As Extent of Tragedy Emerges, Jews Pitch in for Tsunami Victims

When it comes to helping victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, the American Jewish World Service 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 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 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 130,000 lives. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has raised more than $1.7 million.

“Everybody comes in to provide emergency relief, and then they all leave and there’s nobody left behind to help rebuild the infrastructure,” said JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager. 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 for funds for the tsunami victims – UJA Federation of New York has raised some $500,000 – 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. 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. The Israeli government sent aid to Thailand and Sri Lanka that included medicine, medical equipment, doctors, nurses and body bags. 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 provided a wealth of services in Thailand. Among its efforts, the local branch of Chabad paid for Zaka volunteers to come to the resort town 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.

Smaller Jewish institutions and individuals also are stepping up to the plate. Five children in New York City are raising money for the victims the old fashioned-way – through a bake sale. The children, aged 3-12, have raised close to $500 by selling chocolate chip and sugar cookies. “We think that this will make them happy, and it makes us happy, too,” said Dassi Hirschfield, 10. The money raised through the bake sale is being given to the JDC and the AJWS.

The Rambam Mesivta yeshiva in Lawrence, N.Y., has raised nearly $5,000 from students and parents in the past few days. Students were reminded of their obligation under Jewish law to help victims, and the group decided to give the money to Sri Lankan Airlines, which is helping child victims. According to the school principal, Rabbi Yotav Eliach, this approach puts a face behind the dollars and gives students a feeling of connection. “It’s one thing when you get something from a large corporate entity,” Eliach said. “It’s another thing when you know you’re getting it from kids.” Eliach planned to bring a handful of class representatives Thursday to deliver the funds to the Sri Lankan ambassador in New York.

Some synagogues have included special commemorations for the victims. For example, the Jan. 1 Shabbat service at Manhattan’s Park East synagogue brought together high-level diplomats from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Sweden, Indonesia, India and the United States. “The theme was we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and don’t remain in it,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier said. Schneier talked about the story of Noah – which recounts a biblical flood that destroyed civilization – and how the rainbow signaled the time when people would come together again. In Washington, Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation held a Jan. 1 prayer service attended by Ambassador H.K.J.R. Bandara of Sri Lanka and Reuven Azar, counselor of political affairs for the Israeli Embassy.