After serving 10 years as the youngest dean of Columbia Law School, David Schizer, 48, formally assumed his new duties last month as CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish community’s global humanitarian aid program. He succeeds Alan Gil, who returned to Israel, where he worked for JDC for many years. Schizer, a Brooklyn native, has a law degree from Yale and clerked for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. He headed a $353 million capital campaign at Columbia, doubling its traditional fundraising and expanding its faculty. Among his activities in Jewish communal life, he served on the board of the 92nd Street Y, the Ramaz School, Natan and the Columbia-Barnard Hillel, and he was a senior advisor to The Tikvah Fund.
We interviewed Schizer in person and by phone.
Q: What motivated you to leave your post at Columbia and take the helm of JDC?
A: I have long felt a need to pay back to the community. I’m named for an orphaned grandfather who fled pogroms and the violence of the Russian Revolution in Ukraine. He took his two younger siblings with him and came to America to make a new life. I’m proud to be part of JDC’s work, which has never been more important, so I can repay my grandfather for all he did for me.
What are JDC’s priorities at this time?
Our mission is constant: saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life all over the world. We are especially focused on the former Soviet Union, where many elderly Jews are living on the equivalent of $2 a day. Without us, many would die. Also, Venezuela looms large. The economy is in free fall and the Jewish community has gone from about 20,000 to 6,700, with growing needs. And of course there is Israel, where about 18 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
I was surprised at the outset to learn how much we do in Israel, where we are the innovation arm of the government. We do pilot programs, and if they are successful, the government takes it over and scales it up. For example, we now adapt apartments to the needs of residents with disabilities rather than placing them in residential facilities.
As the population of Holocaust survivors decreases with time, how do you address their needs?
At the end of 2015, there were close to 56,000 survivors in the Former Soviet Union alone. While their numbers decrease, the needs of the aging population increase. We are always working to be more efficient in saving as many lives as possible, providing food, medicine and home care. Some years ago we replaced direct delivery of food packages and began to provide people with cash cards to buy food and medicine. Another mission is to help sustain and develop local Jewish communities, often by making grants to local institutions.
How does JDC manage to reach people in more than 70 countries?
Our budget last year was about $324 million. About one-third comes from the Claims Conference and Restitution Funds. The JDC board, endowments, foundations and thousands of individual donors make up about $84 million. Jewish Federations and the government of Israel each provide about $50 million, and this year, a new four-year $52 million partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, will provide for elderly Jews in the FSU. These funds allow us to maintain a staff of about 1,100 people, about half based in Israel, and with offices around the world.
How is JDC planning for the future?
In our work with local communities, one emphasis is on resilience and security. That includes dealing with trauma, offering counseling and training in terms of preventing terror attacks and dealing with their aftermath. We have set aside 15 slots on our board [out of 180] for people in their 20s and 30s who bring their energy and commitment to the table. And we engage millennials through our Entwine program, which catalyzes Jewish identity and a sense of responsibility on a global level. We have 18,000 young Jewish adults involved and this year we will have 700 of them serving communities overseas in short, medium and long-term programs. Young people are drawn to our international humanitarian work, and we believe in building community at home through building community abroad.