JDC leader to discuss agency’s global reach

David Schizer, CEO of JDC, talks with campers at the JDC-Lauder Szarvas International Jewish Summer Camp in Hungary.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

David M, Schizer, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and a former law school dean, will discuss the global reach of his overseas agency at the Jewish Federation’s Shma Listen! Speakers Series on Sunday, Oct. 8 (see infobox for details).

Schizer’s topic will be:  “Global  Respon-siblity:  The Work of the JDC,” in which he will discuss JDC’s mission of saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life. 

Founded in 1914, JDC is a major overseas beneficiary of funds raised by Jewish Federations around the world, including the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.  The scope of JDC’s work is truly global in scope, though Schizer’s talk will concentrate primarily on its work in the former Soviet Union and Israel and the challenges and opportunities JDC is facing in 2018.

A native of Brooklyn, Schizer was 35 years old when he became dean of the Columbia University Law School, becoming the youngest in its history. 

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Schizer has been  actively engaged in leadership positions  in Jewish communal life as well.  He was president of America’s Voice in Israel, co-director of Columbia’s Center for Israeli Legal Studies, and a member of the board of directors of the famous 92nd Street Y and the Ramaz School.  He also served previously on the boards of Natan and Columbia-Barnard-Hillel and a senior adviser to the Tikvah Fund.

Schizer holds undergraduate, graduate and law degrees from Yale.  He clerked for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Schizer and his wife, Meredith, reside in Manhattan with their three children.

The Jewish Light caught up with Schizer for an interview in advance of his visit to St. Louis.

What is the purpose of your upcoming visit to St. Louis?  Is it part of a national tour of North American cities? 

JDC has close partnerships with Jewish Federations, and I enjoy spending time with them to talk about the work we do together overseas.  I also have a personal reason. Ruth Raskas, one of the leaders of the Federation, was my wife’s roommate in college, and is a dear friend. 

You have an impressive background in law, including as the former dean of the Columbia University Law School.  What made you decide to take on the JDC? 

The truth is, they approached me, but it was not hard to persuade me.  JDC’s mission of saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life is really inspiring.  We have such an amazing impact across the globe.  It’s an opportunity – for me, and for anyone – to help the poorest Jews in the world (elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union) to develop new ways to deliver social services in Israel, to revive Jewish communal life in places where it was dormant for decades, and much more.  Like in the movie “Jerry McGuire,” they “had me at hello.” 

Your talk will focus on JDC’s work in the former Soviet Union and Israel. Is JDC still involved in providing overseas assistance in other regions, such as the Arab and Islamic world, Africa and Latin America?

Absolutely.  JDC works in 70 countries around the globe.  For example, we are working on disaster relief in the Caribbean and Cuba in response to Hurricane Irma, as well as in Mexico in response to the devastating earthquake that happened right before Rosh Hashanah. 

We also work with Jewish communities in places like Tunisia and India, partnering with them to care for their neediest members, innovate Jewish education, and develop a new generation of Jewish leaders. 

 We also help Jewish communities in Europe respond to the threat of terrorism, and we have a longstanding partnership with the Jewish community in Venezuela, which like their neighbors, is coping with a dire economic situation.

Talk about JDC’s work providing assistance to Holocaust survivors. 

This is one of JDC’s fundamental responsibilities.  We dedicate nearly a third of our budget caring for more than 100,000 needy elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.  They live on pensions of as little as $2 per day.  Nearly half of these clients are Holocaust survivors. We provide food, medicine, and home care through our network of chesed social welfare centers. We also care for Holocaust survivors in Central and Eastern Europe by supporting the efforts of local Jewish communities. All of this critical work — caring for people who endured the double trauma of the Holocaust and Communist persecution — is made possible through the Claims Conference, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and our Federation partners like the one here in St. Louis.

Regarding JDC’s work in the former Soviet Union—how many Jews remain in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the other major states that were part of the USSR?

There are about 1 million Jews in the former Soviet Union today, with the majority living in both Russia and Ukraine. They are part of vibrant Jewish communities that we have helped rebuild after the Soviet campaign to decimate Jewish communities, religious life, and Jewish identity. From Odessa to St. Petersburg, and everywhere in between, you find generations of Jews engaging in holiday celebrations at their local JCC, going to synagogue, or volunteering to help the neediest in their community. When in Odessa recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of young Jews at a youth club at the Beit Grand JCC, which JDC established. When I asked them how often they met, they immediately answered,  “every day,” as if that was perfectly obvious.  One of them touched a table and noted his pride in coming to “our building” to learn about Jewish culture and to work to build Jewish community in his city. 


What kind of work does JDC do in Israel itself?  Has the emphasis changed over the years?

JDC’s role in Israel, since JDC was founded in 1914, is to address the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. Today, we are the social innovation hub of the Israeli government, working with them, at-risk populations, and NGOs to improve social services and make sure all Israelis can partake in their country’s resounding economic and educational successes. We research social problems like unemployment, design new social service models to address these challenges, and test them.  The Israeli government relies on our creativity and expertise, and covers about 75 percent of the cost.  If these pilots are successful, the Israeli government takes them over and scales them up to address these issues nationwide. This means our funders get amazing leverage and impact.  A modest investment — matched three to one by the government — can transform the way social services are delivered.  

Looking ahead,  what do you think will be the biggest challenges facing JDC in the future?

Of the most critical challenges we are facing, care for needy Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union will continue to be a top priority well into the future.  The infrastructure we use to help these clients, who are the poorest Jews in the world, has been funded largely by Holocaust reparations, which we leverage with Federation, IFCJ, and other dollars.

But as Holocaust survivors die, reparations funding declines, and will run out in the next 10 or 15 years. Therefore, we are adjusting our care model now to ensure we can continue to help needy Jews in the former Soviet Union, who literally have no other safety net to sustain them. As we approach Yom Kippur, I am reminded of the plight of these people, of our responsibility to them, and can think of no greater obligation than to care for Jews who cannot live without our help. 

How can American Jews get directly involved in addition to fundraising to help JDC fulfill its mission?

Of course Jews here in St. Louis, and around the country, can contact their local Jewish Federation to get involved with JDC’s work. They can also visit our website —jdc.org — and sign up for our e-newsletter, learn more about our global work, JDC Entwine, and our Ambassadors program, featuring travel and learning opportunities.