Penny Blumenstein: President of JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)

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The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters.

In December 2011, Penny Blumenstein was elected the 16th President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Mrs. Blumenstein has been an active Board member, serving on JDC’s Executive Committee, the President’s Advisory Committee, and as a past Chair of the Resource Development Committee. She was also the Chair of the Policy Group on Future Funding. Mrs. Blumenstein has served on the JDC Board since 2002.

How did you get into the non-profit industry?

I wanted to give something of myself to the community. My life was so family-centric and I felt I had something more to share with my community and the world.

Tell us about JDC.

For 100 years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – known to many as “JDC” or “the Joint” – has offered a Jewish response to war, economic strife, natural disaster, genocide, and human suffering of all kinds. We are the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian organization and were founded in 1914 to aid Jews overseas suffering during the outbreak of World War I.

Since then, we’ve gone on to play a pivotal role in the history of the Jews. Whether it was helping Jews fleeing Nazism in Europe in the build-up to World War II or sustaining Holocaust survivors in Displaced Persons camps after the war … offering aid to impoverished Jews in Ethiopia and airlifting them to Israel … or rebuilding Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism … JDC was there.

Today, we continue our global mission to cultivate Jewish life and help the needy in over 70 countries. We run a network of social welfare centers in the former Soviet Union aiding hundreds of thousands of elderly and children; offer employment training programs for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli-Arabs; and have fostered Jewish community life, training tomorrow’s Jewish leaders, in places from Warsaw to Budapest to Moscow to Mumbai, bucking the winds of history and empowering newly emerged and ancient Jewish communities.

At the same time, and throughout our 100 years of work, we have levered our expertise in crisis management to help Ukraine famine victims in the 1920’s and 30’s; survivors of the earthquake in Haiti; typhoon victims in Philippines; flood victims in the Balkans; and Syrian refugees in Jordan.

We put into action the ideal that all Jews are responsible for one another and all humankind.

What differentiates your non-profit from the rest of the industry?

While I don’t like to make those kinds of comparisons because many worthwhile groups impact millions of people every day, what makes JDC special is its continuous and essential presence in the lives of a people who have faced a century of profound tragedy and miraculous rebirth. We have been there, as part of the Jewish people, as they faced persecution, near annihilation, and have helped them rebuild, forge a state of their own in Israel, and thrive in communities around the globe.

Under your leadership JDC has grown drastically, what marketing strategies/partnerships helped you accomplish this?

For a very long time, we were known as “the best kept secret” in the philanthropic world. That’s because a lot of our work historically was clandestine and lives were at stake. But today, especially with social media and the proliferation of information at speeds I never imagined, we need to be out front and touting our work so that people understand the challenges faced by so many.

We continue to rely on the strong partnerships we have with core funders like the Jewish Federation system, but we have branched out and today have tens of thousands of individual donors and foundation support. And we leverage money exponentially so that a single donation to JDC is matched to other funds to create maximum impact.

Add to that our first-rate website, social media presence, and traditional media engagement and we have a winning package.

But we also have something else: ingenuity. Here’s a great example – in Israel, we work together with the government and local NGOS as an innovator of social services. We identify a social problem like unemployment among vulnerable Israelis, create a pilot to address the individual needs of that group, and then, if successful, spin it off to the government which expands it nationwide. We’re doing this right now by deploying an employment training program for people with disabilities. The initial results are strong and we are eager to see how we can help Israel’s large population of people with disabilities gain independence, and wider acceptance, through their engagement in the workplace.

What makes a great philanthropist?

I am not sure I know what constitutes a great philanthropist; after all, everyone can be one – large or small – we all have something to contribute.

What is your proudest moment as President of JDC?

Certainly our 100th anniversary celebrations in Washington, Paris, and Jerusalem, replete with praise from government and NGO leaders, would seemingly fit the bill. But to tell you the truth, my proudest moment was just in Kiev a few weeks ago, visiting JDC programs and meeting with a groups of Jewish families displaced by the conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. Before they fled, they had businesses, schools and summer camp to attend, and lives to lead.

But now they have nothing, in a new city and are in need. So in addition to the aid package we are offering them – food, rent subsidies, and connection to the Jewish community – we have also set up group therapy sessions with grief counselors.

I attended one session where the people kindly let us listen in. A mother with two young children recalled how her husband's car repair business was destroyed and that there were mines in the streets, preventing her kids from going out and playing. Someone else talked about the about mines planted on their apartment complex’s roof, so they could never return to their home.

Their process of healing, our role in helping them gain some normalcy, that’s something to truly be proud of. That’s JDC all the way.

How do you give back personally?

It's really so simple: by giving my time, imparting the lessons from the leadership experience I have been privileged to have, and then sharing it with others.

Favorite travel destination?

Everywhere and anywhere! I love to travel and have new experiences and adventures. Wanderlust can be infectious and I love to have my grandchildren travel with us.

Role model - business and personal?

I have been fortunate that my home community in Detroit has had many role models for me. Women who set great examples of leadership. However, I would say my parents had the most impact on my life. They taught me the value of tzedakah (the obligation to give in Judaism) and community service by their own actions.

Most interesting headline you've read this week?

Unfortunately, the headlines I have been drawn to lately have been about the conflicts in the Ukraine and Israel. I would call them more distressing than interesting.

What literature is on your bed stand?

The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See. When I have time to read fiction for pleasure I like books that use the language to create lasting impressions.

What's next for JDC and Penny Blumenstein?

As you can imagine, we're currently focusing on our lifesaving work in Israel and Ukraine, two countries in the center of the news right now. Looking forward, our job today and into the future is to ensure we continue that avodat kodesh, Hebrew for holy work, so that lives can be bettered and Jews can continue to thrive in communities around the world. It’s a simple mission and one, we know, marches on with time.


DC President Penny Blumenstein visits an elderly client in Kiev in July.
Credit: JDC

Penny is a past President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and a Trustee of Israel Bonds-Women’s Division and of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Detroit. She is a Board member of the national American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, as well as of the Detroit chapter. Mrs. Blumenstein is a member of the Board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Chair of the Jewish Fund, a legacy of Sinai Hospital in the Detroit community; a member of the Board of the West Bloomfield Board at the Henry Ford Health System; and a member of the Executive Committee at the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan. She is a past member of the Boards of United Way, Hebrew Free Loan, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

In 2001, Mrs. Blumenstein received the Golden Torah Award from Yeshiva Beth Yehuda. In 2003, she received the first “Women Lighting the Way” award from the Jewish Women’s Foundation. In 2005, she received both the Detroit Federation’s Butzel Award and the George Romney Award for Lifetime Achievement in Volunteerism. She is also a past recipient of the Israel Peace Medal from Israel Bonds. Penny and her husband, Harold, have three married children: Randall (and Marci), Lauren (and Jordan), and Richard (and Carol). They have twelve grandchildren. When not traveling on JDC business, Mrs. Blumenstein divides her time between homes in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and Palm Beach, Florida.