New JDC Head Brings a Business Approach to Aiding Needy Jews

Children from the Haitian town of Zoranje stand outside a school built with part of the $16.2 million donated by Jewish organizations after the deadly 2010 earthquake. (Courtesy of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of our overseas partners, via JTA)

After a year at the helm of the 103-year-old American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, David M. Schizer lays out his pragmatic plan to continue its eternal mission.

It was the brink of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Tsar’s soldiers stormed Dzhuryn looking for Communists. After a fruitless search in the small western Ukrainian village, the soldiers lined up local Jews instead — to shoot them. Suddenly, the Communists appeared, forcing a shootout between the two enemies, the Whites and the Reds. Miraculously, the Jews escaped.

Among the Jews granted reprieve that day over 100 years ago was the 17-year-old grandfather of David M. Schizer, the former Dean of Columbia Law School, who took the reigns of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in January 2017.

“My grandfather and the others got away, and this was the moment when he realized he and his siblings needed to leave Ukraine and find a different kind of a life in the US,” Schizer recounted in a lengthy interview at the JDC’s Jerusalem headquarters, during a brief recess from a festive board meet-up celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary.

The contemporary echoes of the situation that forced his grandfather to uproot from pogrom-afflicted Ukraine for the United States eventually spurred Schizer to leave a flourishing career in academia for the 103-year-old Jewish aid organization.

“I got to be born in a place where opportunities were unlimited. [My grandfather] was born in a very different place, and his choice to leave was what gave me my life,” said Schizer.

Throughout our discussion, Schizer spoke with a calm, measured precision befitting a former academic lawyer and the youngest Dean of Columbia Law School at age 35.

“My expertise within the academy is tax law. And I am what you might consider astonishingly passionate about things like the corporate tax rate,” said Schizer with a slight grin, “because it actually does affect the lives of ordinary people in profound ways.”

Now 49, Schizer said his grandfather’s dilemma from a century ago increasingly hits home. “I have three children. My oldest is 16. It resonates personally with me what it might mean for a 17 year old to be responsible – I mean, it’s horrible,” he said.

It is this blend of personal and pragmatic that Schizer brings to the JDC, where he intends to maintain, yet amplify, its global mission to aid Jews everywhere and bring a light to nations in need.

“The mission [at JDC] is eternal; it will never change. It’s helping incredibly needy Jewish people, and it’s about nurturing Jewish institutions, so we think of it as saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life. But the precise ways in which we pursue that mission can change a lot,” he said.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Schizer discusses his role in perpetuating the JDC’s eternal mission, challenges facing the organization, and how it works to connect between Israel and other countries of the world.

I understand your family background is connected to your decision to join the JDC. 

Every Jewish person in a Jewish family has stories. And one that’s always especially on my mind is my father’s father – he died 10 years before I was born, I was named for him… There were many years when I gave myself more credit than I deserved for the things that I’ve gotten to do, and the older I get the more I realize that 99 percent of it was just determined by that choice that other people made.

If I could do something to pay my grandfather back, I would gladly do it, but he’s not around. But there are lots of other Jewish people in similarly difficult circumstances, and the opportunity to be part of the JDC family and to commit myself to helping people in that situation – well, let’s just say that was very appealing.

It’s a pretty crowded playing field, in terms of Jewish organizations with a mission to help disadvantaged, disenfranchised Jews. Are you concerned about staking your brand’s claim?

We have an obligation to be as rigorous and as creative as we can be in finding innovative new ways to advance. So it is not relevant that we did “x,” “y,” or “z” five years ago, but what is relevant is how can we use our scarce budget and expertise in the next five years to make the most difference in people’s lives.

It’s about being clear about our priorities and explicit about the strategy that we’re using, and it’s also about using data to test the things that work, and if they don’t work, to find different ways or to shut it down. And the truth is, a lot of what I just described has been true of our work all along, but I think we can ramp it up.

With our planning team, I worked to come up with three questions and there are now three questions that we ask about everything we do. The first question we ask is, “How important is the problem?”

Assuming there’s an important problem – for example desperately poor elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union — then the next question is, “How effective can we be in responding?” And the third question is, “Are we the right organization to do it?”

Let’s take for instance the poor, elderly, former Soviet Union Jews. Increasingly, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is in the mix there. How do you know when to amplify JDC’s work and when to step out, now that there are other very well-funded players in the field?

The most significant funder of impoverished elderly in the former Soviet Union is the Claims Conference, the Conference of Material Claims Against Germany – it’s Holocaust reparations money. We have 100,000 clients in the former Soviet Union, and just about 45,000 are Nazi victims supported by the Claims Conference. JDC is the sole care provider that the Claims Conference uses. We’re the ones caring for those elderly people.

We then developed a system to care for them which allows us also to take on [other Jewish] clients – and that’s the other 55,000 – who are not Holocaust survivors. The fact that we have an infrastructure in place gives us the unique ability to provide care at an incredibly low cost per person.

We are very grateful to have important partners. The Fellowship is one. The Fellowship is an operating partner of ours, meaning they rely on us out in the field to accomplish the goals that we chart together. And of course the Jewish Federations of North America are also crucial partners, but again, they’re working through us – it’s not like they have independent operations in the field. We’re pretty much the only game in town.

The ultimate goal is to make sure that these people get the care that they need. And they are, without question, the poorest Jews in the world. If you are a retired missile scientist in eastern Ukraine, you are living on a Ukrainian government pension, which is $2 a day. What is that? 7 shekels a day – I mean, it’s horrible.

How are you trying to ameliorate the potentially rising anti-Semitism in some of the more isolated, poorer areas, or Europe in general?

One notable aspect of our work in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other places, is that the poverty is very difficult. The “good news” is although there are many problems in these parts of the world, I don’t think anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union is a particularly difficult issue right now.

In Ukraine, for example, the number two person in the government, Vladimir Groysman, is openly Jewish. If you go back some decades you would never have expected that.

How has the continued fighting on the border between Ukraine and Russia affected your work?

It’s a very difficult time. There are many people who have had to leave their homes. We’ve taken on the burden of helping them in other places. And it’s really quite heartbreaking, because it’s not as if any of these people are wealthy – but you had some people who were in a stable position in a particular place, and then there’s violence and they have to leave, and they lose their home. And they’re old, and they’re frail, and all of a sudden they’re living by renting a little room, and we help them with this.

I visited a couple in Saint Petersburg that was from somewhere else, and they lived in a place about the size of this table [points to the modest conference room surface]. It’s just something they never imagined they would face, and it’s really quite sad.

I expect that some years ago when the Ukraine situation was in the news, you had quite a lot of money pouring in from Jewish communities. Has it leveled off or decreased over these last several years?

We have some very loyal partners. We are able to make the case, but the truth is, I think going forward we probably need to be more visible in making the case because I, at least, have had the experience that many Jewish people who are very generous really don’t know that there are 100,000 people who could potentially starve if they aren’t given help.

Other parts of your work is obviously helping non-Jews, especially in disaster situations. How is that continuing under your tenure?

The world saw a tragically challenging fall with a series of disasters – whether it was the Caribbean, Houston, Florida, or Mexico. It was heart-wrenching.

We are proud to be the point organization for the American Jewish community in coordinating disaster relief. It is a perpetual obligation because sadly there’s always something happening in the world, something where our expertise is needed.

You have targeted teams, targeted giving, not ongoing projects in this kind of situation?

There are two categories: there’s the immediate response, and then there’s the longer-term recovery. And then I’ll add a third, which is there are also longer-term initiatives that we launch in order to improve conditions more generally in a place.

One example is that we have been working in Ethiopia for a long time. It’s a very large country – 80-some-odd-million people. And it’s incredibly poor, and the economy is very rooted in agriculture. We are sitting in a country [Israel] that has developed remarkable technologies – drip irrigation, hybrid seeds – and these technologies, if used appropriately, could really transform the economy of a place like Ethiopia.

We are in the process of launching a pilot right now, where we will make micro loans – we will make loans to small and medium-sized farms – to allow them to buy hybrid seeds, drip irrigation technology, we’ll provide training to make sure they can use it. And if the pilot works, and we expect that it will, you can double – or even triple – the crop yields of these farmers. And if you do that enough times, the economy of Ethiopia will really improve.

Are you specifically connecting with Israeli companies in this situation?

Yes, we think of our connection here as not only Ethiopia, but also use of Israeli technology. JDC was born to work in Israel, that was our first mission, it continues to be a fundamental mission of the organization. And we’re fortunate to partner with the Israeli government in various ways. And we know that this particular project can create benefits to the State of Israel, too, by informing and educating the world about the magic of Israeli technology.

Do you see as part of your mission to change preconceived notions about Jews or Israelis in different parts of the world? 

I do think the initiative in Ethiopia that I just mentioned is mostly about helping these poor, hard-working farmers to live a better life, but we also think it’s important for people to know that it’s Israeli technology that’s making the difference for them.

If as a result of our work people who otherwise don’t know much about the Jewish people or about Israel come to understand in a deeper way the many wonderful commitments the Jewish people in Israel make, we think that would be a good thing.

Currently disaster relief in Haiti is very much in the news with the sex scandal of the Oxfam umbrella organization and poor oversight of the field workers. How do you as an organization combat such situations?

We are – I think “glatt kosher” isn’t a strong enough word. We are exceptionally detail-oriented when it comes to that sort of issue, and we have to be. Because this is a reputation that has been developed with 103 years of hard work, and good work. There’s this cliché of “it took me a lifetime to build this reputation, and a minute to throw it away,” and we’re not going to be in that position.

In addition to amplifying a “start-up nation’s” ideas, you’re also doing a lot of on-the-ground work here in Israel with the poor.

We have work in basically five areas: children at risk; the unemployed and the underemployed; the elderly; Israelis with disabilities; and the fifth is something called ELKA, which is really about developing leaders for the nonprofit world and working with the Israeli government to create new multi-regional institutions – it’s about innovations in government. And all of it is focused on vulnerable populations.

I was just in Mitzpe Rimon and as I looked around I thought, “Wow, this could be such an amazing spot, but it just feels like it’s lacking infrastructure in so many ways.” What can JDC do in this kind of a situation?

In the south, and also in the north, one of the challenges has been is that you have some very modest-sized, small municipalities. And a challenge with municipalities of that size is that it’s hard for them to get to economies of scale, and the delivery of even the most basic services like garbage, sanitation.

There was one point where a plan was developed out here to merge these municipalities into larger municipalities. Now, as an American I can tell you that would not play well in my home. It did not play well here. Add to that the fact that the different municipalities often had different populations – Arab, Jewish. And so merging them is not necessarily what these people wanted, so at that point we were asked to make a suggestion and to develop a response.

We created something called the Clusters Program. And the Clusters Program is limited-purpose voluntary partnerships between neighboring municipalities. And the wonderful thing that happened is that you had mayors of communities who live 10-15 minutes away from each other by car, but they hadn’t really spoken, and they hadn’t really worked together.

If you unite people around the very glamorous subject of garbage collection, they will then realize that there are seven or eight other things that they could start doing together, and one of the wonderful things about the Clusters Program is that it became a setting in Israel where Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Israeli civil servants would meet and exchange ideas, and began working together more closely. And this is an idea that started with garbage and ended with some amazing progress.

And is this ongoing?

Yes. A major area of focus for us today is Resolution 922 — a NIS 16 billion investment that your government is making in the Israeli-Arab sector. One of the roles that we’re playing is working with Israeli-Arab municipalities to plan projects, to implement projects, to work with the civil servants to make sure that they have the most sophisticated approach they can come up with to implement these projects.

Does this work take place also beyond the Green Line, or only in the State of Israel?

Our work primarily focuses on citizens of Israel. That means it’s mostly in the Green Line, but we do have an important initiative in East Jerusalem.

There is profound and consensus-based support for the work that we do for Israeli-Arabs throughout our donor community. And it makes perfect sense, because these are citizens of Israel and their well-being will contribute to the well-being of the country, and their satisfaction with their lives can translate into good things for the country.

The economic miracle here is so inspiring. But the only way that you can sustain that economic miracle is by making sure that a higher and higher percentage of consumers and workers participate in that economic mainstream.

If you think about the future of this country 50 years, 70 years from now, I think if we and others like us do our jobs, 70 years from now will be so much better. But if we fail, then some of the beautiful things that you see here will be very hard to sustain.

How do you plan so far in advance in this kind of semi-unstable environment?

There are things that will always be true: Mothers and fathers want to have jobs which allow them to provide for the material needs of their children. Everybody wants school systems that bring out the creativity and intellectual spark in their children. Elderly people – we want them to save for retirement. I think, to generalize a little bit, there are things that are difficult here, but so much is uncontroversial.

And even when it’s a challenge to make progress on the problems that seem intractable, energy invested in bringing Israeli Arab women into the workforce, or offering greater economic opportunities to Haredi families, is just a good thing. There are profound issues of war and peace, and we’re not here to talk about those.

You’re coming from a world that is very youth-based – academia. How are you going to try to harness this experience and get an elderly organization, or at least an organization that is more resonant in the 60-up crowd, known to a younger audience?

We’re 103 years young. But it’s true, JDC is better-known among older people than it is among the very young. Now, the organization has created a couple of wonderful initiatives that have been really effective, and the one that I would emphasize is Entwine, a way of engaging people in their 20s and 30s.

Engaging them in their tradition and in Jewish communal life is really important, because in order for so much that’s good in the world to continue, you need a new generation – generations – to advance those goals. Young people… are really passionate about international humanitarian work. The genius of Entwine – and I can boast about it because it wasn’t my idea – is that we invite that cohort of people to go on a service trip. Spend 10 days with us. We’ll take you to work in the Hessed center in Odessa. Or you can come to Bat Yam and spend some time at these youth programs that we’ve created. [Some 22,000 youth have participated in the 12-year-old program.]

It’s not only that they do service, but there are conversations before, during, and after the trip where they read the work of Jonathan Sacks — or Maimonides. The point is to connect the work with the values in Judaism.

What seems to happen more often than not, is people realize that a passion of theirs, the feeling that they have about making the world better, is more rooted in their Judaism than they had realized. And so for many, they then become much more interested in doing more.

There’s a lot of talk about the disenfranchisement of youth today in the States from the State of Israel, in terms of policies, approach, outlook to life — everything. 

What we need to do is to help some American Jews understand that even when they disagree with the policies of the Israeli government – even if they disagree on fairly strong terms – that must not define the full perspective that they adopt about Israel.

I believe that one of the crucial things we can do is to bring people here. There is so much meaningful work, and there is so much that is beautiful and impressive here in Israel, and you should know it, and in my opinion you should love it, and that’s true even if there are other things that you would change if you could.

Many American Jewish youth I speak with say they feel that they have been lied to about Israel, that they’ve not gotten the full disclosure of the warts-and-all of Israel. Do you see this as a factor?

My view is you should be 100% rigorously accurate because the facts are impressive. And if there are difficult issues, don’t whitewash them, don’t hide them – talk about them. And it often makes sense to say to someone, “Put yourself in the position of the government, what would you do about that?” And it’s not easy. So I think the truth is the answer here. I think 18-year-old people are smart, and let’s show them the facts.

What else has moved you about your work with JDC so far?

There’s a crucial area of our work that we haven’t talked about, which is reigniting the spark of Jewish life in places where it was nearly extinguished. So think Hungary, think Ukraine, and it’s not only about care. I landed in Odessa and there’s a colleague who lives here [in Israel] now, but she met me at the airport and I said, “What was it like to be a Jewish child here in Odessa?” She smiled and said, “I have no idea.” I was confused, and she said, “My parents didn’t tell me until I was in university.”

There are 100,000 Jews in Budapest, a non-trivial percentage of them didn’t know they were Jewish. It’s a real opportunity and the remarkable thing is that for young Jewish people in these parts of the world, Jewish youth groups are extremely appealing.

So part of what we do is we bring American young people together with, say, Russian teenagers, and American teenagers, and it’s eye-opening for them. Because you have Americans who will no longer take for granted all the things they have, so this is another key part of our work, and I think it’s inspiring.

By Amanda Borschel-Dan for The Times of Israel 


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