Jewish Journal

Tikkun Olam

Jewish organizations join relief effort to heal the world.

by Rachel Pomerance

Posted on Jan. 6, 2005 at 7:00 pm


When it comes to helping victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is taking the adage, "teach a man how to fish," quite literally.

As part of its long-term relief efforts for victims of the Dec. 26 tragedy, the group is working with its partner organizations in the region, including the Sanghamitra Service Society in Andhra Pradesh, India, which helps local fishing communities with sustainable development and disaster preparedness. The philosophy behind the group's post-tsunami effort is the same as that behind general AJWS operations -- long-term efforts through collaboration with groups in the region.

"We don't just go in and leave. We go in and we develop," said Ronni Strongin, a spokeswoman for AJWS, which already has raised more than $2 million in online contributions alone for tsunami victims.

The AJWS isn't alone in its approach: While not ignoring immediate needs, other Jewish groups also are planning aid that addresses the long-range needs of areas affected by the tsunami, which is believed to have claimed at least 150,000 lives. (For how to help, see sidebar, page 21.)

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has raised more than $1.7 million, is taking a similar approach.

"Everybody comes in to provide emergency relief, and then they all leave and there's nobody left behind to help rebuild the infrastructure," said Steven Schwager, JDC executive vice president. "While a portion of our money will go for short-term emergency relief, a larger part of our money will go for infrastructure to leave something behind that the Jewish community can get credit for."

That approach is likely to influence the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella of North American Jewish organizations, expected to convene next week at the JDC's request. The group provides a central address and decision-making process for disbursement of Jewish relief aid.

Until then, the JDC plans to allocate funds it has raised to local agencies on the ground, like the International Rescue Committee in Indonesia. In India, it will send funds to the local Jewish community.

Nearly 40 Jewish federations are soliciting funds for the tsunami victims and plan to donate the money directly to JDC, according to the United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body of the federation system. The JDC is an overseas partner of the federation system. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has so far collected about $150,000, a portion of which will go to the JDC, and the remainder to an international aid organization.

Like other groups collecting relief money, Jewish organizations report that donors have responded quickly.

"The response has been very good," said Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, which has collected more than $200,000 so far.

For its part, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that it is donating $100,000 to organizations helping tsunami victims. Further allocations from the union's aid fund, which so far has taken in more than $300,000, will be made in coming weeks, the union announced.

Israel also is pitching in. Over the weekend, a 70-ton shipment from Israel arrived in Sri Lanka fromthe Israeli charity organization Latet, "to give" in Hebrew. The $300,000 airlift includes the most urgently needed equipment: 250,000 water purifying tablets, 1,000 water containers, medical equipment and medication. According to Sri Lankan sources, it is the largest aid thus far from civilian organizations. In addition, volunteers with ZAKA, the Israeli organization that collects victims' body parts after terrorist attacks, have been identifying bodies in Thailand.

The aftermath of the disaster has allowed for a breakthrough of sorts for Israel's chief relief agency. Magen David Adom officials have been involved in discussions with the International Red Cross on providing aid. That's a first for the Israeli group, according to Daniel Allen, executive vice president of American Red Magen David for Israel, which raises funds for the Israeli group.

The International Red Cross has excluded Magen David Adom from such discussions in the past, and has forced the Israeli group to wear different uniforms. But Magen David Adom intends to build a self-standing field clinic in the disaster zone, and this time its workers will be able to wear their uniforms, adorned with a red Jewish star, when they arrive in the region next week.

In addition to increased collaboration between the American Red Cross and its Israeli counterpart, and pressure by the American Red Cross on Israel's behalf, "no one was going to deny anybody the opportunity to help," Allen said.

Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, also is soliciting funds to allow Hadassah medical staff in Israel to travel to the region to offer their services.

Chabad has also provided a variety of services in Thailand. Among its efforts, the local branch of Chabad paid for ZAKA volunteers to go to the resort island of Phuket to identify both Jewish and non-Jewish victims, and the three Chabad Houses in Thailand have served as crisis centers for Israeli survivors of the disaster.

On New Year's Day, Chabad also sent five victims -- four to Israel and one to Britain -- home for burial.

Here in Los Angeles, Jewish institutions also are stepping up to the plate by sending aid, raising money, holding benefit concerts and educational and religious ceremonies.

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles has been working with the Sri Lanka consulate here to send aid. After Gamini Pemasiri,Acting Consul General of Sri Lanka in Los Angeles, made an urgent call for assistance to Ehud Danoch, the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, they arranged for an El Al cargo plane loaded with over 3,000 pounds of locally donated baby food, medicines and other emergency supplies to leave to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to be transferred to the hardest hit areas of Sri Lanka.

At schools around the city and Valley, teachers and educators talked to their students about the disaster that occurred over the holiday break. "Today is the first day of school since the tsunami disaster of one week ago.... What shall we say to our children?" Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy, wrote to parents. He said that teachers will address the tsunami and talk about pikuah nefesh, saving a human life. Others, he wrote, will talk about the idea of refuah, healing, and how we are obligated to help others in need. All teachers will talk about tzedakah, the need to give charity, and to do the right thing. They will also collect tzedakah each morning for the victims.

"Please give your child an opportunity to earn some money of his or her own, so that he/she can bring his/her own contribution," the letter stated. And if a parent is making a donation online or writing a check, Malkus advised, "invite your children to watch so that they can learn the mitzvah of Tzedakah from their most important teachers."


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