Turning back the clock, JDC exhibit depicts a century of Jewish humanitarian work

Click photo to download. Caption: Pictured in 1963, a group of Yemenite men who were residents of a village for the aged maintained through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's (JDC) Malben program in Israel. The photo is among the items featured in JDC's exhibit at the New York Historical Society. Credit: JDC.

By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org

The turbulent 20th century witnessed humanitarian crises in all corners of the world. Persecuted, exiled, and deprived of their belongings, Jews in various communities suffered untold atrocities and often had no escape. 

Against that backdrop, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) found its calling. First organized in New York City in 1914, the philanthropic group was initially focused on easing the plight of Jews in war-torn Europe and the British Mandate of Palestine. Since then, JDC has taken a leading role in providing relief to Jews and non-Jews alike in regions devastated by war, environmental disasters, famine, and political repression. Now, amid the celebration of its centennial, the organization’s work is embodied by four words. 

“I Live: Send Help.” That is the title of JDC’s ongoing exhibit at the New York Historical Society, which opened in June and runs through Sept. 21. The display occupies a long hall on the second floor of the museum. Interactive elements and unique artifacts, including letters, pictures, radio recordings, and newsreel footage, demonstrate the complexity of the humanitarian organization’s work and serve as portals transporting visitors back in time.

In a post-war radio address, legendary singer Eddie Cantor requests canned food donations for Holocaust survivors stranded in Europe.

“You have said to these people that you want them to live, and be happy,” Cantor’s voice crackles on repeat over the museum’s listening devices. Likewise, a recording of James Wooten, former president of Alaska Airlines, summons the drama of the daring “Wings of Eagles” operation that flew refugee Yemenite Jews to safety in Israel. “You had to have faith in this thing,” Wooten says, recalling steering his craft through dangerous airspace where his crew faced both enemy and friendly fire. Upon landing, the 104 children on board his plane sang an emotional verse of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.  

Click photo to download. Caption: In 1943, the pictured young refugee who fled Nazi-occupied France to Switzerland through the Alps receives food in a JDC-supported facility. He was then sent to a children's home, also supported by JDC. The photo is among the items featured in JDC's exhibit at the New York Historical Society. Credit: JDC.

The exhibit portrays the JDC’s innovative methods for organizing aid. One example is a letter from Morris C. Troper, former chairman of the European Executive Council and negotiator for Jewish aid, to Eleanor Roosevelt, dated June 7, 1941. The letter describes the generosity of El Seculo, a Portuguese newspaper that lent the use of a seaside estate to create a colony for 111 Jewish refugee children during the war. The letter also acknowledges the hard work of a Viennese doctor who devoted himself to the children’s care and the “Quaker friends of the JDC,” who provided clothes and shoes. Seemingly impossible feats were accomplished by the JDC’s tireless networking to leverage aid for those in need.  

“Above all, we have put into action the belief that all Jews are responsible for one another,” Michael Geller, director of communications for JDC, tells JNS.org.

Geller’s reflections on the JDC’s legacy underline the motives behind the organization’s ongoing relief efforts. 

“Today, JDC is tackling Israel’s current crisis by providing aid and safety to vulnerable Israeli populations under rocket fire through its nation-wide network of programs and facilities,” he says. “In Ukraine, JDC is providing a robust crisis response including extra food, medicine, home-care hours, [and] counseling.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: Among the items featured in JDC's exhibit at the New York Historical Society, a World War I-era photo from 1917 titled "Pioneers in the Raising of Funds for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War." Credit: Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Central Relief Committee Collection.

The essential narrative of the JDC is a multifaceted response to desperate distress signals. The exhibit’s call—“I Live: Send Help.”—is a refrain the JDC treats with every resource it can muster, ultimately providing communities with tools to heal spiritual and emotional wounds, and to maintain Jewish traditions amid horrific traumas.   

“One of the hallmarks of the JDC’s work has been its dedication to fostering strong, independent, self-reliant, and mutually responsible Jewish communities,” Geller explains. “We have 900 employees that work in more than 70 countries, [providing] a pluralistic platform for Jews to celebrate their identity based on their own traditions and customs and to innovate new and exciting paths to that identity.”

Since the exhibit’s opening in mid-June, the New York Historical Society has been visited by diverse crowds and many synagogue groups. Time Out New York calls the exhibition a “momentous tribute” and includes it on a list of “top things to do” in New York City. 

The display asks audiences to pause and remember the difficulty of organizing aid when the odds seem stacked against hope. The story of the S.S. St. Louis, for example, is told through a short documentary video recalling the voyage of that famous refugee ship bearing exiled German Jews. The ship’s passengers were refused entry at several points on their journey, but JDC operatives working behind the scenes ultimately managed to secure entry visas in Belgium and France. Many of the passengers aboard the ship later still fell victim to the Nazis. There have been triumphs as well as disappointments throughout the history of the JDC, but the organization remains undaunted when it comes to confronting humanitarian crises. 

“I never knew the extent of [JDC’s] work,” Susan Elefant, a Holocaust survivor who recently visited the New York Historical Society exhibit, tells JNS.org

Another Jewish humanitarian organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helped Elefant’s family immigrate to America after World War II. She was deeply moved by the exhibition on JDC.

“This exhibit makes it all come to life,” Elefant says. “I see how important it is to carry on the tradition.”

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Posted on July 28, 2014 and filed under Features, World, U.S..