours of Jewish communal renewal at that time would stand as an even greater challenge than it already is. Not only that, they add personality and character to the history.”

A young boy celebrates Chanukah in Moscow at a 1992 JDC celebration. Photo: Richard Lobell. JDC Archives

This project builds on past story-gathering initiatives. In the 2000s, JDC collected hundreds of hours of interviews from staff who had served from the late 1930s to the turn of the millennium — an undertaking that offered a rare glimpse into the lives of caregivers, lay leaders, JDC staff, and policymakers who led JDC’s relief efforts from the time of the Holocaust into the 21st century.

Some of these personal testimonies — many recorded as videos — made their way into documentary films spotlighting important moments in Jewish history. They were also an invaluable resource for historians researching World War II-era rescue and relief efforts.

Isabelle Rohr, manager of academic programs and outreach at the JDC Archives, said she hopes the Oral History Project can make a similar impact.

“As a historian, I know that oral testimonies often spark new areas of research,” Rohr said. “You hear something and think, ‘Oh, my G-d. I never thought of that. This is something I have to look into.’”


But these stories aren’t just about the past. To JDC professionals around the world, these testimonies feel as relevant as ever. With anecdotes from staff who responded in the midst of epic crises — many of them in the FSU — perhaps these narratives can offer insight into present-day emergencies like the Ukraine crisis.

“It’s crucial that future generations hear these testimonies,” Bogen said. “We have to know what happened, in order to plan for what’s to come.”

For Rohr, that’s what it’s all about.

“Part of our mission in the Archives is to connect the organization to its history,” she said. “Thanks to resources like this, we can better understand what we’re doing now by learning what was done then.”

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