Arriving in Pittsburgh yesterday, Steve Schwager, chief executive officer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, spoke with community leaders and major donors this week about pushing the 95-year-old humanitarian organization into the future.
Schwager’s visit to Pittsburgh comes at the end of a three-city trek — he also met with federation leaders in New York and Detroit — meant to bolster support and awareness of JDC’s massive campaign to ease the dire straights of over 170,000 elderly Jews and 25,000 Jewish children in the republics of the former Soviet Union.
The United Jewish Federation in Pittsburgh is a contributor to the JDC. According to UJF President/CEO Jeff Finkelstein, approximately 25 percent of the UJF’s overseas allocations go to JDC.
“I’m interested in trying to help federations and their donors understand the plight of these elderly and young Jews. These are people with no safety net, no outside means of help except for what federation systems and donors provide,” said Schwager before boarding a flight to Detroit. “It’s not uncommon to find a poor Jewish woman in her 90’s [in the former Soviet Union] with no relatives in the world, who hasn’t been out of her apartment in 10 years because she can walk down the stairs but not back up. She hasn’t felt the sun on her face for years. It’s mind-boggling.”
Schwager said that Pittsburgh is one of JDC’s sturdiest supporters.
“If we could clone Pittsburgh,” he said, “we’d be in fine shape.”
Pittsburgh’s contribution to JDC has remained steady even through economic turmoil, Finkelstein said. “From our annual campaign last year, we kept funding even with the prior term. That’s a nice thing for Pittsburgh to be proud of.”
The struggling Jews in the former Soviet Union are often a forgotten people in the wake of localized and other international strife, said Schwager.
“The old adage is here — out of sight, out of mind. I want to remind people you can’t say that,” he said. “My job is to remind Jews that we are a global people, and as such, what’s kept us together for more than 2000 years is that we take care of people we don’t know who are also members of the tribe. That’s what my visit is about.”
While global need for relief remains, said Schwager, the resources to assist are dwindling. In the last two years, he said, JDC’s own staff has downsized by 16 percent, and “we’re drawing from our endowment at 11.5 percent per year. It’s way too high, and not sustainable. We’re struggling to find enough resources to do our job.”
Schwager said his trip, aside from building the momentum for fundraising, was to shine a light on humanitarian crises around the world, both those prominent and hidden.
“Telling the story makes a difference,” he said. “It’s like the Passover story — the more you tell it, the more it belongs to you.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)