Many people in the Louisville Jewish community remember Alexandra Shklar fondly. She worked in the community as a shlicha, an emissary from Israel, for several years. It was an exciting time, because during her tenure, we celebrated Israel at 60 with a whole series of events from concerts to festivals. So when Shklar returned to the city on January 12, it was a real treat.
Shklar’s visit, however, was not just a pleasant trip down memory lane. Today, she works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as an International Relations Associate. Now based in New York, she travels frequently to Jewish communities around North America to share information about the life-changing work JDC does.
Shklar and her family are among the many who were helped by JDC. Born in Ukraine, JDC helped her immediate family survive in the former Soviet state and helped prepare them to make aliyah to Israel. Today, Shklar said, she still has family in Ukraine and Siberia and they are receiving help from JDC every day.
In 1914, she explained, JDC was founded by Henry Morgenthau and Jacob Schiff as a short term project to help Jews in Palestine cope with famine and dire conditions. Now more than 100 years later, JDC is still saying yes to calls for help from Jews in over 70 countries. JDC defines its mission as rescue, relief, renewal and enhancement of Israel’s social services and providing nonsectarian disaster relief.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world live in dire poverty, she said, without water, heat, or indoor bathrooms, often trying to survive on less than $100 a month and many have no family to help them.
In the early 1990’s, JDC went into the former Soviet Union (FSU) with a short term project in mind: provide a few books and establish Jewish libraries. When they arrived, they found extensive poverty. In fact, Shklar said, they found the poorest Jews in the world with limited access to social and human services and even food.
Of course JDC stayed and began a series of programs that provide assistance for food, medicine, heat and much more. JDC established Cheseds as service delivery portals, and they have become such an important part of the fabric of communities there that the word Chesed is now an official word in the Russian dictionary. Tonya, a Jewish woman Shklar met in Tbilisi, Georgia, told her, “I’m only alive because I’m Jewish.”
Shklar told of a Chesed in Ukraine that provides help to Jews in small villages within a 7 hour radius of its base. Those villages are each home to only 1 to 16 Jews, but JDC is there.
Originally JDC delivered food boxes to the needy. Today, they have modernized the process and Jews in need are given food cards that they can take to the grocery story and use to purchase goods of their choice.
In addition to the frail elderly, Shklar reported that today, JDC serves 35,000 children and young families in Eastern Europe and the FSU.
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation, and Shklar described it as a chronic crisis. There are about 350,000 Jews in Ukraine, she reported, and 7,000 remain in the war zone. About 3,000 have fled and are now internally displaced within Ukraine or Russia. This is the highest number of Jewish refugees since World War II.
JDC is there to help with housing, food and jobs. The organization also provides counseling for seniors who feel like they are back in World War II and for the younger people who never experienced the stress of war themselves and respite in the form of organized gatherings that allow people to eat, socialize, dance and forget the war for a few hours.
To fulfill the renewal part of its mission, JDC works to reconnect Jewish people and communities to the global Jewish community. Shklar cited several examples from Russia, Cuba, Morocco and Eastern Europe.
In Israel, poverty is a problem. Shklar said 1.8 million men, women and children in Israel live below the poverty line and one in three Israeli children is poor. There are 750,000 chronically unemployed, largely ultra-Orthodox and Arab. In addition, 30 percent of Israel’s elderly live in poverty.
Among the ultra-Orthodox, Shklar explained, the men study for years, but in studying Torah, they don’t acquire the skills they need to make them employable. JDC has established employment centers that provide subsidized training programs and help with placements, entry jobs and career advancement.
When the Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel, they had many issues in acculturating to their new homeland. At first, 78 percent of the Ethiopian children didn’t make it to the first grade. JDC established the PACT program (Parents and Children Together) which allowed parents and children to learn together. Today, only 2 percent of Ethiopian children don’t make it to the first grade, a statistic that is consistent with the rest of Israel.
JDC also works with the handicapped and elderly by creating centers for independent living and supportive communities.
During the Second Lebanon War, JDC developed a stuffed animal named Chibuki (Huggy) to help children deal with stress. The dolls have long arms that wrap around a child’s neck. Each child is told that the doll is afraid and the children try to comfort it. The children’s interactions with the dolls give the analyst information about the kind of trauma the children have experienced.
The dolls have been so successful that JDC is now exporting them to Japan.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world, is also a big part of JDC’s work. Whenever there is a big disaster, JDC runs special campaigns to raise money and allocates money to allow a quick and appropriate response. JDC provided boats following flooding in Sri Lanka and a rehab center for amputees in Haiti.
Campaign Chair Leon Wahba and Ariel Kornenberg told those in attendance that the important work JDC does is supported by the Federation Annual Campaign. They encouraged people to give generously and reminded them that everyone has a chance to double the impact of their gift through the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence Challenge. Whenever someone makes a new gift or increases their gift over the amount they gave last year, it will be matched, up to $200,000. Lior Yaron introduced Shklar. Ariel and Faina Kronenberg hosted the event.