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Mission, Meaning, and MoneyHow the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator
By Mark I. Rosen
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Brandeis University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFunding the Work of JDC - An Early History
The Origins of JDC
At the time of the outbreak of World War I in 1914, there were approximately 10 million Jews living in Eastern Europe and 85,000 Jews in Palestine. Conditions for these Jews were already difficult, but once the war began, the level of suffering went from difficult to calamitous as they endured homelessness, persecution, hunger, and disease. Circumstances were especially desperate in Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Turkey. Aligned with Germany, Turkey had cut ties to the West. Palestine's Jews were starving as the result of a blockade and were being attacked regularly.
Although there were a multitude of different Jewish organizations at the time in the United States providing overseas assistance, each Jewish organization focused on its own particular Jewish group, and each operated independently without coordinating its efforts with other rescue and relief organizations. Only an urgent request from the U.S. ambassador to Turkey began to rectify these divisions, resulting in the creation of what would eventually be known as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
On August 31, 1914, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who was a Jew, sent a Western Union cable to Jacob Schiff, a prominent philanthropist who held a leadership role with the American Jewish Committee. The cable read:
Schiff, with the assistance of the American Jewish Committee, arranged for the funds to be delivered in cash to Palestine. However, even though AJC played a central role in providing aid, the organization recognized its limitations. AJC membership consisted primarily of wealthy German Jews in banking, business, law, and medicine who were affiliated with Reform Judaism. They recognized that they were not representative of American Jews, who had emigrated from a number of different countries and whose religious orientation ranged from Orthodox to atheist. AJC could not address the overseas situation alone. In view of the many relief organizations that existed and the scope of the problems created by the war, AJC saw that only a cooperative framework for relief could address the enormous needs of the time and represent and reach all of the different types of Jews overseas who needed assistance.
Accordingly, on October 25, 1914, AJC convened a group of representatives from 40 national Jewish organizations, resulting in the formation of the American Jewish Relief Committee to raise funds for overseas Jews. However, despite the broad representation, the newly-formed Relief Committee still did not include every Jewish group. Shortly before the AJC meeting, a group of Orthodox Jews with Eastern European origins founded their own organization to address the situation created by the war, which they called the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War. The Orthodox group chose not to join the Relief Committee.
The Relief Committee and the Central Committee needed a way to disburse the funds they raised to those in need, so on November 27, 1914, yet another organization was created, the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers. The first chair of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was Felix Warburg, Jacob Schiff's son-in-law.
In 1915, the Relief Committee and the Central Committee were joined by a new fundraising organization formed by socialist labor groups, the People's Relief Committee. Each of these groups worked diligently to obtain donations from their respective Jewish constituencies, introducing the idea of mass philanthropy to American Jewry. Almost every Jew gave something. By the end of the war, the three organizations had managed to raise over $16 million ($324 million in present-day dollars) which was then distributed by the Joint Distribution Committee.
Initially, the role of JDC was simply to disburse money to existing relief agencies. However, once the United States entered the war in 1917, JDC had to contend with the political complexities of getting money into countries controlled by Germany, since Germany and the United States were now enemies. JDC's role expanded, and it developed creative strategies to get around the restrictions it faced.
Since JDC, which at this point was comprised entirely of volunteers, was not burdened by fundraising responsibilities, it was able to focus on determining where in Europe and Palestine the money was most needed. Jewish needs were overwhelming. Polish Jews were beset by starvation, homelessness, and pogroms. There were epidemics in the Ukraine, and several hundred thousand Jewish children were now orphans. The Bolshevik Revolution created dislocation and turmoil for Russian Jews. In Lithuania, a number of Jewish shtetls had been obliterated. Romania and Austria were flooded by Jewish refugees.
Despite the fact that it was a newly-formed ad hoc organization, JDC, working closely with American and European relief agencies, took on the enormous task of caring for Jews in need by creating soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages, and sending convoys of food, clothing, and medicine to besieged areas. They also provided nonsectarian relief, particularly in Poland, in order to dampen anti-Semitism.
After the war, the Joint Distribution Committee expanded its mission beyond rescue and relief to include the reconstruction of Jewish communities. JDC helped rebuild schools, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions; created a tracing service to reunite families; offered vocational training; and provided interest-free loans. Following the Russian Revolution, over the course of a number of years, JDC helped hundreds of thousands of Jews to resettle in the Crimea and the Ukraine, where they received training as farmers through a program known as Agro-Joint.
Throughout the war and thereafter, cooperation among the various elements of the American Jewish community improved, although relations were by no means harmonious. While the pressing need of the time was undoubtedly a factor, much of the progress resulted from the ongoing efforts of JDC chairman Felix Warburg, a compassionate humanitarian who worked hard to keep the focus on those who were suffering. Although Warburg's leadership style was not democratic, his personal warmth and candor engendered trust among the various factions with whom he worked.
From the outset, JDC was intended to be a temporary organization, run by Warburg and a small core group of volunteers, which operated according to certain basic principles:
JDC was apolitical. It did not take sides in various disputes among Jews or between Jews and non-Jews. JDC avoided creating long-term dependency relationships with Jews in need. The goal was to provide initial relief and then help create and/or strengthen local institutions that could provide ongoing assistance. JDC supported the right of Jews to remain in the countries of their birth or adoption. Although they promoted the right to emigrate, they did not advocate for it. JDC maintained that governments should assume their proper share of responsibility in providing aid to their citizenry. JDC's core group of volunteers-and only the core-closely supervised the programs and agencies that were selected for support. This principle was somewhat controversial and led to a perception that JDC was paternalistic and not receptive to oversight by others. However, given the ever-changing war circumstances that JDC faced, the rapid responses that were often necessary, and the divisions that existed between religious and secular Jews, this principle gave JDC a great deal of flexibility in emergency situations because its decisions were not complicated and delayed by the need for consultations and democratic votes.
JDC operated under the assumption that it would be disbanded once the wartime emergency ended. By 1921, emergency operations in Europe came to an end, but despite JDC's successful relief efforts, Jewish suffering had not ended. Circumstances were especially difficult for Jews in Poland, which at the time had the world's largest Jewish community.
Each time one crisis abated, another arose. So instead of dissolving, JDC began hiring professional staff, often seeking individuals with a background in social work. In 1925, JDC hired its first professional administrator and reorganized itself according to the different types of aid it provided. By 1931, JDC was finally established as a formal legal entity, adopting its current name, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Competition for Dollars: JDC Versus the Zionists
JDC's major focus in its early years was Europe, although it provided considerable resources to Palestine as well. The major donors and supporters of JDC, many of whom were non-religious German Jews, were proud Americans and while sympathetic to and supportive of Jews in Palestine, were not especially sympathetic to Zionism. They felt that the Zionist dream was a fantasy and that Jews should live everywhere. European Zionists, in contrast, fervently sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine and felt it was the obligation of all Jews to relocate there.
The disparate ideologies sometimes generated intense conflicts between JDC leadership and Zionist leadership. In particular, Chaim Weizmann, a British scientist who would subsequently become the first president of the State of Israel, felt strongly that the money being invested in Agro-Joint and other reconstruction projects in Europe by JDC was being wasted and should be spent on Jews in Palestine.
In 1925, the United Palestine Appeal (UPA), a central fundraising body for Palestine, was created by American Zionists, largely as a way to compete with the highly effective fundraising tactics used to generate resources for JDC. In much the same way that the American Jewish Relief Committee had, in 1914, united various fundraising organizations focused on Europe, the UPA united several disparate fundraising organizations that were raising money for Jews in Palestine, such as Hadassah, Hebrew University, and the Jewish National Fund. Money collected by the UPA in the United States was then sent to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which had operated as the de facto government for Jews in Palestine since 1923, and to the World Zionist Organization.
Over the next four years, JDC and UPA competed fiercely for donors and dollars while attempting to negotiate some modicum of cooperation. To change this dynamic, the Jewish Agency for Palestine expanded in 1929 to include American Jews who were not committed Zionists.
Felix Warburg was among the new members of the administrative committee. The hope was that this new arrangement would create greater collaboration. Indeed, a $6 million joint fundraising campaign between JDC and the UPA was undertaken in 1930. The plan was that $3.5 million would go to JDC, and $2.5 million would go to UPA. Unfortunately, it was the time of the Great Depression, and the united campaign failed to raise the desired amount. The two organizations went their separate ways again for the next three years.
With tensions rising in Germany, in 1934, at the urging of the leaders of several Jewish communities, the two organizations once again tried to raise money together under a new name, the United Jewish Appeal. This time, the money was to be split according to a prearranged allocation formula, 55 percent for JDC and 45 percent for the UPA. As had been the case several years earlier, the results were disappointing, with each organization raising less than it had done on its own. Nevertheless, they agreed to try joint fundraising again in 1935. This campaign was also not successful.
Despite the poor results, the collaborative fundraising model was appealing. From the perspective of the two organizations, collaborative fundraising meant that they did not need to have separate fundraising personnel, and the same donors did not have to be visited by several different people. The downside of the arrangement was that individual donors could no longer specify whether their money went to Palestine or Europe. In addition, the formula for the "split" was an ongoing source of tension between the two organizations.
Despite a number of attempts, joint fundraising efforts repeatedly yielded less than the two organizations had been able to raise separately, and the sought-after degree of cooperation between JDC and UPA did not occur. Simultaneously, with the rise of Nazism in Germany, JDC became increasingly focused on the growing threat to Jews in Europe, and Zionists became more intent on establishing a Jewish state in Palestine as a refuge. Most of the American non-Zionists who had joined the Jewish Agency for Palestine ended up dropping out, and the two organizations resumed their separate and competing fundraising efforts. The United Jewish Appeal was dissolved in 1935.
The Rising Threat of Nazi Germany
Most of the funds raised for JDC during the 1930s were used to help Jews escape oppression in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. JDC provided travel expenses, food, shelter, and medical care and helped emigrants obtain scarce seats on ships and trains. By the end of 1939, JDC had helped more than 100,000 individuals emigrate to more than 40 countries, despite the reluctance of most countries to take in Jewish immigrants.
Initially, JDC did not view Palestine as a priority destination for emigrants because of JDC's apolitical stance and donor orientation toward Zionism. Beginning in 1937, the British placed restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine, and JDC's policy of not promoting illegal immigration meant that sponsorship of Palestine as a haven was even more problematic.
Not all Jews were willing or able to leave Germany, and JDC provided aid to those who stayed as well. JDC offered vocational training to those who could no longer practice their professions and loans to those in financial distress. It also created a school system for Jewish children who could no longer attend Germany's public schools.
It took a devastating pogrom in 1938 in Nazi Germany to bring the separate fundraising efforts of JDC and the United Palestine Appeal back together again. Kristallnacht, which took place over two evenings in Germany and parts of Austria, resulted in over 1,200 synagogues being ransacked and 250 burned. Approximately 8,000 Jewish businesses were vandalizedandlooted,and30,000Jewishmenwereforciblysent to concentration camps. The climate for Jews was ominous.
The Federation System and the United Jewish Appeal
Following Kristallnacht, the Zionists reluctantly acknowledged that not all persecuted Jews could escape to Palestine, and given the serious situation in Europe, JDC became more willing to help those who did want to emigrate to Palestine in spite of the complications. In 1939, JDC and UPA agreed to participate in a joint fundraising effort, the United Jewish Appeal for Refugee and Overseas Needs.
The federation system was the driving force behind the creation of this revived version of the United Jewish Appeal. In 1939, 225 American Jewish communities either had a formalized federation or a centralized fundraising campaign, depending upon the size of the community. The federation model had come into existence at the end of the 19th century so that many different Jewish community organizations could receive funds through a single, centralized fundraising function.
The umbrella organization uniting the federations and fundraising groups was the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), established in 1932. It was the CJF that pushed for the creation of the United Jewish Appeal, since it saw the value of a single, national campaign for overseas needs with the potential to be more efficient and raise more money. An allocation committee with JDC, UPA, and CJF representation agreed to a fixed amount that each would receive. Any additional money raised would be distributed by the allocations committee.
The 1939 UJA campaign generated over $16 million (almost $237 million in present-day dollars) and was considered a success, since for the first time it raised more than the individual organizations had managed to raise on their own. As a result, the UJA campaign was renewed again for 1940. However, before JDC agreed to participate in the new campaign, it insisted on a change in the allocation formula to a 75/25 split between JDC and UPA, with JDC receiving the larger share. JDC also wanted permission to solicit designated gifts which would go to specific countries.
Excerpted from Mission, Meaning, and Money by Mark I. Rosen Copyright © 2010 by Brandeis University. Excerpted by permission.
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