Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.
The single largest beneficiary of UJC's generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.
UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.
Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor's Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).
The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group's executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.
Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues -- Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.
"Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead," Harris said. "Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts."
In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.
Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
"Whenever there's a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won't be able to cover all those losses," Hirsch said. "Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund."
The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.
According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues' fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.
"Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time," said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ's board of trustees. "Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily."
Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.
"We're tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they've stepped forward and provided financial support," Stillman said. "I don't know where we'd be otherwise."