In his 16 years living in Tokyo, Phillip Rosenfeld has seen a few earthquakes shake Japan’s capital.
But when the ground started shaking and buildings swaying on March 11, he immediately knew this one was different.
“This was much more severe than anything that happened for a very, very long time,” said the Cleveland native who runs a travel business based in Tokyo and was with a friend spending his first day in Japan. “When the earthquake struck I was walking down the street and just stood in place as the ground began to sway more and more.
" As people started rushing out of the surrounding buildings and I realized how strong the earthquake was, as a precaution, I moved away from the seven or eight story building I was standing in front of as it is around forty years old. The utility poles started to sway. It was a nerve-wracking experience.”
When the ground settled, there were very little damage in Tokyo, where buildings are well constructed with tremors in mind, from the quake which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale.
But hours later came the deadly tsunami waves that would claim the lives of as many as 27,000 people and spark a nuclear crisis that continues today, on Tuesday reaching the threat level of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.
Rosenfeld, 47, who is treasurer of Japan’s organized Jewish community, has become a point man for disaster relief efforts from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Speaking to The Jewish Week by phone during a visit to Hong Kong one month after the disaster struck, he said he, his wife and their two teenage children aren’t considering leaving Japan, nor is anyone he knows that is associated with the Jewish community center that serves 105 families in the greater Tokyo area, with a smaller community in Kobe to the south.
Some 2,000 Jews are believed to be in Japan, most of them in the Tokyo area and mostly expatriates from America or Europe, with a small number descended from Jews who came to Japan during World War II. Even with the radiation crisis and two large aftershocks, one on Monday, Rosenfeld said he didn’t sense any exodus. There was no damage to synagogues or the community center.
“Life is going on,” said Rosenfeld. “There is sadness of course about what happened. With the JDC, we are trying to do whatever we can to help out with the immediate needs of individuals affected by the disaster. But in terms of the life of the Jewish community it is going on. We are going to have a [community] Passover seder next week.”
The JDC set up a relief fund within 24 hours of the disaster, with an initial contribution of $50,000, working with the Jewish community center, which had an existing partnership with Japanese Emergency NGO, an aid organization.
The JDC’s fundraising total as of Tuesday was $1.5 million. The JDC also provided equipment and supplies, including an infant ventilator and portable ultrasound as well as lifesaving antibiotics and other medications, to a 54-member Israeli military field hospital unit set up near Kurihara and Minamisanriku, two of the hardest hit areas.
“Instead of just waiting for patients to come, [the doctors] went out to the evacuation shelters and to homes and treated people and checking on pregnant women with the portable ultrasound,” said Rosenfeld. “It was wonderful what they did, building bridges with the local community.”
The team went home on Tuesday, but left their equipment behind for Japanese medics.
JDC’s associate executive vice president, William Recant, said the organization was sending few volunteers to Japan because, as opposed to other disaster challenged nations, such as Haiti or Chile, Japan is well positioned to deal with its own crisis response.
“At first, what came out was that Japan was not looking for foreign assistance,” said Recant. “But as [Japanese] people have come to see the extent of devastation, they have been more willing to accept help.”
JDC’s relief programs are funded from appeals by the Jewish Federations of North America as well as individual donations to JDC.
The federations have collectively raised $1.35 million for their Japan, Hawaii and Pacific Relief Fund, opened immediately following the disaster to support relief and recovery efforts in the damaged areas.
The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of the federation movement, directly raised more than $219,565 through online, mobile and mailed donations.
Several individual federations also have opened funds, which have yielded nearly $680,000 in combined donations.
The Emergency Committee of The Jewish Federations of North America voted April 8 to allocate $125,000 of the funds raised to JDC on top of allocation last month of $135,000.
The committee also made an allocation to the Israeli humanitarian umbrella group IsraAID to support its efforts on the ground, specifically in the area of creating child-friendly spaces.
Other aid efforts include Chabad Lubavitch’s Jewish Japan Relief effort, centered on its Sendai Chabad House, which is distributing food and other necessities to displaced persons.
To donate to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief’s fund for Japan, click here.
JTA contributed to this report.