N.Y. Historical Society recalls a century of JDC humanitarian work

The 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.

Refugee from Nazi-occupied France receives food in a JDC-supported Switzerland facility, 1943 photos/jdc

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 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 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 postwar radio address, 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 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 in 1949 and 1950. “You had to have faith in this thing,” Wooten says, recalling steering his craft through dangerous airspace where his crew faced enemy and friendly fire. Upon landing, the 104 children onboard his plane sang an emotional verse of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. 

The exhibit portrays the JDC’s innovative methods for organizing aid. One example is a letter from Morris C. Troper, former chairman of the JDC’s European Executive Offices 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. 

Yemenite residents of a village in Israel for the aged, supported by the American JDC, 1963

“Above all, we have put into action the belief that all Jews are responsible for one another,” said Michael Geller, JDC director of communications. 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 nationwide network of programs and facilities,” Geller said. “In Ukraine, JDC is providing a robust crisis response including extra food, medicine, home-care hours, and counseling.”

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 help heal spiritual and emotional wounds, and to maintain Jewish traditions amid horrific traumas.  

“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,” Geller said.

Since the exhibit’s opening in mid-June, the New York Historical Society has been visited by diverse crowds and many synagogue groups.

The display asks audiences to pause and remember the difficulty of organizing aid when the odds seem stacked against hope. “I never knew the extent of [JDC’s] work,” said Susan Elefant, a Holocaust survivor who recently visited the exhibit.

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 said. “I see how important it is to carry on the tradition.”