Steve Schwager took a few days’ vacation last week before starting his new job. "And I spent a full day on the phone, and on-line," on business, he says: the needs of world Jewry can’t wait.
Schwager, 54, who was named executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee this month, takes over at the organization that helps keep Judaism (and in many cases, Jews) alive in South America and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and other Jewish communities that lack their own resources.
The JDC is also active in Israel, primarily servicing the elderly and indigent who fall between cracks in the government’s social service programs.
Schwager has worked hand-in-hand for the last few years with outgoing executive vice president Michael Schneider, and plans to keep working in the "same direction," coordinating relief and rescue activities, and seeking alternative sources of funding for a growing budget.
"It’s a struggle," he acknowledges. "At the moment, I’m trying to cope with the three crises we have: Argentina, Israel and the former Soviet Union."
Since the collapse of the Argentine economy in December and the impoverishment of the largely middle-class Jewish community, the JDC’s annual budget there has risen from $1 million to $9 million, supporting some 20,000 people and creating a central pharmacy.
In Israel, which is struggling to pay intifada-related expenses, the JDC acts as a safety net, especially for the poor elderly.
In the republics of the FSU, the JDC has reached out to nearly all aged members of the Jewish community, but many younger Jews are still in need, Schwager says.
"Our first goal is that no Jew in the world should go to bed cold or hungry," he says.
As the major American-based Jewish organization that sponsors community-building programs abroad, the JDC is strictly nonpolitical, avoiding direct involvement in such issues as anti-Semitism in France or intergovernmental or community disputes.
Its annual budget has grown over the past decade from $50 million to $150 million, while the share of the total budget that comes from local Jewish federation fund-raising campaigns has declined from about 90 percent to one third. Much of the funding now comes from the Claims Conference, the Swiss Fund, private foundations and partnerships with the Israeli government.
"That’s JDC history," Schwager says. "We’ve always created coalitions and partnerships."
In the next few years, he says, the organization’s top priorities are to find money for programs in the FSU after proceeds from the sale of restituted communal property are exhausted, and matching Jews in those countries to the growing number of Jewish programs.
The JDC also is keeping an eye on the potentially threatened Jewish communities in northern Africa: communities "always on our mind."
"There are 13 millions of us" in the world, Schwager says. "We should be able to take care of our own."
Schwager, a Flatbush native, was trained as an accountant and worked for New York State, New York City and the city’s Board of Education. In 1989, he was approached through a professional management recruiter to become the JDC’s chief financial officer. He has risen through the JDC ranks over the years.
Admitting he knew "virtually nothing" about the JDC’s now-88-year record when he joined the organization, Schwager has guided its programs in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
His first assignment in the recently disbanded Soviet Union was in 1991, before a Jewish revival began in the now-independent republics.
"There was nothing there. You didn’t see a young person anywhere," he says. "Ten years ago it was our job to find people" to interest in Jewish activities. "Today they come out of the woodwork themselves."
The next year he returned to administer a nonsectarian food distribution program: 6,000 tons provided by the American government.
Based for 14 weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Schwager led an international staff that worked from "early morning to late night, no days off."
In those days after the collapse of communism, Russia couldn’t feed itself.
"People were starving," Schwager says. "No food in the stores, no money to buy anything."
The U.S. produce was given away through synagogues and churches, veterans’ organizations, hospitals and other institutions. "We kept hospitals open by giving them food," he says.
Theft was a constant problem; Schwager hired a national karate champion to take charge of security. When he noticed that men loading the packages were "accidentally" poking holes in sacks of powdered milk and putting the slippage into their pockets, to feed their hungry children at home, he offered to give the workers some powdered milk regularly. The accidents stopped.
Schwager’s experience behind the scenes in the FSU "ruined all my perceptions of the Soviet Union" as a world power, he says. With a crumbling infrastructure and starving workforce, "it was not a first world country."
"I literally met hundreds and hundreds of elderly Jews who had nothing," he says. "They had sold all of their possessions."
When he saw the strangers, he says, his incentive was his own family.
"I kept thinking," Schwager says, "these could be my grandparents."