Meet the JDC man on the Romania-Ukraine border – The Forward

Israel Sabag was facing a rebellion from the bus full of 30 refugees who arrived unannounced at the Joint Distribution Committee tent here on the Ukraine-Romania border on Friday morning.

Sabag, the Joint’s director for Romania, had been working for weeks with local hotels and hostels to prepare for the flood of people crossing the border since the Russian invasion. He was ready for anything.

Except for a sad-eyed Lab, an elderly Pekingese, a 5-year-old gray cat, and their respective handlers.

None of the places Sabag had set up to accommodate refugees allowed animals on their premises. And despite their urgent circumstances, the pet owners refused to part with their pets. In fact, even people without pets refused pet-free accommodations.

“They were just thrown on the bus together – neither of these families knew each other,” Sabag said. After hours of walking through war zones together, he said, “they stood in solidarity with pet owners.”

He kind of admired resilience. And, as the refugees crowded around the tent, Sabag had an idea.

There was a summer camp for children in a town not far away that belonged to the Jewish Agency. After a few phone calls, the Ukrainians go to sleep there, dogs and cats in tow.

Sabag, who is 53 years old and has worked for Join for three decades, has always “demonstrated a spirit of flexibility and an ability to overcome obstacles and think outside the box”, said Amir Shaviv, director of public relations of the organization, which is a big fan.

Founded in 1914, the Joint Distribution Committee – commonly known as the Joint or JDC – is the largest Jewish humanitarian organization in the world, with operations in 70 countries, including many remote and impoverished places. It is a leader in the Jewish effort to support Ukrainian refugees, operating reception tents in many countries along the Ukrainian border and coordinating with other groups to help people make aliyah. in Israel or to find other places of longer-term stay.

Sabag is the director of Joint programs in Romania, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Morocco.

The latter, he admits, sounds like the thing that doesn’t belong to the others on Sesame Street. But Sabag was born in Morocco and grew up speaking a Moroccan dialect of Arabic at home, so it’s a natural fit for him, if not the region.

Sabag was 3 when his family moved to Israel in 1972. He grew up in the port city of Ashdod and served in a special unit of the Israel Defense Forces which divided his time between Talmud study and military duties . While there, Sabag volunteered for a program in which he taught young people from the B’nai Akiva Orthodox youth movement.

One Hanukkah, he recalls, when he was short on resources for his students’ parties, a friend suggested Sabag seek help from the Joint. Soon after, they offered him a job teaching rudimentary Hebrew to Jews in Russia who had only recently been freed from the restrictions imposed on such learning during the Soviet communist era.

“The goal was to teach Russian students 100 Hebrew words,” he recalls. “And I was the best teacher there because I didn’t know a word of Russian. The students were forced to speak only Hebrew in class because of my ignorance.

Today, Sabag is fluent in Russian, as well as English, Romanian, Arabic and, of course, Hebrew. Before the pandemic hit, he typically spent up to 200 days a year away from his home in Israel, traveling to lead JDC programs in eight countries.

“We call him ‘Mr. Push,'” said Albert Lozneanu, director of the Jewish Community Center in Lasi, the Romanian town that is home to the historic Great Synagogue, built in 1671. “He has incredible listening skills,” said added Louzneanu. “I am calling him to ask for professional advice and, of course, financial help.” It was Sabag, Lozneanu said, who encouraged him to run for the post of general secretary of the Jewish community.

Sabag is married to a woman he met while working for the Joint is Russia. She converted to Judaism and they have three children – a 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old boy-girl twins.

“I think they’ve gotten used to me not being very present in their lives,” he said of the children, speaking in a low voice for the first time that day. “But I think they learned other things. It made them a little tougher.

The silver lining of the pandemic was that he couldn’t travel. “It gave me a chance to see my children and spend time with them,” Sabag said. “It gave me a chance to repay all the years we weren’t together.”

Now, of course, he is on the move again. He arrived in Bucharest two weeks ago and worked tirelessly to establish 24-hour hotlines to answer calls from around the world. He stayed in a small hotel in Radauti, about 25 km from the Siret border operations, sleeping two or three hours a night.

“We talk about how all Jews are responsible for each other,” he said. “We have the privilege of hugging them when they need it.”

About Edward Fries

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