From million-dollar fund-raising operations at national organizations to toy drives and cookie-baking by yeshiva girls, the Jewish community here is increasing its response to the tsunami devastation in Southeast Asia as the scale of dead, missing, homeless and destitute continues to unfold.
The American Jewish World Service fund on Wednesday had reached $3.25 million, and numerous other organizations and schools pitched in by starting drives or steering donations toward larger relief funds.
Hadassah, the largest Jewish membership organization in the United States, announced Monday that it would collect funds to allow medical staff from the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem to provide aid and forensic services in Sri Lanka, where some 30,000 people have died.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations called on its nearly1,000 synagogues in North America to collect donations that it would forward to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee fund, which had reached $2 million Wednesday.
UJA-Federation of New York, which provides some funding for JDC operations, is running its own fund and had collected about $500,000 by early this week. The charity took out two quarter-page ads in The New York Times last week announcing its drive, and also sent out a direct-mail solicitation three days after the tragedy announcing an “emergency mailbox” for relief funds.The American Jewish Committee put up $60,000 of its own funds and raised another $200,000 for its relief fund.
These approaches indicate how various groups operate according to their individual identities, agendas and constituencies. But they also offer a glimpse at how coordination can be elusive in the gargantuan, somewhat unwieldy world of Jewish communal organizations, where duplication is commonplace and all compete for philanthropic dollars.
“Each particular organization has their expertise and know-how that the other organization does not have,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which helped organize relief for earthquake victims in Turkey several years ago. “They each pursue their outreach to their respective constituencies. But it would be very important and productive to have a coordinating relief body of all the organizations, so that each would know what the other is doing.”
A step in that direction will be taken Monday when the Joint Distribution Committee convenes a large panel of organizations and synagogue groups to discuss how to unify their efforts.
“We want to try to speak with one voice about the needs we are serving,” said Steven Schwager, vice president of JDC, which founded the Jewish Council on Disaster Relief about 15 years ago. Most recently, the council coordinated 24 groups and the Israeli government in providing aid to refugees from genocide in Sudan.
Schwager said the extent of participation by the some 50 groups invited by JDC will vary.
“I would expect that for this disaster, everyone will be in,” he said. “They will each open their own mailboxes and put in all or a portion. There is no rule.”
Potential participants, Schwager said, “range from ultra-Reform to ultra-Orthodox, across the political spectrum.”
Morris Offit, the president of UJA-Federation of New York, said Monday that his agency created its own fund because “we have the infrastructure for fund raising. We’re the ones with the community identity and the trust factor.”
Raising their own funds allows organizations to retain control over and make choices about how the money is spent. Offit said the JDC would be a “primary partner” in receiving the funds raised by UJA-Federation, but “other organizations on the ground” in Asia also would benefit.
The American Jewish World Service is channeling its money directly to organizations in India and Thailand with which it has long been working on development projects.
The Union for Reform Judaism announced Monday it was distributing $100,000 — one third of the sum it has collected — to four aid groups: International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, International Medical Corps and Direct Relief International.
AJCommittee has distributed more than $115,000 to JDC and AJWS, as well as to agencies with whom AJCommittee has long been working on interfaith cooperation. They include the Catholic Relief Agency and Church World Service, a Protestant group. AJCommittee has also supported work in Asia by an Israeli group, IsraAid, as well as sent money to its own office in Mumbai, India, for relief work.
“We are not in competition with the other agencies,” said David Harris, AJCommittee’s executive director. “Because we have an international and intergroup agenda, it is very important for us to support that agenda through humanitarian assistance.”
Officials of Chabad Lubavitch said the chasidic movement has deployed substantial resources in Thailand through its outreach centers in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui. More than 3,000 people have died in Thailand, and thousands more are missing.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor of Chabad has traveled to the disaster areas to help locate missing Israelis, and he and other staff, with help from Israel’s Zaka recovery agency, have worked to identify Jewish and non-Jewish victims.
This week, the Chabad houses turned to offering aid to the victims, providing funds for rebuilding, purchasing refrigerated trucks to deliver food and even launching a toy drive. Chabad has also started a fund to continue its work in Thailand.
Across the New York Jewish community, individuals and groups deeply moved by the scale of suffering and overwhelming need overseas found ways large and small to contribute.
Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, who before the disaster had planned to visit India this week on a volunteer mission with AJWS, said he would proceed with the journey with a new focus.
“I had planned to volunteer with a grantor and partner [of AJWS] in Chennai that works with destitute children,” said Rabbi Matalon, who was battling a virus he hoped to overcome before his flight Tuesday afternoon. “My plans have changed.”
He will now work on aid efforts with the Chennai Disaster Relief Coalition, helping to distribute medical supplies, water purification equipment and other goods in impoverished areas.
“The places where I am going are fishing communities, where people have lost their fishing boats and nets, and it is now fishing season,” Rabbi Matalon said.
The Jewish Community Relations Council’s Center for Community and Coalition-Building organized a briefing Thursday to advise a range of organizations on how to direct aid where it is most needed.
The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty donated some 40 boxes of clothing to Sri Lankan authorities.
At Park East Synagogue, Rabbi Schneier hosted a Sabbath memorial service with diplomats from the affected countries. Rabbi Yotav Eliach of the Rambam Mesivta yeshiva high school in Lawrence, L.I., was to deliver $5,000 from students and parents to Sri Lankan Airlines for its efforts on behalf of child victims. Fifth-graders at the Yeshivah of Flatbush organized a chesed, or kindness project, in which students solicited donations to the relief fund by performing good deeds for family members and friends.
In Riverdale, students at the SAR Academy baked and sold 40 dozen “chesed cookies,” raising $500 as of Tuesday for disaster relief.
“We’re hoping to split the money between AJWS and JDC,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld of the Center for Learning and Leadership, whose daughters, Dassi, Avi and Dinni, started the project.
On Sunday, Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, organized children to sing outside the consulate of Indonesia to send a message of unity. Rabbi Weiss also hosted that country’s ambassador on Shabbat.
“It was the first time he had ever been in a synagogue,” the rabbi said.This Sunday, the Hebrew Institute congregation was to hold a food and fund-raising drive to be attended by local Buddhist leaders.
“So many souls have been lost,” said Rabbi Weiss. “But if anything good can come out of it, perhaps it is the coming together of people of such diverse religious backgrounds.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.