Critics have long derided Jewish federations as functionally outdated and overly bureaucratic -- the organizational equivalent of dinosaurs on the brink of irrelevance, if not extinction.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, though, the array of Jewish organizations under the umbrella of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shown that they are far from moribund. They have raised large sums of money, moved critical resources to devastated areas and coordinated Jewish agencies to address victims' needs.
In a few days, The L.A. Federation collected $600,000 to aid Jews and non-Jews alike in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and other parts of the Gulf Coast.
The philanthropic group has also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and interest-free loans to storm refugees who make their way to the Southland. And it will be trucking supplies donated by area synagogues to Jackson, Miss.
"I'm always impressed how, in a crisis, this community pulls together, how people communicate, how people coordinate, how people cooperate," L.A. Federation President John Fishel said (see Fishel's commentary, on page 13). "It's acting like a community can and should act."
To the south, the much smaller Jewish Federation of Orange County has raised $110,000. The nonprofit organization is in the process of resettling a married Jewish couple from New Orleans into a Newport Beach house donated and furnished by members of the community, said Kathleen Ron, director of branding and community development. About a dozen Orange County Jews have offered to make available houses or apartments to evacuees, she said.
Much of the money from the nation's federations and Jewish agencies is going to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the national umbrella organization. As of Sept. 7, the UJC and affiliated groups had raised $4.3 million to help storm victims, the organization said. Donations are going to Jews and the general community to pay for such basic necessities as counseling, shelter, health care and food.
Like the local federations, L.A. Jewish agencies have reacted quickly and generously.
Several social workers at the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles have undergone emergency training by the Red Cross on the expectation of taking paid leave to provide refugees counseling and other mental health services on the Gulf Coast, said Lisa Brooks, director of communications and donor relations. Closer to home, JFS has begun to offer crisis counseling to newly arrived evacuees.
Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) has helped four freshmen who had been enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans transfer to UCLA, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere, said Vivian B. Seigel, the organization's chief executive. Without the agency's intervention, these students -- all recipients of JVS scholarships for needy Jews -- might otherwise have had to forgo their studies this year because of Tulane's closure.
The Bureau of Jewish Education plans to refer to local Jewish schools any Jewish student refugees relocating to the Southland, Executive Director Gil Graff said. The bureau, which provides educational services to 150 Jewish schools serving 30,000 students, has also disseminated material to local educational institutions on the Jewish response to calamities.
Synagogues have also made important contributions of food, clothes and money. And such efforts will be ongoing, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the largest rabbinic organization in California with 270 members.
Over the next couple weeks, synagogues throughout the greater Los Angeles area will collect bedding, nonperishable food items -- including pasta and cereal -- and personal hygiene products, such as soap and shampoo. The donated goods will be consolidated locally and later trucked to a Jewish camp in Mississippi for distribution, Diamond said.
The Board of Rabbis also has called on temple members to contribute Visa gift cards to evacuees, which, he said, helps them preserve dignity, because they can select and pay for their own essentials. Going forward, there is talk of sending volunteers to the battered region to help with the actual rebuilding of homes.
"I am overwhelmed by the generosity, by the humanity and by the willingness across Southern California to respond to the crisis," Diamond said. "I think this is the highest form of the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, the mitzvah of saving and redeeming lives."
To donate to hurricane relief through The Los Angeles Federation, call (323) 761-8200 or visit www.jewishla.org.
For the Orange County Federation, call (949) 435-3484 or visit www.jewishorangecounty.org.