When the previous chief of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee resigned last year, the organization’s board members had to decide whether to hire his replacement from inside or outside.
Last week, they announced their choice: Alan Gill, a 20-year JDC veteran, would lead the $350 million institution, which supports Jewish life and provides short and long-term aid for disaster victims in 70 countries and Israel. The JDC’s revenue from its own fundraising increased tenfold under Gill’s leadership as executive director of international relations. Born in the United States, Gill moved to Israel in 1993 and is the JDC’s first Israeli leader.
This is an edited, condensed transcript.
Q: Do you see revisiting the JDC’s strategic plan?
A: I do plan to update it because I believe plans need updating, but it’s something that I want to talk to my board president about. Where should it be in our priority list to do even more to help Jews strengthen their identities and their communities in Eastern Europe? We also want to look more closely at the issue of Israel’s social gaps; I personally believe that a strong Israeli social fabric is imperative to the security of Israel … Israel is a startup nation. We should be applauding it, and hoping that it pulls more of the country up, but at the same time, there’s a left behind issue.
How will you tackle the challenge of connecting with your future supporters and leaders?
There is a myth out there that young Jewish adults only care about the universals of this world. We are proving that this is a myth … we’re engaging people in what I was raised with: global Jewish responsibility. We are bringing people into service programs where they can help needy Jews and reawaken their Jewish identities. But we need to grow that. Entwine (the JDC’s education, service and leadership training program for young adults) is a very small part of the JDC’s budget. It could be much bigger, especially with partners.
As time passes, will some of the resources needed by the Jews of Eastern Europe be freed up?
[The elderly population] is smaller than it was five, seven years ago. But we’re finding a lot of new poor. In some cases, these economies have slipped back. In Belarus even in 2009, it was impossible to buy a piece of chicken in Minsk. As much as we’d like to say we’re not needed, we just don’t see that … Now that a Jew is free to practice pretty much anywhere in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Jews are coming out of the woodwork, because we’re finding them. No one deserves a Jewish identity more than someone who had it stolen from them three generations ago …
Until recently, the JDC relied on the Jewish federation system for its budget. Now many federations are struggling, and the JDC fundraises for itself. What role do federations play in your finances today?
We did not do development because federations were diminishing; we did it because opportunities were developing … we knew that to rebuild Jewish life in the former Soviet Union we would need to fundraise. No longer did we rely exclusively on federations to fund everything, but we used that dollar and leveraged it to find partners. Today that leverage is about 1 to 5, but federation dollars remain critical … I look at federations the way I look at any philanthropic sources, as individuals. Federation dollars are the base from which we grow everything.
About a year ago, the Jewish Federations of North America decided to restructure its overseas allocations process by creating a “Global Planning Table.” The JDC is one of JFNA’s chief beneficiaries; can you update us on this process?
We support the efforts. Money should follow needs. You’d have to talk to JFNA [for details] but we’re continuing to work with them. We’ve attended the meetings; we’ve presented at them. There’s another meeting at the end of January, in Orlando. We do support efforts to re-examine how collective funds are spent. The world changes. How it’s going to end up, I don’t know.
Are there other, newer trouble spots, or problems you see brewing?
We didn’t think three years ago that we would have to do anything in Greece. Now we’re seeing that the tip of Western Europe needs us. We’re seeing serious problems in the Argentinian economy. When the peso crashed about 12 years ago, [Argentina’s Jewish community] was a self-sufficient community and all of a sudden, the JDC was called in to help. We were spending $16 million a year. We may have to go back, but we did build a strong fundraising infrastructure so we hope to go back with less …
Is there a tension for the JDC between facilitating immigration to Israel and supporting Jewish communities worldwide?
Aliyah today, it’s mostly an aliyah of choice. And now I’m speaking as an American-Israeli. How do they choose if they don’t have a strong Jewish identity? We don’t push people anywhere. People make their own choicecs. We see the viablity of the Jewish diaspora. We see the world through a two-sided prism. People come, and go, and we help those that remain.