A new volume of collected essays offers a fresh model to write institutional history and reflect on the accomplishments of a far-reaching agency. Edited by Avinoam Patt, Atina Grossman, Linda G. Levi and Maud S. Mandel, JDC at 100: A Century of Humanitarianism presents 13 deeply-researched chapters that explore the impact of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee from its founding in 1914 to the Cold War period.
Readers interested in the formation of the Joint and its American context will continue to rely on Yehuda Bauer’s and Tom Shachtman’s substantial books. The authors in the present volume spend little time discussing the origins of the JDC, its relationship to American Jewish philanthropy, or its U.S. diplomatic relations. Instead, JDC at 100 explores the Joint from a transatlantic perspective, examining how this pivotal organization provided agency and support to various European regions, as well as communities in Asia, South America and, Israel. Each chapter draws heavily upon the JDC’s institutional archives, now digitized for the benefit of further research. Scholars and students will find new information contained in the volume and be able to identify citations with a helpful digital resource.
By orienting this book as case studies of operatives and operations in “foreign” locales, the editors make the important point that institutional histories ought to be studied in terms of their impact. For the JDC, this meant carrying out a charge to support Jewish life (or in Mordecai Kaplan’s terms, Jewish Peoplehood) in places plagued by enduring crises or instability. In each instance, the JDC leadership sized up the situation and deployed strategies that best fit the area. To accomplish this, the JDC operated sometimes as nonpartisans, negotiating the politics of, for example, the Soviet Union so that it might provide relief and immigration support in ways that U.S. diplomats could not. In Antwerp, the JDC facilitated the reformation of Belgium Jewry’s educational and civil infrastructure by linking Antwerp’s Orthodox Jewish Diaspora communities. In Australia, the Joint grappled with national antisemtisim and a local Jewish community that lacked an established fundraising network. In all cases, the common link was that the JDC agents sought to deliver the resources needed to execute a Jewish humanitarian mission. The means to make that happened varied, nearly always.
The focus of the book, while not on the “Americanism” of the Joint, demonstrates the “shifting centers” — as Simon Dubnow would have put it — of the Jewish Diaspora. In tandem with World War I and the “Wilsonian Moment,” the Jewish community in the U.S. assumed an unprecedented level of responsibility to serve as the custodian for the disenfranchised Jewish groups in Europe and elsewhere. I found this theme particularly interesting, wondering how the JDC helped socialize American philanthropy to this ambitious cause. In addition, what future historical labors might these histories suggest about the Joint’s role in galvanizing American Jews to support and think about Jewish values around social justice and the broader concept of Jewish peoplehood? Both topics will be significant contributions to the field, as is this fine and model-breaking institutional history.
Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books, including Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954 – 1980, and editor of Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has also authored more than thirty scholarly articles.