Amy Skopp Cooper

Linda Levi MA’72

"I think that one of the greatest challenges facing World Jewry today is the whole question of what binds us together as a Jewish People...  

"We don't want to be defined only by the external threats of antisemitism, or the issues of Islamic fundamentalism, or BDS that are external threats and challenges for the Jewish community."



Linda's
Short Bio

Linda received a Bachelor of Arts from New York University and Master of Arts in Contemporary Jewish Studies and Jewish Communal Service from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University. After graduating from Brandeis, Linda made aliyah to Israel. There she found work at the Jerusalem YM-YWHA and then at JDC-Eshel. She also supervised students at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work at the Hebrew University.

When she returned to the United States, Linda began work at UJA-Federation of New York. Soon after she took a position at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, where she has worked for the last thirty years.



Linda's Professional Network

Visit the websites of the Jewish organizations mentioned in Linda's profile:

 

Hornstein Alumni Profile


Linda Levi
 
on Her Sense of
  Peoplehood &
  Three Decades
  at JDC as a Jewish
  Professional Leader


"I had two dreams when I completed the Hornstein Program,” recalls Linda Levi MA’72, Assistant Executive Vice President for Global Archives for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “One was to work for “the Joint,” and the other was to make aliyah to Israel.” She’s done both.

After completing her degree at Hornstein, Linda made aliyah and took work at JDC-Eshel, a partnership between the Joint and the Israeli government that plans and develops services for elderly Israelis.

A first-generation American Jewish child of European immigrant parents, Linda was raised to feel a powerful connection to Israel and her extended family around the world. “Israel has always been important in my life and I’ve always had a feeling of responsibility for my fellow Jews.”

This sense of connection and commitment to World Jewry found an outlet at the Joint. “The Joint is the organization that demonstrates this commitment to Jewish Peoplehood in its day-to-day work,” she says. “It does this in very meaningful ways and in such immediate ways.”

When she returned to the U.S. from Israel, she waited for a position to open up at JDC’s headquarters. In the three decades that she’s been working there, much of her work has involved organizational strategy planning, programmatic planning, and decision-making as Assistant Executive Vice President for Program Planning and Budget.

Her position now as Assistant Executive Vice President of Global Archives allows her to remember and review a century of JDC’s work in support of World Jewry and her own involvement these past thirty years.

“There’s been so much I witnessed,” Linda exclaims. “For example, I was with the Joint during the time of Glasnost and the fall of the Iron Curtain. In Hungary, even before the end of the fall of the Iron Curtain, we participated in efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Eastern Europe. And in Ethiopia, I was involved in JDC’s efforts to assist Ethiopian Jewry. 

Linda’s work has allowed her to get to know many Jewish communities around the world, to witness evolution in those communities and here at home.

“We’re a different community now than we were 20, 50, or 70 years ago. People then experienced and remembered the establishment of the State of Israel, or the Holocaust, when the refugees were fleeing, the survivors were arriving. They remembered the feeling of powerlessness when this awful war was unfolding and were desperate to know what could be done about it. Those were visceral reactions of people who cared and knew that something needed to be done and stepped up to do it,” she says.

Today, Linda wonders if American Jews will continue to provide resources to help less fortunate brethren. “A few decades ago I think we were more willing to give whatever we could to help in those particular crises. But in the post-modern world, how are we going to generate and encourage that kind of caring and that kind of action?”

Linda isn’t sure. Hindsight may provide an answer. In the meantime, if there are vulnerable Jews in need around the world, she will be there with JDC to help. 



In Her Own Words:
  An Interview with Linda Levi

Q: How long have you worked for the JDC, and how did you get there?

LINDA: Believe it or not, I've been with JDC for 30 years. When I completed the Hornstein Program, I had two dreams. One was to work for the Joint and the other was to make aliyah to Israel. And right after I graduated, I did make aliyah and I lived in Israel for a number of years.

While in Israel, I worked with a couple of major organizations, all connected to the Joint. One was Eshel, which is a partnership between JDC and the Israeli government to plan and develop services for the aged in Israel. When I came back to the States again, my dream was to work for the Joint. It didn’t happen right away. I began with working at UJA Federation of New York. When a position opened up at the Joint, I applied and was hired. I've been here for 30 years and it's been wonderful.

I've always felt that the Joint was one of the most important Jewish communal organizations. I view it as the crème de la crème of organizations. The Joint’s mission is a very compelling one, and I've been privileged to play roles in riveting points in Jewish history.

Q: Can you expand on some of those?

LINDA: Sure. I was with the Joint during the time of Glasnost and the falling of the Iron Curtain. I was involved at the beginning of strategic thinking about how to reconnect with the Jews in the Soviet Union and how an organization like the Joint can begin to try to make an impact in the Soviet Union.

I was involved in efforts that began even before that period, efforts which were intended to test the waters there. We were working in welfare programs in a few Eastern European countries, and we were always testing the possibilities of how to integrate programs that had Jewish content and education, like Jewish camps for kids, which we pursued.
 
In Hungary, for example, even before the fall of the Iron Curtain, we participated in efforts to rebuild Jewish life.

And in Ethiopia, I was involved in JDC’s efforts to assist Ethiopian Jewry. JDC received permission in late 1983 from Ethiopia’s Marxist government to provide emergency humanitarian relief and to develop rehabilitation programs. I was active in program-planning decisions to locate JDC programs in the Gondar region in the north of Ethiopia, which is where the bulk of the Jewish villages were situated. Operation Solomon, the aliyah of 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia in May, 1991, was an exciting time as things were being planned and as they unfolded.

I’ve witnessed the Joint’s rescue efforts in the last couple of decades involving the remaining Jews in Syria and the remaining Jews in Yemen.

I’ve also observed sad times in the history of JDC, like the Balkan Wars and the rescue convoys that the Joint organized from Sarajevo, and how we provided relief and medications for people who were stuck there and under gun fire.

I’ve seen during different periods the challenges to Israel and been involved in JDC efforts to play a role in some of those difficult situations.

My work at the Joint has provided me with an amazing vantage point, allowed me to see and visit those communities around the world where we're working and be part of the thinking about what the needs are, changing situations, and how the Jewish community can be helpful. It's been a privilege to be part of these efforts. 

Q: Were you drawn to work at the Joint because of a desire to be part of their humanitarian aid and social services network or for some other reason?

LINDA: It think what drew me to work for the Joint was my own strong sense of Jewish Peoplehood, a strong sense that we're connected and we have responsibilities for each other.

I've grown up with this feeling. Maybe it’s because my parents were born in Europe. My dad came to the US in 1938 from Frankfurt, Germany, and my mom is from Vienna. She was on a kindertransport in England before rejoining her family in New York. And my extended family, primarily cousins of my parents, lives around the world. I have family in Israel, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, Ecuador, Canada, and England. 

Israel has always been important in my life and I’ve always had a feeling of responsibility for my fellow Jews. The Joint is the organization that demonstrates this commitment to Jewish Peoplehood in its day-to-day work. It does this in very meaningful ways and in such immediate ways. The culture within the Joint is to get the job done, to “turn on a dime,” be able and capable to address the newest catastrophe or the newest issue and organize the best help possible in a particular situation.

Q: Now you are the Assistant Executive Vice President for Global Archives. You must have held many positions prior to this.
 
LINDA: For most of my career with the Joint I was working in program planning and budget. I was Assistant Executive Vice President for Program Planning and Budget for many years.

In that role I was setting the organizational strategies, programmatic directions, and decision-making process. I worked with the various area committees of the board, worked with the Budget and Finance Committee, and brought our annual and three-year plans through a review and approval process.

I worked with our field staff to understand changing needs and changing situations. I did a lot of travel around the world to view and understand the needs first-hand and to see our programs first-hand. I was privileged to be involved in a central position in all of that.

In 2009, our archivist retired and the organization came to me with a challenge to make the archives useful and relevant, to take our treasures and make them relevant for the Joint today.

It's been an unbelievable opportunity, and I have learned so much. It is always so rewarding to develop new skills and explore new content areas. The JDC Archives is one of the most important repositories in the world for modern Jewish history. We've always been an organization that is proud of its history and refers to its history in the work we do today. It's been an exciting process, determining how to best showcase some of what we have in the archives, be it in museums, or our centennial exhibits, or for JDC’s contemporary activities in the US and around the world. For example, the new Polin Museum in Warsaw includes some of our photos and historic films in its permanent collection. The JDC centennial exhibit in 2014 at the New-York Historical Society drew new audiences to learn about the work of our organization.

We’re working to make our archives more visible and accessible. We've digitized many of our historic document and photo collections. We've developed a JDC Archives website that makes our photos and our historic records available online to scholars around the world and includes an interactive timeline, a Names Index for family researchers and genealogists, and curated online exhibits. We have fellowship programs for scholars to conduct research in our archives. We have published a centennial book of photographs and treasures from our archives.

We're working on a scholarly book right now that will be published by Wayne State University Press. It is a compilation of papers written by about 15 scholars on the role of JDC in different places and during different periods.

So there's a lot to do, and it's been very inspiring. Our archives are a real treasure and we value them greatly.

There's one document in our collections that beautifully speaks to the work of the Joint and from which we took the name of our centennial exhibit at the New-York Historical Society and our centennial book which we titled “I Live. Send Help.”
 
It was based on a real cable that JDC received on July 14, 1945 from Luba Mizne who wrote to the JDC in New York from Warsaw right after the war. The cable had only these four words: “I live require help.”
 
When we were working with the curator to plan our exhibit, we showed her this document and she said, “We've got the name for the exhibit! I live. Send help. That says it all.”

Q: How old do you think Luba was?   

LINDA: I know nothing about Luba other than that she was a survivor who knew that if anyone was going to help her, it was the Joint. We were operating in Poland since World War I, even during the Warsaw ghetto years. She would have known about the Joint and knew we would help her.

Q: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing World Jewry today?

LINDA: I think that one of the greatest challenges facing World Jewry today is the whole question of what binds us together as a Jewish People. What does Jewish identity mean and what is Peoplehood? We have many different permutations of Jewish today, given a great deal of inter-marriage, given assimilation, and it's harder to find commonalities in terms of a perceived identity as a Jew or a perceived sense of shared history. We used to say that what draws people together is a shared sense of Jewish history, a shared sense of tradition, a shared sense of self-identity.  

When those are fading a bit, I think it's really hard to find what feeling Jewish means and what draws people together. We don't want to be defined only by the external threats of antisemitism, or the issues of Islamic fundamentalism, or BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) that are external threats and challenges for the Jewish community.

I hope that we can work at what holds us together. There are big challenges to Jewish communities and Jewish communal agencies to build a sense of identity, to be relevant to people in the community, particularly young people and young families.

These challenges that we have in American Jewish communities are not unique to America but are prevalent in a lot of overseas Jewish communities as well. They're even more challenging in overseas communities which have been cut off from Jewish life. In the years right after Glasnost, there was a greater hunger and excitement around things Jewish.

Many of these challenges around identity can be seen in Israel. There, for example, there are questions such as: Am I an Israeli or am I a Jew? What binds Israel with the Diaspora? Do Jews around the world have a stake, or should they have a stake, in what the future of Israel looks like? These are all concerns about the future of Israel and these are all questions that people in Israel have. Different groups feel differently and have different opinions.

Q: Not everyone is comfortable with the term Diaspora. What’s your view?

LINDA: I’ve heard a lot of people express that in different ways. The term implies that Israel is the center of World Jewry.  Are there many centers of Jewry? I think Israel is a center of World Jewry and a very important one. I don't think it's the only center of World Jewry. I don't have a personal problem with the terminology, because I mean by it that there are many centers of Jewish life. I think it's important that we have relationships with each other, and that we have a relationship with Israel, which is a special relationship.

Q: What excites you most about your work with JDC, in the Jewish community, and what least excites you or frustrates you?
 
LINDA: What excites me most about my work at JDC is being at the center of what's happening around the world and having a vantage point where I'm able to address needs and different situations of our many Jewish communities. 

I have always had a particular interest in understanding the ethnic differences within and among Jewish communities around the world, and my work has provided me with a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow in this direction. I've enjoyed getting to visit and learn about different communities that have different traditions, different ways of doing things, different ways of operating. And I've enjoyed learning about those things and learning that there isn't only one way to do things. Different communities have unique perspectives and traditions and they are all legitimate.

My work as Director of the JDC Archives enables me to use our 101 years of modern Jewish history in text records, photographs, films and oral histories in ways that will assist scholars, family historians, filmmakers, publishers, museums, and Jewish communities around the world. 

I've enjoyed all this very much. My work allows me to be at one with my own personal Interest in Peoplehood, Jewish history and community, and community building and social planning.

Q: Anything that frustrates you? 

LINDA: Frustrates me? [LAUGH] I think everybody's jobs have some things that frustrate them. But those aren't the things that I think need to be spoken about now.

I think the Jewish community has challenges. In looking forward to the next 20, 50, 100 years, I'd first reference the many hundreds of hours I’ve spent reviewing the last 100 years and all kinds of activities for JDC’s centennial anniversary. It's made me very proud to see what this wonderful organization was able to do in so many places around the world, and in very difficult times, particularly during the World War II years and its aftermath. 

But even beyond that, the Jewish community, the organized Jewish community, has been amazing and has done amazing things in the face of many, many crises.

Looking to the future, the identity questions that we talked about really raise concerns about whether people will continue to care enough to reach out to Jewish communities around the world who might need help or simply to build relationships with them.

Will there be sufficient resources to continue to assist Jewish communities in need around the world? Will there be a sense of responsibility that makes people who are wealthy or not wealthy want to give money so that the organized Jewish community is able to address these kinds of needs?

We’re a different community now than we were 20, 50, or 70 years ago. People then experienced and remembered the establishment of the State of Israel, or the Holocaust, when the refugees were fleeing, the survivors were arriving. They remembered the feeling of powerlessness when this awful war was unfolding and were desperate to know what could be done about it. Those were visceral reactions of people who cared and knew that something needed to be done and stepped up to do it. A few decades ago I think we were more willing to give whatever we could to help in those particular crises. But in the post-modern world, how are we going to generate and encourage that kind of caring and that kind of action?

We still see that there are people who care in times of natural disasters around the globe, but these are non-sectarian needs. I'm proud that our organization has played roles in response to natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami or the Haiti earthquake, and some man-made catastrophes too, like what happened in Rwanda or Kosovo or any number of things.

JDC has played a major role in these events, participating on behalf of the Jewish community and raising huge amounts of money as a Jewish contribution to humanitarian aid during times of catastrophe. I believe the Jewish community should be playing major roles in these humanitarian crises.

But what about our reaction to hunger of elderly Jews in Ukraine or at-risk children in Jewish communities around the world? I don’t think we see that same kind of empathy as much as we did in the past.  

Q: Can you tell me a little about what the Hornstein Program was like for you?

LINDA: I loved my years at the Hornstein Program and I look at those years as a coming together of my personal commitments, my professional aspirations, and my love of learning. I studied with giants in the Jewish world like Alexander Altman, Nachum Glatzer, Marshall Sklare, Leonard Fein, and many others.

When I was at Hornstein, we enjoyed a wonderful spirit and experience. Some of my very closest friends to this day are people whom I have been friends with since the Hornstein Program, people like Emily Levy Shochat, who is in Israel and who is being honored in April by the Masorti Foundation. She's concluding five years as president of Masorti, Israel. People like Passi Rosen Bayewitz who's been a communal professional in senior positions in Bergen County and then at New York Federation.   

Q: Do you have any suggestions regarding alumni networks for the Hornstein Program?

LINDA: I think more formal alumni networks are useful, especially for the younger alumni. There are many Hornstein alumni in key positions all over the Jewish world. We should be seen as a resource for young people who want advice about a career step or are seeking a mentor. Those are things that Bernie Reisman, when he was heading the Hornstein Program all those years, did all the time. He nurtured those kinds relationships and of course, we learned by his example.

 



This interview with Linda was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, March 2016. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.