joint effort

In Israel, JDC chief says group responding to immediate needs, preparing for reconstruction

‘Helping figure out how the most vulnerable members of society will continue to thrive and receive the services that they need is both an immediate-term and a long-term [mission],’ CEO Ariel Zwang says tells eJP

Ariel Zwang, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, spent a week in Israel following the Oct. 7 terror attacks, checking in on the organization’s hundreds of staff members, its partner organizations and clients to see how the group can both provide for the immediate needs of Israelis and begin preparing for reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.

“Helping the State of Israel respond to lots of challenges is at the heart of what we do at JDC,” Zwang told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday. “So for now, the programs and systems that we have are all being put into service for immediate needs. That’s what everyone’s doing,” she said.

“But we’re already in touch with our directors general and industry partners to figure out what different and additional changes will be needed long-term in employment, in education, in aging and in people with disabilities. These are the areas in which JDC works in Israel… Helping figure out how the most vulnerable members of society will continue to thrive and receive the services that they need is both an immediate-term and a long-term [mission].”

Zwang said she could not yet say how much JDC has already raised to facilitate its work going forward “because it’s a fluid situation, but let’s say tens of millions of dollars, and we are very grateful to the federation system.”

Zwang arrived in Israel last Thursday and flew back to the U.S. on Wednesday. She sat down with eJP in a spare office at Occupational Guidance, an initiative co-sponsored by JDC in the majority Haredi city of Bnei Brak outside of Tel Aviv. The initiative, which is also supported by Israel’s Ministry of Labor and the local municipality, ordinarily works to help Haredi Israelis enter the workforce, offering courses and facilitating job searches, and to teach financial literacy.

The initiative has since shifted focus and been pressed into service connecting volunteers to groups that need assistance, getting mental health services for communities and connecting people looking for temporary jobs — often those who have been displaced by the war — with businesses whose employees have been called up to the reserves or are otherwise unable to work. In one case, a group of yeshiva students were sent to work in an industrial bakery in Jerusalem.

“The bakery needs people. But it’s not the purpose of this program to match yeshiva students with bakeries,“ Zwang said. “The purpose of this program is to aid in the economic empowerment and employability of people.”

JDC is focused on using its existing infrastructure and partnerships to provide immediate aid to its core clients: Israelis experiencing poverty, the elderly and the disabled.

“I visited with an individual who is a member of our Family First program, which we have in about 250 communities. It’s a comprehensive family support program to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty,” Zwang said. 

“She self-evacuated [to central Israel from the south]. So she has certain things. She has a place to stay. She has food. But she said, ‘I don’t have clothes for my kids. They need long-sleeved clothes. I don’t have that.’ And so we’re providing all of the participants in the Family First program with prepaid cards. That’s just an immediate relief and response so that they can buy what they need,” she said.

Zwang stressed that its programs are available to all Israelis, Jewish and non-Jewish. “That is central to our work in JDC. We work with the whole state for the benefit of the whole state,” she said.

JDC is also looking to provide the services and supplies that Israelis with disabilities who have been displaced may now require.

“You had certain services that enabled you to get up in the morning, get dressed, eat, function, move around, I’m guessing that where you are now is not accessible or not in the way that your own home would be,” Zwang said. “Where are these people? What services do they need? How will they be able to be provided? These are inherent areas in which JDC helps Israeli society ensure that its most vulnerable members are cared for.”

Both in the short term and looking forward, Zwang said rebuilding the economy in southern Israel, which has been brought to a complete standstill in some cities and towns, will be a major focus for JDC. The Israeli government is also planning to support businesses affected by the war, but has not yet approved and released a full assistance package.

“We’re already working with business owners from the south who had to relocate their physical businesses or who can’t function to help them get online,” she said. “Economic recovery, especially for small business people and those whose employment has been interrupted, will be crucial for JDC.”

Zwang said she had spent time at the JDC’s offices in Jerusalem, which are mostly empty now, but whose kitchens are now being used to feed the responders who are retrieving the remains of the victims of the Oct. 7 attacks.

“We have dozens of colleagues who themselves have been called up, many more dozens whose spouses were called up and then close to a hundred whose children have been called up,” she said.

Zwang noted that while the organization is responding to the attacks and the war in Israel, it is also still involved in major efforts in Ukraine, helping its clients and the local Jewish communities there.

Last week, she also visited a hotel in the community of Ma’ale Hahamisha, just outside of Jerusalem, which is being used to house evacuees. There she met with someone she knew with family members who were murdered in the attacks and with members of Israeli youth groups — which are supported by JDC — who are doing educational programs with the displaced children.

“On Friday, I went to visit a colleague of mine,” Zwang said. “They live in the south, very close to Gaza. The husband of the couple’s two brothers were murdered right away. But they and their three children and their parents and actually their grandparents managed to escape and are together now in Ma’ale Hahamisha.”

She said she saw the post-high school “shinshinim” who required special training and support in order to work with the children from the Gaza border who have been through traumatic events.

“These young people need individual psychological support. They need tools, which they receive as a group, in order to know how to deal with children who are in trauma. And the people who supervise [the young people] need special tools as well, all of which JDC is already providing,” she said, stressing the need to provide psychosocial support not only to the direct victims but to the caregivers as well.