Jdc’s Director for Hungary Dies from Cancer at Age of 60

Israel Sela, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for Hungary, has died in Jerusalem at 60 after a four-year battle with cancer.

Sela, an Israeli, took up his JDC position in Budapest in 1994. He was instrumental in developing a number of projects aimed at ensuring the future of the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe.

These included revamping social welfare programs for elderly Holocaust survivors and promoting the activities of Balint House, the first full-service Jewish community center in the region.

Other key projects that he helped develop included the expansion and enrichment of the JDC/Lauder Foundation International Jewish camp at Szarvas in southern Hungary. The camp annually draws 2,000 Jewish youngsters from post-Communist countries.

Trained as a social worker and educator, Sela spoke more than half a dozen languages fluently.

The son of deaf parents, he received a PhD from Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington. An expert in sign language, he implemented innovative programs for hearing-impaired Holocaust survivors and other Jews.

The eulogies at his funeral near Tel Aviv last week were translated into sign language.

Sela had a broad smile and an infectious zest for living that endeared him to his friends and colleagues.

Throughout his illness, he maintained a sense of humor and a dedicated commitment to his work and to the Jewish community he served.

“He taught us about life — but he also taught us how to die, and in this sense he was unique,” the JDC’s assistant executive vice president, Amir Shaviv, said at a commemoration ceremony at JDC headquarters in New York.

“He stared at the inevitable end — yet instead of being paralyzed with fear waiting passively to die, he became a dynamo of life, generating energy and achievements,” Shaviv said. “If his days were numbered — he made sure each one of them counted; and death had no dominion over him until his very last moment.”

Sela is survived by his wife, Leah, son Guy, daughters Anat and Adi, and three grandchildren.

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