«From Charity to Empowerment: The Role of Philanthropy in Supporting the Jewish Community of Estonia, the State of Israel, and beyond»

Speech by Ariel Zwang, CEO, American Jewish JOINT Distribution Committee, at the International Conference 105-75-35

Estonian Jewish Community 35th Anniversary Event

Ariel Zwang

May 4, 2023

I am filled with pride and excitement to be here with you today.  

And I want to begin by acknowledging:

Mrs. Alla Jacobson (the President of the Jewish Community of Estonia)

Mr. Vadim Ryvlin (Executive Director of the Jewish Community)

Rabbi Shmuel Kot (Chief Rabbi)

Hagit Ben-Yakov (Ambassador of Israel to Finland & Estonia)

Esteemed members of the board of directors of the Jewish Community + other local friends and partners. 

You are cherished leaders and partners to JDC in our shared work caring for needy Jews and strengthening Jewish life here in Estonia, in Europe, and across the globe.

What brings us together are three anniversaries, each miraculous in their own way. We celebrate 35 years since the Estonian Jewish community reconstituted itself after 70 years of Soviet repression and blossomed into the powerhouse of Jewish life it is today. We celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.

It’s an extraordinary achievement of the Jewish people and one that’s confounded history and the expectations of previous generations of Jews who only dreamed it possible. And we celebrate the 105th anniversary of Republic of Estonia.

With this historic moment came equal rights for Jews and other minorities and cultural autonomy for those groups, which lead to a incredible growth of Jewish life and participation in Estonian society.

All three of these anniversaries hold a special place in Jewish history.

Two of them have special resonance for us at JDC, linked by a special brand of Jewish tenacity and fortitude.

They fueled a creativity and doggedness that built vibrant Jewish community from the ashes of the past and made the desert bloom, both literally and on the avenues of the Start Up Nation.  

More than a unique vantage point to these events, JDC has had an even prouder involvement in them!

For those who do not know us, JDC, or the Joint as we are known in Europe and Israel, is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization.

Our mission for 109-years has been to:

save Jewish lives,

build Jewish life,

lift and empower Israel’s most vulnerable, and

provide a Jewish response to crises and disasters worldwide.

We do not do this work alone.

Without the partnership of Jews and Jewish communities from Mumbai to Budapest, from Buenos Aires to right here in Tallinn, we could not be successful.

The Jewish community of Estonia is one of the most profound examples of this partnership in action.

As many know, the storied Jewish community here in Estonia was nearly decimated by the Holocaust and decades of Communism.

After the fall of Communism, JDC was invited by the emerging community in 1993 to help to rebuild the rich mosaic of Jewish institutions and programs that are active today.

We have been there as Estonian Jewish leaders and the wider community worked to create self-sustaining institutions and programs.

Central to this endeavor was a vision: to build a community that could simultaneously care for the community’s neediest and fostering strong Jewish identities, leadership, and engagement for coming generations.

And that has happened beyond all our dreams—and I have seen that first hand as I have visited here over the last several days!

The Jewish community in Estonia is a leader among Jewish communities in Europe and sets an example for the responsible management of people and resources. 

Here in Estonia you will find:

Robust social services for the community’s elderly and poor;

A JCC and Jewish educational and cultural programming that is reaching more people each year and

Summer camps that are the pride of the Jewish Baltics and a model for other such experiences around Europe.

And while we at JDC continue to support to these efforts – albeit far less than what was needed in 1993 – our role now is to be a key investor in the next phase of Jewish life here.

We are helping empower the leaders and entrepreneurs of Jewish new and emerging social and cultural initiatives that are a brave frontier for the Jewish future in Estonia.

We will continue to be here for the community when crisis happens – like during the 2008 global financial crisis and COVID pandemic of recent years – but our main focus will be on realizing the dreams and promises of tomorrow.

Realizing dreams has been at the heart of what we do since our founding in 1914.

And there is no place where that is more remarkable than in Israel, where JDC was founded.

Starting with soup kitchens in Jerusalem to feed starving Jews impacted by the outbreak of WWI, we have invested in excess of 10 billion shekels in innovative social services to improve the lives of Israel’s most vulnerable, to close social gaps, and to ensure opportunity for all Israel’s citizens.

And we have done it in partnership with the Israeli government, with businesses and philanthropy, with NGOs and the social sector, and with people in need ready for a new start.

The result is nothing short of astounding: every week across Israel, 1 million Israelis are touched by social services developed by JDC since the State’s founding in 1948.

And along the way we have built bridges between Israelis of all walks of life.

Take Hani and Amira. Hani is from Bnei Brak, a Ultra-Orthodox mother of three. Amira is from Abu Ghosh, an Arab Village not far from Jerusalem.

Both women could not be more different.

And yet they came together because they wanted to be part of efforts to help members of their communities get out of poverty and find employment.

They founded an initiative with JDC’s help called Work360 which helps prepare members of the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab community for interviews and job placement across Israel’s multi-faceted economy.

Today that program is integrating scores of people from these communities into Israel’s workforce and further strengthening the country’s economy and social fabric.

In centering the needs of Israel’s elderly, poor, children and families, people with disabilities, people in the country’s periphery, as well as Haredi and Arab communities, we are setting a course for the next 75 years and beyond.

There is a lot of talk today about what divides us.

But when you look at the tens of millions of lives we have changed over 75 years in Israel, we know they sky is the limit when we come together to put the concept at the heart of Israel’s national anthem – HaTikvah – Hope – into action.


I’ll get to people in a moment.

Behind these efforts are two elements that have ensured a winning strategy: people and philanthropy.

But I want to focus first on philanthropy.

Philanthropy, we all know, is critical for the work we do day-in and day-out.

But it is not just about the dollars, euros, or shekels that are invested in a particular program, community, or training seminar.

Philanthropy can produce creative solutions to daunting challenges, especially when at its heart is partnership.

We all know that in the nonprofit world, “partnership” is often a euphemism for major funding relationships.

But there are times when what’s really needed are the strengths of a partner beyond the money being donated.

Here in Estonia, we faced Jews and Jewish communities eager to rebuild what was lost after the Holocaust and Communism.

So we stepped up with the help of philanthropic leadership with transformative resources and expertise to make it happen.

We drew on years of experience that we had developed in other communities around the world to lift up the Estonian Jewish community.

We deployed best-in-class strategic planning, Jewish community development and engagement tactics, social service and educational models, and impactful cultural programming to create the vision for the community we have today.

Along the way, the funder-beneficiary model disappeared as the community became more self-sufficient.

We then challenged each to think differently about how we would work together and transform hopes and aspirations into concrete and achievable goals.

This work is not always easy, and we don’t always agree, but united in purpose, we transcend any differences. The result of that is the community you see today.

The results have been remarkable and our journey together is not yet over.

So too with Israel.

When faced with Jews desperate for aid in the land of Israel before 1948, and the emerging social needs of the newly founded Jewish state, it was Jewish philanthropic leadership, a historic investment of funds, and overseas social service acumen that was drawn on to ensure no one was left behind.

Today, addressing the needs of Israel’s most vulnerable remain a collective effort with numerous players inside Israel and Jewish communities who continue to invest in this critical effort.

It is done utilizing the best in research and development, tech and social entrepreneurism, and an outsized commitment to empowering those in need for the benefit of the entire country.

From these two cases, and countless other efforts everyone in this room is involved in, we learn something quite profound:

Philanthropy always has been and needs to be a platform for the Jewish future.

When wisely deployed and stewarded, the funds from donors, foundations, and partners – combined with their passionate leadership and wisdom – are keys to keeping the Jewish people and Israel strong and on track for a better tomorrow.

And that brings me back to people.

I want to say thank you to each and every one of you.

We live in truly historic times and Europe’s Jewish leadership has been on the frontlines of addressing the challenges and opportunities that come along with such moments. 

The pandemic’s long arm and global inflation bring with it a set of needs that grow by the day. 

Jewish communities are the central address for help. That’s because of you.

The current crisis in Ukraine has not only increased human need, it is changing the face of community life and diversifying the Jewish experience. 

Jewish communities have stepped up in outsized ways to respond to our Jewish family not just in Ukraine, but for Jews in need in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and numerous other post-Soviet countries.

Jews of all ages continue to search for meaning and belonging and to feel a part of Jewish life. 

They are motivated by experiences they had during the height of COVID, the volunteering they have done, and because this historic moment has led to folks to return to their traditions.

The Jewish community has been a source for this inspiration and for this awakening. That’s because of you. 

We have been on this journey together for decades and are here to support you in achieving your vision for the Jewish future wherever it may be. 

Let’s draw inspiration from our Jewish family here in Estonia, from Israel as it enters a new dawn, to forge on and build a bright future together.  

From strength to strength, we are one. Thank you.