Founded in 1914 to assist Palestinian Jews caught in the throes of World War I, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has aided millions of Jews in more than 85 countries.
The Early Years
In the fall of 1914, Henry Morgenthau, then United States Ambassador to Turkey, cabled Louis Marshall and Jacob H. Schiff in New York requesting $50,000 to save the Palestinian Jews (then under Turkish rule) from starvation. By November, the funds were raised, and JDC was formed to distribute them to needy Jews in Palestine and in war-torn Europe.
World War I ended in 1918, but the suffering of European Jews continued. The aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought new outbreaks of anti-Semitic hostility in Russia and Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in pogroms and from disease and famine. Those who survived found their homes destroyed and their economic and social institutions in ruins.
JDC helped local Jewish communities establish relief programs and new health and child care facilities in Poland and Russia. We also supported religious, cultural and educational institutions. In 1921, JDC began working through local agencies to make Jewish communities self-supporting. We helped establish more than 300 locally operated Eastern European cooperative credit unions to assist Jewish-owned businesses.
Meanwhile, Agro-Joint – working with the Soviet government as it resettled some 600,000 Jews in the Ukraine and the Crimea – trained them to work as farmers. Agro-Joint was expelled from the USSR in 1938.
World War II
As Hitler consolidated power between 1933 and 1939, JDC accelerated its aid to German Jewry. JDC helped 250,000 Jews flee Germany and 125,000 to leave Austria. As German armies approached Paris in 1940, JDC transferred its offices to Lisbon. From there, we helped thousands escape from Europe. JDC maintained thousands more in hiding throughout the war. JDC aid reached Jewish prisoners in labor battalions in France. Some 250,000 packages from Teheran sustained Polish and Ukrainian Jews in Asiatic Russia. Supplies were parachuted to Yugoslavia, and funds were smuggled to the Polish Jewish underground.
JDC supported refugee resettlement efforts in Latin America and organized a relief program in Shanghai for more than 20,000 refugees. After Pearl Harbor, JDC channeled aid to Jews in occupied Europe and Shanghai through connections its Swiss office had established with neutral embassies and the International Red Cross.
Late in 1944, JDC entered Europe’s liberated areas and organized a massive relief effort. By the end of 1947, some 700,000 Jews received aid from JDC. More than 250,000 of them lived in Displaced Persons (DP) camps operated by JDC. JDC’s retraining programs helped people in DP camps learn trades that would enable them to earn a living, while its cultural and religious activities helped re-establish Jewish life.
JDC funding helped Jewish refugees leave Europe. We opened an office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to assist Holocaust survivors immigrating to South America. Our contributions enabled 115,000 refugees to reach Palestine before 1948.
In May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence. JDC, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, helped some 440,000 Jews to reach Israel from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Many of these new immigrants were too old or infirm to build new lives. JDC established JDC/MALBEN for their care and also provided services to the physically and mentally disabled in Israel.
JDC organized welfare programs for Jews in North Africa and the Middle East in 1949 and later assisted in the evacuation of Jews from Iraq and Yemen. We continue to fund health, welfare and educational programs for those who remained, a population that has dwindled over the years.
In Western Europe, JDC helped local organizations assist the devastated communities restore Jewish life, train new leadership and revive communal institutions. With onset of the Cold War, JDC was expelled from most countries of Eastern Europe but was able to provide indirect assistance to Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
Few could predict the changes that the 1960s and 1970s would bring. In 1962, JDC began working in India, assisting the Jewish poor and working to strengthen Jewish life. In 1967, JDC was invited back to Romania, primarily to help the community provide for its needy elderly and to sustain Jewish religious life.
In Israel, JDC began its evolution from a direct service operator of programs for disadvantaged new immigrants to a catalyst for societal change.
In 1969, JDC, in partnership with the government, established ESHEL, the Association for Planning & Developing Services for the Aged. ESHEL has helped develop comprehensive services for the aged that serve as models for communities around the Jewish world. JDC was also instrumental in establishing a network of American-model community centers that have helped integrate all sectors of Israeli society.
In 1975, we established the JDC-Brookdale Institute. Today, it is the world’s leading Jewish center for applied research on aging, health policy, disability, and children and youth.
The mid-1970s brought the loosening of barriers to Soviet Jewish emigration. While thousands of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel, others disembarked during stopovers in Italy hoping to start new lives in the West. They were housed in Ladispoli, outside Rome, until they could obtain visas to Western countries. For more than a decade, JDC provided these transmigrants with relief and welfare services, and religious and cultural programming.
In 1983, the Ethiopian government granted JDC permission to establish a nonsectarian program in the Gondar region, where most Ethiopian Jews lived. Later, in the early 1990s, JDC provided aid to tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews as they awaited aliyah. We also were key players in “Operation Solomon,” the massive airlift of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in May 1991.
JDC launched the International Development Program in 1986. Over the years, this nonsectarian program has provided development aid and disaster relief in Europe, Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union and Latin America.
During the 1980s, JDC was able to return to many countries in Eastern Europe. Since then, we have helped local communities develop welfare services for their needy elderly and community centers that offer a range of cultural and religious programs for Jews of all ages.
JDC returned to the Soviet Union in 1988. We immediately initiated programs of cultural and religious renewal, and, within a year, we were providing welfare relief to thousands of destitute elderly Jews. JDC also launched a program to train local Jewish activists and helped them develop communal organizations that would orchestrate welfare and Jewish renewal programs. Today, JDC-supported welfare programs reach 250,000 needy elderly in more than 2,600 cities and towns, and Jews of all ages participate in cultural and educational programs, holiday celebrations and other communal activities.
In 1991, the Cuban government lifted restrictions on religious practice. Since then, JDC has been providing badly needed food and medical supplies and has fostered the revival of religious and communal life for Cuba’s 1,500 Jews.
In Israel today, JDC’s top priority is responding to the Matsav that threatens Israel’s existence. As we develop and launch emergency assistance programs such as "Keep Our Children Safe," we continue to provide strategic intervention that focuses on protection of children and teens; care for the elderly; aid for vulnerable immigrant populations; research and development of social services; promoting philanthropy and volunteerism and project management for donors.
We also are responding aggressively to the economic crisis in Argentina that has left more than 40,000 Argentine Jews destitute and in urgent need of direct welfare assistance. Using a multileveled approach, JDC is supervising and coordinating allocations of food, shelter, medications and clothing to the most needy Jews through Social Assistance Centers and the Volunteer Network; providing relief and welfare to the elderly; establishing programs for small business development and job opportunities, and working to increase the fund-raising capacity of the local community.
And, of course, we are continuing our work in the former Soviet Union and in all those countries where Jewish communities need our support.