New JDC Head David Schizer Casts Hopeful Eye on Jewish Future East of Danube River
The last eight months have left a deep impression on David Schizer. The Brooklyn-born former Dean of Columbia Law School took over the helm of America’s most venerable Jewish aid agency, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), in January. Since then, he has been seeing for himself how “the Joint” — an equally venerable shorthand for the organization — is involved in sustaining an entire generation of vulnerable, elderly Jews across central and eastern Europe, while nurturing new stirrings of Jewish identity among young people in countries like Macedonia and Belarus.
Sitting with The Algemeiner in an upper Manhattan coffee shop this week to share his impressions, Schizer related a story from Belarus to illustrate why he feels optimistic about the future — not simply in a technocratic sense, but in a spiritual one too.
“We have this program, ‘Active Jewish Teens,’ which started out in Kiev, in Ukraine, and now involves 3,600 kids in various places in the former Soviet Union,” Schizer said. “One of the beautiful things I got see was in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, when I was there in April, just after Passover, and we sat down with the group and asked them what they’d been doing. So one of the kids says, ‘Tell him about the matzah.’ What happened was that the matzah delivery for the community arrived a whole day late, at noon of the eve of Passover. My colleagues were anxiously trying to figure out how to get the matzah to all the home-bound elderly we take care of, before the seder later that night.”
The solution came through a call to the Active Jewish Teens group in the community of 4,000 Jews. “These thirty kids each delivered ten packages of matzah on incredibly short notice,” Schizer said, smiling broadly.
“I have to tell you,” he added, “I’m not entirely sure that the young Jewish kids that I know here would have just dropped everything to do that. But how do you think it felt for an elderly Jewish person to get a knock on the door, to see a young Jewish volunteer, to get the matzah, and to know that the younger generation cares?”
The tale of matzah distribution in Minsk also explains Schizer’s conviction that JDC’s mission isn’t a case of choosing between caring for the old or building a new leadership for the young — they are, he says, parts of the same whole. Within ten to twenty years, Schizer believes, the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will be self-sustaining, in part through the leadership and organizational practices learned from JDC, and in part through the infrastructure the organization has built on the ground — like the network of community centers, or cheseds, around the former Soviet Union, where visitors can find elderly guests sipping tea in a dining room adjacent to an after-school program for first graders.
Schizer displays a keen sense of historical awareness — an appropriate quality, given that JDC has ridden the crest of Jewish history for more than a century. Formed in 1914 to provide emergency relief to the starving Jewish community in what was then Ottoman Palestine, the organization has been a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union — from where the JDC was expelled by Joseph Stalin on the fabricated charge of being a “Zionist spy agency.” But it has also been present for some of the most momentous events in Jewish life since 1945 — the creation of the State of Israel, the mass aliyot of Yemenite and Ethiopian and Soviet Jews, and the rebirth of Jewish life in places like Poland, where it was previously thought extinguished.
In discussing these matters, Schizer’s voice takes on a wondrous tone as he reminds himself that Jewish life has been able to survive at all — even as he underlines his view that fostering a new generation is the best way of respecting that history and all it signifies. Having just returned from Budapest, he is full of enthusiasm for Camp Szarvas — an annual summer camp in the Hungarian countryside that brings together 1,500 young Jews from all over Europe, as well as Israel, the US and other nations.
As the campers become more aware of Jewish traditions previously cloaked in obscurity, Schizer said, “there’s an interesting inversion of what happens at the Passover table, when the young learn from the old. Here, these kids are taking Jewish traditions back home with them, and teaching their parents and grandparents. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
For American Jews whose only knowledge of European Jewish communities concerns the antisemitism they face — a real and worrying phenomenon, Schizer said, but one that is partly offset by the growing confidence among young Jews in their identity — the perennial debate about whether Jews should stay or leave the continent is perhaps more pertinent to them than it is to European Jews themselves. What matters more to Schizer is that Jews with little or no intention of leaving Europe are nonetheless rediscovering their heritage and their community; a realization that in many ways encapsulates JDC’s purpose.
“Twenty years from now, we could well have have vibrant, healthy Jewish communal institutions in these places, that aren’t partially dependent on American Jewish funding,” Schizer concluded. “I can see how we’ll get there, if we do it the right way.”