At JDC, Finding My Own Place in Jewish History

When Ali Zak joined JDC, she also joined the organization that helped rescue her grandfather during the Holocaust.

By Ali Zak - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow; Jerusalem, Israel | August 23, 2023

Ali Zak (second from left) in Tbilisi, Georgia, with her fellow cohort of JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows.

JDC is in Ali Zak’s DNA. From a young age, Zak knew she wanted to join the very organization that had helped her grandfather escape the Nazis. She found her chance as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow, with a placement at JDC Ashalim — JDC-Israel’s division focused on promoting better opportunities for Israel’s most vulnerable children and young adults. This experience gave her an inside look at JDC, her grandfather’s story, and her own role in shaping the Jewish world. 

Ali Zak in front of Hoshen, the JDC-supported high school for at-risk youth she served through Ashalim.

What’s my role in Jewish history? What are the needs of this moment? Where is our future heading? I ask these questions every day — and it’s my lifelong connection to JDC, a link that spans multiple generations and continents, that compels me to do so.

Like many others, I grew up with an awareness of JDC’s impact. I take great pride in the fact that my grandfather survived the Holocaust on an $8/month stipend from JDC as a refugee in Shanghai. I was so awed by JDC’s extensive refugee support during WWII that I wrote a high school research paper on the topic for an extracurricular class on the Holocaust. My favorite high school class, Soviet History, lauded the role of JDC in supporting Refuseniks. It became clear to me that no other organization had played as meaningful a role in sustaining and developing 20th-century Jewish life.

I realized that if I wanted to understand this moment in Jewish history, a moment in which I was blessed to be alive, JDC was the place to go. Where else? And the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellowship was the perfect opportunity. A placement in JDC’s Israel office would afford me unique, inside exposure to the organization’s structure, priorities, and work. JDC was bound to manifest the identity and needs of this moment in Jewish history, and I entered the year with high expectations. 

I came to JDC wanting answers to the questions I’d always asked. What I found was actually more valuable: JDC helped me to dispel my misconceptions about Jewish history and the Jewish present, and it ultimately expanded my perspective on the needs of the Jewish people. 

This happened in two important ways. 

First, I had to confront the misconception that the past is interesting, impactful, monumental, and historic, but that the present moment somehow isn’t “history”-worthy. Shocking, perhaps, that someone who’d lived through a global pandemic and currently resides in Israel during challenging times would hold that belief, but somehow I did. However, my time at JDC reminded me that this moment of Jewish history is historic, and that its significance has been in front of my face the whole time. 

Today, not only does Israel exist, but half the world’s Jews are living in it. And whatever one’s personal views on the matter, this is undeniably a unique moment in Jewish history. This reality — the first time Jews have lived in an autonomous state since the Hasmoneans — comes with unique challenges and opportunities related to immigration, nation-building, regional responsibility, power, and identity. 

This doesn’t minimize the incredible work JDC does in dozens of countries outside of Israel or the centrality of those diaspora communities to the Jewish landscape today. Just a few weeks ago I was honored and awed to observe JDC’s work with elderly and young Jews in Georgia — providing both essential homecare to the elderly,  as well as community-wide Jewish cultural and leadership opportunities. Certainly, there is still active Jewish life all over the world and those communities outside Israel are just as essential a part of the dynamic picture of 21st-century Jewish life. But my time with JDC in Israel also highlighted for me how the Jewish world is in a state of massive transition, only 75 years into the establishment of the Jewish State, and urged me to think about how to address the unique needs that arise from this context. 

Second, JDC’s work in Israel expanded my understanding of Jewish needs. Before beginning my fellowship, I was used to conceptualizing Jewish needs as those that arose because, and only because, a person was Jewish: Jews were persecuted in the Holocaust because they were Jewish, Jews weren’t allowed to practice Judaism in the former Soviet Union, the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and things like that. All of that felt very exciting, clandestine, monumental, and Jewish

JDC helped me to dispel my misconceptions about Jewish history and the Jewish present –– and expanded my perspective on the needs of the Jewish people.

In contrast, JDC’s work in Israel focuses on lifting up all Israelis on the margins. In partnership with the government, local municipalities, philanthropists, the business sector, and other nonprofit organizations, JDC’s five departments in Israel aim to innovate care for people with disabilities, the elderly, vulnerable children and youth, those who struggle in the workforce, and more. While they are of course important, these social welfare needs didn’t feel particularly Jewish. 

But over time, I saw that they were: These needs are part of the reality of the state of Israel, and in this sense, they are undeniably a part of our shared Jewish story. But also on a values level, through my time working in a JDC-supported Israeli high school for vulnerable youth, as well as being around JDC’s Jerusalem office, and witnessing JDC’s work in Georgia, I started to understand the organization’s work within a broader context of Jewish values: Taking care of those in need of assistance –– no matter who they are –– is a Jewish community value and one of our greatest and most unique strengths.  

On a personal note, I began to see how my work with JDC in Israel is a continuation of the same JDC story my grandfather was part of when he received money from JDC in Shanghai. JDC recognizes that every moment of Jewish history is historic, that all needs of the Jewish people are Jewish, and that while there are differences throughout time periods, these realities are fundamentally linked together as part of the unfolding chain of Jewish history. 

I am honored to be part of that story. 

Ali is currently directing a summer internship program at ITIM, a nonprofit working to create a more respectful and responsive religious establishment in Israel. She will be a Dorot fellow starting in the fall, pursuing a year of personal development and study in Israel. She recently finished a year as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) fellow at Ashalim, JDC’s department for social mobility in Israel, where she worked in JDC’s Jerusalem office as well as in the field with vulnerable Israeli youth. She has had the privilege to study in multiple wonderful institutions of Jewish learning, most recently at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BA in philosophy.

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