UJA-Fed. Distributing Hurricane Relief
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UJA-Fed. Distributing Hurricane Relief

UJA-Federation of New York has allocated $850,000 to organizations assisting Hurricane Katrina evacuees in four states (the first distribution from the more than $4.1 million in hurricane relief it raised in the past two months) the philanthropy announced Tuesday.

Now UJA-Federation is considering expanding its assistance to Florida, which was battered last week by Hurricane Wilma. The storm was responsible for at least five deaths, knocked out power to 6 million people and caused damages of up to $10 billion.

Cheryl Fishbein, chair of UJA-Federation’s Hurricane Relief Committee, said although the committee was established to provide assistance to Katrina victims, "people are sending money in response to Hurricane Wilma."

Fishbein, who is also on a hurricane relief committee at the United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization of 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America, said the UJC also is evaluating the destruction in Florida.

"What we are going to do is assess the needs, and we will respond once we see where the needs are," she said. "The [Jewish] federations in Florida are up and running, and we are getting updates from them with their lists of needs. I’m sure it will be a huge shopping list."

Although both the UJC and UJA-Federation of New York established special Hurricane Katrina relief funds, Fishbein said the money from those funds could be used as well for Hurricane Wilma victims.

"As the hurricanes keep coming, and as the needs keep appearing, we are going to look at all of the needs to see where we should allocate our funds," she said. "It’s one pot to help all.

"It is through the lens of Jewish values (repairing the world and caring for those in need) that we respond to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina."

Fishbein said that in dealing with Katrina, her organization is working with local partners in four states (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas) to "help evacuees adjust to unfamiliar surroundings and begin to make new lives for themselves."

She said that shortly after Katrina cut its destructive path through the Gulf states, she visited the Houston Astrodome, where evacuees were housed. She was accompanied by Shelly Horwitz, UJA-Federation’s director of planning whose specialty is trauma relief services.

"We also interviewed professionals [on the ground] and saw what was going on so we could bring back that information to our committee," Fishbein said.

After reviewing the information, the 12-member committee decided that the first grants for Katrina evacuees would be given to groups that provide primary care and resettlement. The money will be used for cash assistance, medical expenses, counseling and housing. In addition, some of it has been designated for long-term care, job training and relocation expenses.

Among the organizations that will be receiving grants are the San Antonio Food Bank; the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund c/o The Dallas Foundation; the Children’s Health Fund; the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions; the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn; Faith Partnerships; the Hope Community Credit Union/Enterprise Corporation of Delta; the Lewis Temple CME Church; and the Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

Those organizations will receive their grants through three organizations that are working in the region: the United Jewish Communities; the Twenty-First Century Foundation, a national foundation and public charity that makes grants to support African-American community revitalization; and the Jewish Funds for Justice, a new group formed from the merger of the Jewish Fund for Justice and The Shefa Fund, both of which are dedicated to ending poverty.

"They are the oversight organizations," Fishbein said of the three groups. "They will make sure our funds go to where we want them to go."

"We pay attention to donor intent," she said. "We received money from people as far away as Connecticut, California and London. Our committee wants to make sure that wherever we give money, we are actualizing what the donors want. The donors are telling us (through phone calls, letters and checks) tikkun olam [repair the world]. And we are hearing in addition that we should pay attention to the needs of the Jewish communities that have been affected by the storms."

Fishbein said there is a popular belief that "this is not a Jewish problem" because the 10,000-strong Jewish community of New Orleans is generally "well heeled and able to take care of itself." But she said a major problem that affected all the evacuees had less to do with money than with the emotional trauma that accompanied the hurricanes.

"When we were in the Astrodome, we saw thousands of people there" who had fled from Hurricane Katrina, she said. "And then they had to pick up and run again [to escape Hurricane Rita]. Being re-evacuated was doubly traumatizing."

Those who evacuated with two days worth of clothing, expecting to return once Katrina passed, suddenly found that they "had nothing to come home to," Fishbein said.

"If they had a bar mitzvah scheduled for that weekend, there was no shul for the bar mitzvah. If they had a job, they found they suddenly had none: and no health insurance either. And their home was gone. They were totally displaced. And the schools were gone and the JCC was destroyed: the whole community came down around them. So it was not a monetary situation so much as it was a stressful, psychological feeling. Everyone had lives that were disrupted."

All of the more than $4.1 million raised to date will be used for hurricane relief operations; none of it will be used for administrative expenses. More than $810,000 of the money raised came from online donations (www.ujafedny.org) made by 3,474 individuals. That is the most UJA-Federation has raised online for an individual campaign.

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