JDC head talks in S.F. about assisting world Jewry

After traveling the world on behalf of distressed Jews, Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has come to believe that all poor families' kitchens look alike.

"In every country, it's the same: The smell…the broken linoleum on the kitchen floor…the dirty sacks of rotting potatoes…the little jug of milk, probably going sour…the stale loaf of bread. This is what impoverished Jews are living on," said Schneider, who was in San Francisco recently to update the Jewish community about the organization's work. He was accompanied by JDC President Jonathan Kolker

During their San Francisco stop, the first in a string of visits across the United States, the two delivered a lecture on "Rescue and Relief Operations Around the World." The talk, held at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation offices, capped a day of briefings that included a breakfast discussion with young Jewish community leaders and an afternoon taping of the KPIX-TV show "Mosaic."

A beneficiary agency of the JCF, the JDC serves as the overseas arm of the American Jewish community, sponsoring programs of relief, rescue and reconstruction — which Kolker proudly calls the three r's — in Israel and around the world.

"We're like the 911 of the Jewish world," said Kolker, explaining that for more than 80 years, the JDC has served on every continent, assisting more than 85 countries.

One of JDC's current aims, said Schneider, is strengthening Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, where the post-communist economic collapse has led to a collapse in pension systems.

"The elderly simply cannot afford food, medicine or medical equipment. We have a massive program under way to bring these items to them, but we need to raise additional funds," he said.

Dramatically displaying a box filled with food, he slowly pulled out packages of rice, sugar, dried chickpeas, tea, pasta, lentils and condensed milk.

"We give food like this to every Jew who needs it, at least six times a year. So far, we've distributed 400,000 boxes."

In addition to the food distribution program, the JDC has also helped establish an array of communal services in the former Soviet Union, from cultural and religious programs to a growing number of social service systems.

"We're pleased with what we've been able to accomplish there. But we remain aware that for every elderly Jew whom we've identified and are helping, there are at least two more who are not being reached and are no less deserving of aid," Kolker conceded.

In Eastern European countries struggling with "vast economic and political changes," Kolker said the JDC provides life-sustaining assistance to some 9,000 elderly and infirm Holocaust survivors while helping both young and old renew their Jewish heritage.

In Argentina, emergency relief operations initiated by the JDC following the July 1994 terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires continue, with the focus now shifting to a variety of long-term reconstruction efforts.

"It wasn't just the building that was wiped out," said Kolker. "The leadership of the Jewish community was also destroyed."

In Cuba, where "three years ago you couldn't find a minyan," Schneider reported that the Jewish community has nearly tripled in size since official restrictions on religious practices were relaxed and the JDC paved the way for a revitalization of Jewish life.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the JDC is playing a key role in the absorption of Ethiopians and other immigrants while providing social services for seniors and disadvantaged individuals.

"We launch pilot programs which are then taken over by the Israeli government. The secret of our success is that we are nonpolitical, so we can work with changing governments," said Schneider, joking that "we are the only ones who during an election neither mourn nor rejoice."

While less well-known for their efforts among non-Jews, the JDC has also created a refugee camp in Somalia and a 500-bed hospital in Rwanda. During the height of war in Sarajevo, the organization ran 14 convoys — including one in which nearly 300 people of all ethnic groups were evacuated — and became the biggest supplier of medicine there.

However, Schneider maintained: "Our main goal is that no Jew should go to bed at night hungry or cold or without shelter. But, bearing in mind Jewish history, I say this with an optimistic yet wary point of view."