WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week via JTA) â€” Whether Caryl Stern, the president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, is touring a war-torn country, a natural disaster or a refugee camp, she always sees children playing.
They may be kicking a ball made of paper or hugging a doll made of rags or straw, but they are happily playing.
The kidsâ€™ ability to smile and play through the most extreme of circumstances is what inspires her every day.Â Since taking the helm of the organization in 2007, Stern has guided UNICEFâ€™sÂ responses toÂ disastersÂ as variedÂ as the 2010Â earthquake in Haiti and the Ebola crisis in west Africa.
She has also faced criticism that UNICEF is hostile to Israel. Many years ago, one of the camps it sponsored in Beirut to keep children off the street was subsequentlyÂ renamed for a suicide bomber. Hearing this, the Reform movement of Judaism in the United States ended its sponsorship of the program.Â Although the campâ€™s renaming was unofficial, â€œthe damage had been done,â€ Stern said, and for years Jewish children stopped carrying the bright orange UNICEF collection boxes during Halloween.
â€œI stand very proudly as a Jewish woman at the helm of this organization,â€ said Stern, 57. â€œRight now is our moment. This is our opportunity to stand up for everything we believe.â€
Stern, who previously spent 18 years atÂ the Anti-Defamation League and was a 2014 Jewish Women International Woman to Watch, said that herÂ â€œfirm belief in tikkun olam [repair of the world] and not putting the sins of our fathers on childrenâ€ make it necessary to be involved.
Her current focus is the scores of young people fleeing their countries, sometimes without adult supervision.
â€œI call them children,â€ Stern said. â€œThey arenâ€™t migrants. They are not refugees. They are not illegal aliens. They are kids.â€
Some 30 million children â€” 13 million of them from the Middle East and North Africa â€” need a permanent place to live and a school to attend regularly, she said.
Stern is aware that these children have â€œscars that are going to be with them for a long time,â€ including physical and intellectual problems due to malnourishment and disease.
But their resiliency motivatesÂ her.
â€œIf you turn on music, they will dance,â€ she said, boasting that sheâ€™sÂ Â â€œplayed â€˜Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toesâ€™ in just about every language.â€
So many of the problems facing the children faceÂ â€œare fixable, curable,â€ she said. With proper medicine, vaccines and clean water â€” and with an end to war â€” many of their woes would disappear. Her goal is â€œzero hunger, zero poverty, zero disease,â€ which she described in her 2013 book, â€œI Believe in Zero.â€
Stern was in Washington last week to attend Fortune magazineâ€™sÂ Most Powerful Women event and launch a new fundraising program, UNICEF Kid Power. A $40 bracelet encourages children to be more active while teaching them about other cultures in a game-like program that awards points for exercising.
The bracelet â€œlights up, and it buzzes,â€ she said. â€œKids love it.â€ The money raised will be used to deliver food to malnourished children around the world.
Some might assumeÂ Sternâ€™s position is an office job,Â but she saidÂ she needs to â€œbear witnessâ€ â€” in her eight years at UNICEF, she has traveled to 32 countries. Stern said that having grown up in a family steeped in Holocaust memories, she understands the importance of retelling stories from firsthand knowledge.
Sternâ€™sÂ mother was 6, and her uncle 4, in 1939 when their mother, Sternâ€™s grandmother, kissed them goodbye and sent them from Vienna to America with a woman they didnâ€™t know. They ended up in an orphanage on New York Cityâ€™sÂ Lower East Side.
That same year, her grandfather boardedÂ the St. Louis, the German cruise linerÂ filled with Jewish passengers heading to Cuba. The ship was forced to return to Europe when no country would open its arms to the Jewish passengers.
Growing up, â€œthe two stories we constantly heard were how nobody gave a damnâ€ to help the Jews, according to her grandfather, and â€œhow nice people were to take my mother in and care for her.â€
Stern, the mother of three sons, knew she wasnâ€™t going to be the one to turn her back on children who, through no fault of their own, were suffering.
People sometimes hear that UNICEF has programs in areas hostile to Israel â€” including, most recently, the Gaza Strip â€” and they condemn the organization, Stern said. But UNICEFâ€™s mandate allows it to operate only in underdeveloped countries, and Israel is not one, she explained.
There are exceptions, she added.Â It has set up a recreation center for children in Sderot, who grow up under the constant threat of bombing.
â€œUNICEF has absolutely no politics,â€ she said. Â â€œWe donâ€™t deal with adults. â€¦ We only want to give the children what they need.â€