World Traveler Works for Rescue, Relief and Renewal

By now, Will Recant knows the melodies sung in the Havana Synagogue –– that’s Havana, Cuba –– better than those at his home synagogue in New Jersey.

Though no one’s keeping track, he’s probably celebrated more Shabbats in Havana than any other non-Cuban Jew. He’s probably been to Ethiopia and Venezuela and China and Rwanda more than any other American Jew.

Repairing the world can really rack up those frequent flyer miles.

As a senior executive with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or the Joint, as it’s affectionately known), Recant travels the world to carry out the 94-year-old organization’s mission: rescue, relief and renewal of far-flung Jewish communities.

He was in the Bay Area last week to meet with supporters, appeal for funds and talk up the good work of the Joint.

First on his agenda: rescuing the last of the Falash Mura, the Ethiopian Jews still in the home country. Recant says about 3,000 remain eligible to make aliyah, and the Joint is on the ground helping. About 300 depart monthly for Israel. “The Ethiopian government said, ‘OK, anyone who wants to go is free to go. You don’t need an airlift.’”

More than 110,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel. Recant gives a mixed report card on how they’re doing. Although the people have made amazing strides in education and absorption, especially the younger generation, Recant laments their slow economic and cultural progress, noting, “In Jerusalem, the security guard at every restaurant is Ethiopian.”

Though he’s been all over the world, Recant has a fondness for the Jewish community in Cuba, which today numbers around 1,500. He says ever since 1992, when the country switched from being officially atheist to officially nonreligious, “There’s been a renaissance of Jewish life in Cuba. The synagogue is open.”

Making sure the Joint helped out in that effort, Recant has traveled to the island nation 50 times. His organization has special dispensation from the U.S. Treasury (the department that enforces the embargo), which allows him free travel.

Recant’s portfolio also includes the Joint’s efforts in general disaster relief. That covers everything from helping the victims of the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami and rebuilding demolished mosques in Kosovo to rescuing Rwandan orphans.

One of Recant’s pet projects is the $10 million Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, now under construction, which will house 500 orphaned children. “A lot of what we do is build bridges for Jews and Israel,” he adds.

World traveler wasn’t exactly what Recant had in mind after earning his doctorate in political science at George Washington University. The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, he hoped to teach but in- stead found work as a fundraiser for the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry. He later became director, and when that organization folded in 1993, the Joint snatched him up.

Somehow, with all the globetrotting, Recant has managed to maintain a family life. He and his wife, Nancy, have two college-age daughters, both of whom had their bat mitzvahs in Cuba. His eldest daughter, Rebecca, seems to have a feel for the family business: She is currently volunteering in Argentina.

Recant is quick to acknowledge the role Bay Area supporters have played in the recent success of the Joint. He especially credits Alan Rothenberg, Harold Zlot, Annette Dobbs, Nancy Grand and Roselyne “Cissy” Swig for their leadership over the years.

Though he’s had his share of uphill climbs, Recant remains optimistic, not only about the Joint’s mission, but the future of the Jewish people worldwide. With the last of the Falash Mura reaching Israel, Recant says, “There is no current need for rescue in the Jewish world.”

After a few thousand years of global persecution, that’s quite a statement, though he’s quick to add, “That doesn’t mean you let your guard down. Anyone who knows the Joint knows the mission is still needed.”

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