Representatives of 40 US Jewish organizations met in New York in November 1914 to discuss the coordination of relief measures for beleaguered Jewish populations in central and eastern Europe and the Middle East. They were inspired in part by a August 31, 1914, cable from Henry Morgenthau, then US Ambassador to Turkey, to prominent US philanthropist Jacob Schiff requesting $50,000 to save the Jews of Palestine, then part of Ottoman Turkey, from starvation.
On November 27, 1914,they founded the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or "Joint"). Originally the result of a merger of two newly established relief committees, the largely Reformed American Jewish Relief Committee and the Orthodox Central Relief Committee, the Joint was joined by a third committee, the People's Relief Committee, composed of labor and socialist groups, in early 1915. The initial purpose of the Joint was to raise and distribute funds to help support the Jewish populations of eastern Europe and the near east during World War I.
In 1917–19, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the collapse of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) at the end of World War I, and the massive and often brutal population transfers connected with the breakup and overthrow of the Ottoman Empire continued to adversely effect the ability of Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East, to survive, support themselves economically, and maintain their Jewish identity.
Between 1914 and 1929, the JDC collected some 78.7 million dollars from Jews living in the United States. Intended to be a temporary relief organization, the increasing impoverishment of Jews in eastern Europe, the Soviet effort to settle Jews on the land, and continued Arab violence against the Jews of Palestine prolonged the life of the JDC into the era of the Holocaust. In the decade after World War I, the JDC became the primary communal agency for overseas relief and rehabilitation. In addition to direct relief funding, JDC operatives provided funding through the American-Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation to settle Soviet Jews on the land, primarily in Ukraine and the Crimea, and fostered economic development among Jews living in Palestine through the Palestine Economic Corporation.
The impact of the Great Depression in the United States drastically reduced the funding available to the JDC, whose leaders had to shelve their development schemes by 1932. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the JDC, while continuing to provide support for Jewish communities in eastern Europe, focused on aid to Jews remaining in Germany and assistance to Jewish refugees from the Nazis. In April 1933, after Nazi thugs ransacked the JDC's European headquarters in Berlin, JDC officials relocated the office to Paris. Despite the Depression, contributions to the JDC actually increased as Jews in the United States became increasingly aware of the dangers and hardships facing their European brethren. Throughout the decade, the JDC painted a realistic picture of the plight of Jews overseas and managed to obtain sizeable contributions for overseas relief.
JDC efforts were instrumental in assisting at least 190,000 Jews to leave Germany between 1933 and 1939; 80,000 were able to leave Europe altogether with JDC assistance. The JDC supported various refugee resettlement efforts in Latin America, including the Jewish colony in Sosua, Dominican Republic, and a colony in Bolivia. JDC funds were also instrumental in funding a relief program for 20,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees in Shanghai, China.
Nine months after the Germans invaded Poland to initiate World War II, the JDC was compelled to close its offices in Paris in the wake of the German advance in 1940 and reopen in Lisbon, Portugal.
In 1939, the JDC boosted its fundraising potential for rescue by joining with the United Palestine Appeal and the National Coordinating Committee for Aid to Refugees to create the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Whereas between 1929 and 1939 the JDC raised and spent almost 25 million dollars on relief, between 1939 and 1945, it raised more than 70 million dollars, and between 1945 and 1950, it raised approximately 300 million dollars for refugee aid.
Until the United States entered the war in December 1941, the JDC sent food and money by various means to Poland, Lithuania, and other German-occupied countries. The JDC supplied money to support imperiled Jews throughout Europe—including those trapped in ghettos in German-occupied Poland. It funded orphanages, children's centers, schools, hospitals, housing committees, public kitchens, and various cultural institutions.
Even after the United States entered the war against Germany, the JDC, though no longer legally permitted to operate inside German-occupied territory, continued to funnel clandestine funds into ghettos in Poland via its office in Switzerland, headed by Saly Mayer. Mayer had contact with individuals in Switzerland—including officials of the International Red Cross—who in turn had links to Polish underground organizations. The JDC was also a significant contributor to the operations of the US War Refugee Board (WRB) after its creation in January 1944.
Made available through neutral legations, JDC funds facilitated the rescue of Jews residing in Budapest and assisted in the support of Romanian Jews during the last years of Marshal Ion Antonescu's rule. JDC funds also supported children's shelters under international protection in Budapest and partially financed the rescue operations of neutral diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz. The JDC also sent thousands of relief packages to Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union.
The JDC provided material support and facilitated the emigration of refugees who had escaped to neutral countries including Portugal and Turkey or who had found refuge in other Axis countries, including Vichy France and Japan. Between 1939 and 1944, JDC officials helped 81,000 European Jews to find asylum through emigration to various parts of the world. Following its liberation in August 1944, JDC officials reopened their central office in Paris.
After the war, the JDC—working together with the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and other organizations—became the central Jewish agency providing support and financial assistance to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust residing in the displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy. The JDC provided food to augment official rations, supplied clothing, books, and school supplies for children, supported cultural amenities, and bought religious supplies for the community. Between 1945 and 1950 alone, some 420,000 Jews in Eastern Europe become beneficiaries of the Joint, which spent over 300 million dollars on assistance and sent an army of professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, and administrators) to serve the needs of approximately 700,000 people each month—both in and outside of the DP apparatus.
From 1947 on, an increasing part of the JDC budget was devoted to assisting refugees to emigrate from Europe. Between 1947 and the foundation of the Israeli state in May 1948, JDC funding assisted some 115,000 refugees to reach Palestine. JDC officials also provided relief and assistance to those would-be immigrants whom the British interned in camps on the island of Cyprus. After Israel was established, the JDC continued to facilitate Jewish immigration to the new state.
By the end of 1950, around 440,000 Jews had reached Israel with JDC assistance: 270,000 were refugees from Europe; another 167,000 were refugees from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East, including 46,000 from Yemen flown in from the British colony Aden in Operation “Magic Carpet.”