For the first time in history, American Jews have their own highly visible relief and long-term development organization to represent them in the third world, the group's founders say. The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was founded in May 1985 by two Jews who say they felt the need for American Jews to have a nonsectarian and nonpolitical presence in the third world. Until then, American Jewish relief money was channeled through religious agencies like Catholic Relief Services, and secular groups like OXFAM. Other Jewish agencies like the American Jewish Congress also distributed aid worldwide.
``We live in a very politicized world where Israel, Zionism, and Jew combined are used as pejorative terms,'' says Warren Eisenberg, director of B'nai B'rith's International Council and one of many prominent Jews on the AJWS board. ``Part of the mission of AJWS is to show that Jews don't have horns,'' he adds.
Less than two years after it was established, the agency has a $1 million budget and projects in 10 countries, including nations like Mozambique, which doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, says founder and president Laurence Simon, a former director of policy analysis for American OXFAM.
These projects include rebuilding housing for victims of the recent mud slide in Colombia, and earthquakes in El Salvador and Mexico; promoting health education and donating medical supplies to fight disease in Nepal; and retraining former sugar laborers on feudal-like estates on the Isle of Negros in the Philippines.
With a full-time staff of five, the Boston-based AJWS relies on indigenous nongovernmental organizations to run the daily activities of its programs. In Sri Lanka, for example, AJWS works closely with a Gandhian, Buddhist group.
For years, Mr. Simon and cofounder Lawrence Phillips, president of the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, worked with OXFAM, dreaming of a time when they could start their own relief agency. ``I think that after World War II, Jews were preoccupied with the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel,'' Mr. Phillips explains. ``It's really only in recent decades that Jews have been secure and affluent enough to be able to broaden their horizons.''
They enlisted the support of the Jews involved in established American Jewish organizations, like B'Nai B'rith and the American Jewish Congress, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and producer Norman Lear. In addition to established Jewish support, they have received support from another segment of American Jews.
``We are finding that we have a tremendous appeal to Jews who are unaffiliated with more established Jewish causes,'' Simon notes. ``That's because our mission is a nonsectarian, global one.''
To operate freely in an often political third world, AJWS has no official ties with the government of Israel. But, says Simon, ``The Israeli government supports the idea of us working in countries they do not have diplomatic relations with. They think that if this is the first encounter of working with a Jewish organization, so much the better.''
Since Judaism has no missionaries, AJWS may be the first contact that developing countries have with Jews. ``In Mozambique,'' Simon says, ``we found we were not only welcome, but that questions of international politics were not relevant to discussion on basic relief and development programs.''
Although AJWS has no official ties with Israel, the group would not operate in a country at war with Israel, Simon says. The organization is proud of its use of Israeli technology. ``Everywhere I have worked in the world people want to know how Israel has achieved development miracles,'' he adds.
Many of Israel's advanced agricultural techniques are not applicable to third-world countries. But a plastic grain silo, developed by the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research in Israel, is one technology that AJWS will test this year in Sri Lanka, Mozambique, and eight other countries. The silo, which is rodent-insect-and-moisture proof, can cut grain storage losses from 50 percent to less than 1 percent.