Jewish American Heritage Month: The Enduring Bond Between JDC and the USA
JDC's historical advisor explores JDC's century-long history of partnership with the US Government and Americans to provide aid to those in need.
By Ilana Stern - JDC Writer and Historical Advisor | May 14, 2020
Since its establishment in 1914, JDC has exemplified the Jewish philanthropic tradition that has contributed so much to our national culture and is a critical part of the Jewish American heritage that we are celebrating this month.
JDC’s overseas endeavors have earned it a special place in that heritage, even as they became an important symbol to people everywhere of the best that America can be.
In fact, in addressing a JDC leadership meeting in February 1941, ten months before the US entered World War II, then New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman characterized JDC in precisely that way:
“J.D.C. is the living symbol of a land where there is opportunity and tolerance for all, where all men may enjoy freedom and, unhindered, stretch out their hands in compassion to the suffering.’
Fueled by the generosity of American Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations, for nearly 106 years JDC has turned that compassion into action. Grounded in the Jewish imperative of mutual responsibility, it has consistently brought the varied parts of the American Jewish community together to come to the aid of Jews in peril or in need in every corner of the globe.
During this month of celebration, it is also important to recognize and salute the larger American public who, through our federal government, have partnered with us in many of our hallmark efforts.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, for example, the US government’s newly organized American Relief Administration (ARA) worked with JDC to send convoys of food, clothing, and medicine to devastated communities in Russia and in Central and Eastern Europe. Together, JDC and the ARA brought critical relief to hundreds of thousands of Jews in those regions who were facing hunger, disease, and new outbreaks of hostilities.
Acting on information gathered by JDC representatives, the ARA accelerated its aid program in the Ukraine in 1921, as civil war engulfed that region and Jews were facing the added horror of pogroms. During a period of widespread, prolonged famine, JDC became the largest donor to ARA food programs throughout the Soviet Union, helping nearly 2 million Jews to survive in the Ukraine alone.
Two decades later, in January 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9417, establishing the US War Refugee Board (WRB). With JDC as its primary funder, WRB worked with JDC and other organizations to rescue Jews from occupied territories and aid inmates of the concentration camps. The rescue and relief efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat based in Budapest, Hungary, were extensively supported, as was the Balkan Rescue Project. By war’s end, it was estimated that WRB had helped to rescue some 200,000 Jews.
Following the defeat of the Nazis, and having convinced President Truman and General Eisenhower of the need to establish separate DP (Displaced Persons) camps for Holocaust survivors and other Jewish refugees, JDC worked in close cooperation with American military authorities, Jewish chaplains, and the US Jewish Advisor to supplement the relief supplied by the US Army and UN agencies. The resulting all-encompassing assistance program rebuilt health and hope in the DP camps and beyond.
The 1948 publication on German soil of a new set of the Talmud, one of Judaism’s central texts, symbolized that unified approach. According to a cover note, its publication was accomplished “with the aid of the U.S. Army and the Joint (JDC).” Known as the DP Talmud, and now part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress, it was dedicated to the US Army for its “major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, as changes in US-Soviet relations caused the number of Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union and other Communist-bloc countries to ebb and flow, generous support from the US Refugee Program (USRP) enabled JDC to provide food, housing, and a network of auxiliary services for Jews in transit in Austria and Italy, where they awaited immigration processing to enter the US. Their numbers exploded in Communism’s waning days: in 1989 alone, JDC, with considerable US government support, assisted over 68,000 Jewish émigrés.
Amid the deep economic hardship that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, JDC was one of the American NGOs selected to participate in the US Department of Agriculture’s 1992 food aid program. JDC offered to deliver individual packages to those in need rather than just bulk supplies, and it was authorized to distribute $12 million worth of food in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some 500,000 packages were distributed through local organizations, and supplies were delivered to children’s hospitals and other institutions.
Finally, in leading the Jewish community response to global disasters and crises, as it has done most recently in Guatemala, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, and Mozambique, JDC always coordinate its relief and recovery efforts with the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
At a reception held at the US Capitol to mark JDC’s centennial year, a bi-partisan group of Senate and House leaders celebrated JDC’s ongoing partnership with the US government and the American public. They praised the “enduring bonds” that produced lifesaving support for victims of two world wars in the past century—bonds that continue to benefit some of the world’s neediest populations and have given JDC a unique position in the Jewish American heritage.
For an update on JDC’s current response to the Covid-19 pandemic, visit our coronavirus response page.
This year, the JDC Archives is an official partner of Jewish American Heritage Month. Visit JewishAmericanHeritage.org to learn more about Jewish American Heritage Month or explore a treasure trove of documentary sources and audio-visual materials, including curated photo galleries, that bring JDC’s lifesaving work to life at archives.jdc.org.