What Drought Relief Looks Like in Gondar, Ethiopia
As you read this blog, several regions of Ethiopia are witnessing a major drought – the result of lack of rain caused by El Niño weather – leading to malnutrition in rural areas where villagers don’t have adequate access to water, food, or medical care. As this crisis is still evolving and the needs of those affected are growing daily, JDC is working in cooperation with the Ethiopian government and regional authorities to provide assistance.JDC Ethiopia staff members and volunteers recently traveled to the affected region in Gondar to assess and respond to the situation. Below is a dispatch based on the deployment of JDC’s Senior Program Director for Ethiopia Sam Amiel; Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s Medical Director in Ethiopia; and Dr. Alexandra Johnson, a family doctor from Colorado and daughter of JDC board member Alan Rothenberg:.On January 26, we flew from Addis Ababa to Gondar and then drove to East Bellessa, located southeast of the Gondar region where much of JDC’s existing development work takes place. It took four hours by jeep to get there. Our mission involved purchasing 1,000 cartons of Plumpy Nut, the peanut-based food ideal for those suffering from severe malnutrition, and then delivering to the affected region so that it can be distributed to those in the most need.We then drove to the local health center to visit the nutrition unit, where babies are admitted for up to three weeks for intensive feeding according to the predetermined malnutrition criteria. We were told that seven babies had just been discharged and only one remained. We examined that baby, the male of a set of twins, and he was receiving appropriate care, and doing OK.The next day, January 27, we drove to Hamusit where they were screening a small group of mothers and malnourished children at a district health center. Hamusit has about 5,000 inhabitants, but the region is populated mostly by small, rural, remote villages.The center – staffed by eight medical workers, who have degrees but virtually no medical training – was fairly chaotic. Our role was that of medical consultants and we engaged in primary care for patients. After hours of evaluating a steady stream of infants, their siblings, and mothers worn down from hunger, with wounds weeping with neglect and their skin stained from traditional poultices applied when no other medicines were available, Alexandra slipped away from the crowd and visited the outhouse.”A woman followed me. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, though her face was already deeply lined. Her expression was flat as she approached me, but her eyes were pleading. “Please,” she said as she lifted up her skirt. Behind her were empty, dry plains that this year bore no crops, naked trees parched from drought, and in the distance, arching table mountains, an ancient monastery nestled at the base. But in the foreground she stood, hair covered in cultural modesty, raising her skirt for me behind the latrine and revealing a mass, likely the product of an ill-attended birth.”With this jarring reminder of the myriad of critical challenges in this part of Ethiopia, on January 28, we drove from Hamusit to Taymen, literally the “end of the road.” At this clinic, we were told they had screened a large group of 625 children. The director added that 153 children in the area are moderately malnourished and six are severely malnourished. In addition, he reported that 70 percent of mother’s deliver their babies at home, compared to 30% of births taking place in a health center, a troubling issue given the current conditions, which has been exacerbated by a lack of water provision in the area.We observed this issue during our travels, passing empty water tanks waiting to be filled. To help solve this, we are collaborating with the Gondar Water Authority to dig five deep wells as part of our drought relief effort.There is little doubt that our work here, coordinated with the government, empowering Ethiopians to care for themselves in this time of need can help alleviate the suffering caused by this terrible drought. To that end, it is encouraging to see that our partnership with the Gondar University Hospital to train their doctors and nurses/midwives over the years has proven essential during this drought relief effort. We will work with them on monitoring the needs in drought-affected areas like East Bellessa and continue to monitor the distribution of nutritional support to the neediest.In the face of such overwhelming odds, many choose to look away or to dismiss the possibility that aid can make a difference. This trip has proven otherwise.This sentiment, though simple, was summed up poetically by Alexandra, who noted: “If the woman with the birth injury makes it to the hospital, she can learn to recognize warning signs in other deliveries. When the cleft lips are repaired, those children may be inspired to help others in a similar manner. When we measure a child’s wrist and discover malnutrition, the Plumpy Nut we deliver can help save a life. In a drought of not solely water, but of resources, education and compassion, I pray that our interactions can plant seeds hardyy enough to grow in this desert.”The effects of the drought are expected to continue and get worse for the coming months. JDC will continue to assist by providing critical nutritional support for children and increasing access to water where there is none by digging wells.
Behind the Story: Israeli Arab Tech Expansion Prompted by JDC Partnership
A New York Times story published on January 9 highlights the growing inclusion of Israeli Arabs in the tech industry and job market in Israel.”Israel, with a population of about eight million, has long been a global leader in high technology. But the country’s Palestinian Arab minority, which makes up about a fifth of the population and includes the Bedouins of the arid south, one of the poorest and most neglected sectors of Israeli society, has been largely left out,” the piece said, setting the context for the increasing numbers now being employed in Israel.But what you may not know is that JDC – in partnership with the Israeli government, local NGOs, and Israeli Arab leaders – created the pilot program, Excel HT, that was developed to enable Arab programmers, engineers, and graduates in high tech to become part of Israel’s rapidly growing tech space. JDC was a 50-50 funding partner of Excel HT with the Government of Israel.As part of JDC’s work in Israel designed to empower its most vulnerable citizens, Excel HT solidified relationships with major tech companies located within the country: SAP, AMDOCS, General Electric, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Cisco, Intel and more, all of them seeking best-in-class talent and employees.What were the results of this innovative program? They’re staggering: 98 percent of program graduates have secured employment, with 86 percent of those employed retaining full-time positions and 50 percent of this group consisting of women.Before the program launched, JDC pinpointed its research, identifying the challenges facing Israeli Arabs. Additionally, JDC was able to leverage its longstanding connections across different sectors of Israeli society and deploy the Excel HT model.JDC’s work in the employment arena has also improved the job prospects of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews), Ethiopian-Israelis, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. To date, tens of thousands of people who fall into these groups are now gainfully employed, positively impacting Israeli society and economy.Excel HT and these other pilots wouldn’t have been successful without JDC’s spirit of collaboration and its strong partnerships throughout Israeli society, all focused on one goal: inclusive employment.
Back to the Future: Active Jewish Teens
Lvov, in Western Ukraine, is just a few hours away from Rovno, the city where I was born and spent the first years of my life. In the early ’90s, my mother was always eager to take us to Jewish events there, but the truth is: None of us really had an idea about anything, not about Chanukah, Yom Kippur, or lightning candles on Shabbat. For us, being Jewish was a very abstract thing. It wasn’t connected to traditions and religion; rather, the “J” in our passports indicated a different nationality and meant discrimination, harder access to universities, worse job opportunities.It’s been 21 years and now I’m a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow, back in the same country my parents once felt forced to leave. Loud Israeli pop beats are all around, and wherever I turn my eyes, hundreds of Jewish teens are bustling about, looking for their friends and their assigned hotel rooms. The AJT (Active Jewish Teens) conference in Lvov is on fire and people came from all over: Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Belarus, and “my” new country: Georgia, where I am currently serving as a Fellow in the community.It has been less than two years since AJT began as a grassroots initiative, but here in Lvov I encounter a huge and powerful youth movement with self-confidence, agenda, and drive. For almost all my seven Georgian teens, the conference is their first-ever opportunity to meet up with Jewish teens outside of their own national borders. Some cities – like Kharkov or Dnepropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine – came with huge teen entourages, while others – like us in Tbilisi – brought just a few. I hear how ideas are shared and projects presented. Teens and youth club coordinators from all over discuss their communities.
JDC’s AJT network provides Jewish teenagers with an opportunity to participate in a vibrant peer network, similar to youth groups in the U.S. The teens take part in cultural activities, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and generally build a culture of volunteerism. AJT impacts more than 2,500 teens across the former Soviet Union.
On the third day, I ask Anabela, one of the Georgian teens, what she learned and she tells me, “After seeing what’s possible here, I suddenly have so much motivation that we in Tbilisi will do things like this. Our own projects, our own ideas. It’s totally realistic that we can make this happen!”All three days of the conference, I am torn between bewilderment and enthusiasm. For so many years I had assumed automatically that nearly all Jewish people from the former Soviet Union (FSU) left, just like my own family, to Israel, Germany, or the U.S.But AJT makes me I realize that for hundreds of thousands of Jews all across the FSU, Jewish life has begun to reemerge in recent years, as the long-lasting impacts of Soviet oppression slowly begin to fade. In Lvov, I see a creative, vibrant, and young generation full of passion for their Jewish identity. We dance, do activities, talk about Jewish mothers, love from a rabbinical perspective, and How I Met Your Mother. We eat kosher food and at the end of every meal, some people stay to sing Birkat Hamazon. Here and there, I hear sentences in Hebrew and Jewish songs.The whole conference seems like a big Jewish party, a platform for giving and taking equally. We unite in all our diversity, and we all promise to see each other again.Maybe it is far from being “perfectly” Jewish, whatever that might mean. Rates of intermarriage in FSU countries are high, and keeping kosher is often not a priority. After so many decades of assimilation and discrimination, Jews from the FSU will probably never be as observant as their brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. But for me, that’s not the point. Being born in a country that made any kind of Jewish tradition impossible for my family and millions of other people, I am thrilled to have the opportunity through the Jewish Service Corps to see teens who are actively changing the story.It is not the same Ukraine my parents left. It is so much more Jewish these days.
Marina Klimchuck is a JDC Entwine-BBYO Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow stationed in Tbilisi, Georgia.
At Szarvas Summer Camp, Finding My Own Jewish Identity
Szarvas gave me an understanding of how precious Judaism is, what an asset it is to my identity.
Until I went to Szarvas, Judaism had always been a part of my life that I took for granted, something I loved about my upbringing, but nothing I actively cultivated. I went to a Jewish school, to synagogue each week, kept kosher, etc., but I never thought about these choices; they were just facts of my life.
After Szarvas I understood that many Jews around the world long for the luxury of experiencing Jewish rituals and expressing their Judaism freely. Through Szarvas I gained perspective on my responsibility as an American Jew — responsibility which I have made part of my career. At Szarvas, I also met Jews from around the United States who influenced my passions. In fact, I met the first love of my life at Szarvas. We dated for four and a half years — 11 years later, he remains one of my best friends. It was because of him that I participated in many of the art-oriented projects at Szarvas: designing the set of a mock Indian wedding, creating a whole instillation on famous American artist Jackson Pollock, even just learning to make bubble letters because it was camp! I now devote my entire career to a combination of making Judaism and art accessible. I run an alternative Jewish education program called Havurah at The JCC of Manhattan, which provides hands-on experiences with Jewish stories, customs, and values for families that aren’t comfortable in synagogue communities and for children whose parents themselves are seekers. I also develop and lead tours and workshops at The Jewish Museum for Jewish and non-Jewish students and families to expose people to the multiplicity of ways Jews live their lives and express themselves.
And through my other museum work at the Noguchi Museum and The Cooper Hewitt, I help people use their creativity and imagination to bridge boundaries and cultivate community and inspire dreams of new possibilities for the world, as Szarvas did for me.
Empowering Grassroots Innovation
Innovation, effectiveness and compassion are hallmarks of JDC’s important work caring for Jews and others in need. As JDC enters its second century of work, it is at the vanguard of the movement to foster grassroots innovation – lending its experience and infrastructure to promising social innovators and supporting local leaders as they activate their visions and create lasting social change.
The following examples offer a taste of how JDC is empowering the next generation of leaders and fostering social innovation throughout the Jewish world.
Building a Culture of Leadership in the Former Soviet Union
Fostering young leadership is a JDC priority worldwide, one that is especially relevant in the former Soviet Union, where the first generation of Jews to grow up in the post-communist era is coming of age. In this region, home to over 1 million Jews, native-born leaders are increasingly taking responsibility for developing their Jewish communities, exemplified by the recent groundswell of grassroots volunteer initiatives during the violence in Ukraine. JDC is offering these young visionaries a platform for expanding their leadership skills – complementing local leaders’ intimate knowledge of their communities with the wisdom of a global organization, and helping these trailblazers introduce and develop concepts – such as volunteerism, social activism, and the importance of developing networks – for which there were no antecedents during Soviet times. Below are two of JDC’s flagship programs.
JDC’s Young Jewish Leadership Program for emerging community talent offers young people between the ages of 18-28 an opportunity to hone their personal and professional skills through a series of seminars that teach community work, Jewish tradition, project planning, financial responsibility, public speaking, and more. Program participants create and implement community service projects – identifying local community needs, locating potential partners and fundraising opportunities, and developing cutting-edge initiatives that generate involvement in community life.
Since the inception of JDC’s Young Jewish Leadership Program in 2002, the program has spread to six former Soviet countries, graduating more than 500 young professional leaders to date. The program currently aims to graduate about 100 leaders each year.
More recently, the Active Jewish Teens program offers younger community members, ages 12-16, the chance to take an active role in Jewish life. The program trains motivated teens to serve as counselors at community events, provides informal Jewish educational activities, and offers opportunities for participants to create grassroots community projects by applying to a small grants fund.
In 2014, its first year of programming, Active Jewish Teens reached 1,121 members in 36 communities located across five countries of the former Soviet Union. In the future, JDC aims to expand the program from 14 to 28 active groups and to include an exchange of participants between cities and joint regional activities.
Investing in New Ideas in Europe
At a time of heightened concern in Europe, JDC’s engagement with Jewish communities takes on special importance. JDC sees its role as helping to build resilience and develop community capabilities.
One of JDC’s most exciting new projects in the region is the Mozaik HUB. The HUB is based in Hungary, which has the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe and has thus emerged as a regional leader. While Hungary’s capital of Budapest is experiencing an upsurge in grassroots innovation, there remains a lack of know-how and a great deal of untapped organizational and individual potential. JDC’s Mozaik HUB serves as an incubator for Jewish grassroots organizations and projects. Its goal is to nurture small organizations so that they move from start-ups to active agents of social change; to advance organizations toward increased impact and organizational know-how; and to invest in leaders who will be vital to the community’s future. The HUB offers select NGOs a physical space, which serves as both a base and a platform for interaction, while also providing logistical support and training for both these core members and a wider network of organizations and projects. JDC has created a small grants fund to help launch the best new ideas.
Since the HUB first opened its doors in May 2015, four NGOs have been invited as core members to move into the HUB’s physical space for a period of up to four years. Eight affiliated organizations and a larger circle of project leaders are invited to participate in HUB mentoring, trainings, strategic planning sessions, and networking. The HUB also plans forums and discussions to bring together community stakeholders and activists. The next years will be crucial in building the capacity of the network and, more broadly, enhancing the resilience of Hungary’s Jewish community.
Building Social Entrepreneurship in Israel
Israel is a start-up nation phenomenon – and has seen an explosion of activity, gaining a deserved reputation as the home of many of the most novel and successful new ideas today. Imagine if the same entrepreneurial energy that one finds in Tel Aviv could be directed toward solving Israel’s substantial social problems. While many venture funds invest in Israeli businesses, JDC uniquely offers the chance to nurture, fund, and scale social entrepreneurs whose input is crucial to Israel’s future.
The JDC-Israel Accelerator for Social Innovation provides a platform for promising Israeli social entrepreneurs, allowing them to develop innovative solutions to pressing social problems. In addition to offering a physical space where people from different backgrounds can interact and ideas can ferment, the Accelerator will offer JDC’s expert guidance and support in how to develop effective and transformative social initiatives and build government partnerships that can scale up the most successful efforts. During each cycle, JDC will assist 60-80 social entrepreneurship projects, including social businesses, by providing six months of mentoring and additional support services. After six months, the 20 most successful projects will join the Accelerator stage, receiving an additional six months of support and counseling. Of these 20, three to five of the most promising projects will be selected for national expansion, integrating them into JDC’s government partnerships.
For more information on getting involved in these programs and supporting JDC’s work, please contact or any member of JDC’s staff.
Building Community in Jewish China
For the fourth year in a row, the Chinese Jewish community met to discuss a vast selection of educational topics — ranging from Jews living in occupied Shanghai to “Gematria for Dummies” — at the Limmud conference in Beijing.
Organized by Kehillat Beijing and sponsored by JDC, the event featured 25 workshops focused on learning and strengthening Jewish communal bonds in China, which is estimated to have about 2,500 Jews, largely expatriates.
“I love what Limmud has done to the identity of Asia’s Jews,” said Stacy Palestrant, an entrepreneur and mother of three. “It’s really nice to see how bonded we have become.”
Plans are already underway for Limmud’s 2016 edition.
“The JDC helped Jewish refugees in China during World War II and is now helping to building the Jewish expatriate community in China,” said Danny Pins, JDC’s chief financial officer for Africa and Asia.
Making Meaningful Connections in Houston
Ukrainian and Hungarian Jews, Israelis, and American Jewish leaders converged on Houston for the first-ever Global Symposium in Texas, organized by JDC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston on November 1.
Well over 100 community members gathered together, joined by people from as far as New Orleans and Dallas. JDC Board member Martha Freedman and Robin Stein co-chaired the event, and leaders from Houston and beyond — like JDC’s President-elect Stan Rabin, Beth Osher del Pico, Carol Goldberg, Debra Cohen, Buzzy Bluestone, and JDC Entwine leader Eric Barvin — presented movingly about their own meaningful interactions with Jews and JDC work around the world.
The day began with a conversation between Alan Gill, JDC’s Executive Vice President and CEO, and Lee Wunsch, Executive Director of the Houston Federation, about challenges facing Jews around the world. Wunsch presented Gill with a surprise gift in recognition of his outstanding service to the Jewish people.
Masha Shumyatsky, a small-framed young woman from Eastern Ukraine, brought the discussion home with her personal story of wartime displacement, with her own astounding activism with peers aimed to help elderly Jews in Ukraine even less fortunate, and finally with her impassioned thank you to American Jews who are not leaving her alone in this struggle.
Jutka Lubeck similarly wowed the audience with her courageous story of building Jewish community in her hometown of Budapest and beyond through her work at the JDC/Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp at Szarvas, perhaps the greatest single symbol of hope and generational change in Europe today. Some people say she is naive, Jutka said, but this is the first time in generations Jews can be proud and are able to build on a real foundation — and she and her friends and JDC colleagues are seizing this opportunity.
JDC’s Asher Ostrin echoed and expanded the theme, speaking about an historic moment when Jewish history and fate is in our hands together — including in Houston.
Why would we turn our backs now?
Rebecca Neuwirth is the Director of Strategic Engagement and a Senior Development Officer at JDC.
Helping Syrian Refugees Study and Smile in Turkey
Last week, I had the privilege of working with our partner International Blue Crescent (IBC) and Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, president of Turkey’s Jewish community. We were in Gaziantep, Turkey’s sixth-largest city with about 1.25 million people and now the home of an estimated 250,000 Syrian refugees.
IBC runs five schools and child-friendly centers across the city in areas where refugees have settled. The school we visited today has about about 700 Syrian children between grades one and 10. They study each day from 3 to 7 p.m. after Turkish school kids have vacated the building and are instructed by Syrian teachers who are certified to teach a Syrian curriculum in the Turkish language.
Ibrahimzadeh, a trained engineer, taught an algebra lesson to a group of 14-year-old Syrian girls from Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus; most in the group had arrived in Gaziantep over the last 18 months, when life in their homeland became unbearable.
“We call them refugees, but each has a name and deserves a peaceful home, even though Turkey creates miracles,” Ibrahimzadeh told me.
The Turkish Jewish community has an ongoing relationship with IBC and helped us on this visit by checking the school supply kits we provided to refugees. The community contributed to JDC’s response to the 2011 earthquake in Van, Turkey, and continues to fund the school and even provide some scholarships to outstanding students looking to study in one of western Turkey’s universities.
I am very impressed by our partners. IBC has top-notch development professionals on the ground across the region, and cutting-edge models such as Child-Friendly Spaces and dedicated school administrators work to ensure each Syrian refugee child has access to a quality education.
I met an English teacher named Muhammad who came to Gaziantep from Aleppo 17 months ago. Before coming to Turkey, life in Syria was like this: “You could wake up one morning, and your neighbors were gone and their house bombed.”
“Every day was more and more dangerous, and it was only a question of time when something terrible on your own doorstep,” he told me. “I left and took my wife and five children with me. Now that we’re in Turkey, thank G-d we are able to help these children study and smile.”
Traveling here with our community partners helps me understand the impact our support has. The Jewish community in Turkey is moved to help and will continue to augment our efforts by supporting the schools.
Sam Amiel is a senior member of JDC’s disaster response team.
JDC Responds to the South Asia Earthquake
In the wake of a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake in South Asia – impacting Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan – JDC has made two emergency grants to partners who will provide medical and emergency aid in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In addition to the grants to the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute and International Blue Crescent, experts from our Disaster Relief and India teams are consulting with local and global partners to assess damage as the situation unfolds and ensure survivors’ immediate needs are addressed. Donations can be made at .
“As we anxiously await details on the tragic loss of life and extent of the damage in South Asia, we are drawing on our vast experience, network of partners, and standing presence in the region to deploy a speedy Jewish response that ensures relief to survivors at their time of need,” CEO Alan H. Gill said.
The earthquake hit northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border and caused large tremors in India, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan. News reports suggest widespread damage and a growing death toll.
JDC provides immediate relief and long-term assistance to victims of natural and manmade disasters around the globe, including Nepal, the Philippines, Haiti, Japan, and South Asia after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and continues to rebuild infrastructure and community life in disaster-stricken regions.
JDC’s disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. JDC coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction, and the United Nations.
Celebrating 10 Years of Limmud Keshet Bulgaria
Over the past 10 years, Limmud Keshet here in Bulgaria has changed significantly. Every year, we see more and more sessions – but what’s more important is that every year more and more volunteers want to be a part of Limmud.
People understand the meaning of “community” even better than they did 10 years ago, too. The faces in the conference halls of Limmud are no longer new, people are no longer strangers, and even if people don’t know each other, that wouldn’t stop them from sitting at the same table for lunch and starting a conversation. That’s not something that was common 10 years ago.
This year, Limmud was attended by about 600 people. About 170 of them were children under the age of 18. There were children’s programs all day and all night long, so parents could attend sessions and workshops, or even just mingle with one another.
For the second year in a row, there was a special “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) initiative. There were three options for participants to choose from. About 150 people spread into the mountains, with some clearing a mountain path and others painting signs for the trail. A third group of about 30 teenagers went to an orphanage, where they spent half a day playing with the kids. They also brought board games that many Limmud participants brought as gifts in advance.
The Shabbat atmosphere, though unique, has also become a Limmud tradition. Whether it’s a mother who wants to show her daughter how to do it, or a grandfather proud of what he sees, people really anticipate the moment of candle-lighting. Whether or not it’s a tradition people do at their homes every week, they always look forward to the moment they can do it together at Limmud.
Havdallah has also become one of the most powerful moments of the event, as it’s not too frequent that 600 people come together to sing a prayer. This year, Havdallah was even more special as it marked the transition from Shabbat to a gala devoted to Limmud’s 10th anniversary. Gymnastics, singing, and dancing marked the end of the 10th Limmud Keshet Bulgaria with a lot of emotion.
Just before leaving the conference, during a feedback session, a young family shared with me that they were thrilled by their first Limmud experience.
“We expected to be on a holiday and maybe attend a couple of sessions, but instead are leaving more tired than we came because we didn’t want to miss anything,” the father said. “The program was amazing. We made new friends, and our daughter was also happy with the children’s program. It felt like it went by so quickly.”
He and his wife have already signed up as volunteers for next year’s session.
Julia Dandolova is JDC’s country director in Bulgaria.