Jewish aid agencies were overwhelmed this week as money poured in from across the community in response to the tragedy of biblical proportions unfolding in Southeast and South Asia, where tidal waves have claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people.
In the first 36 hours after Sunday’s catastrophe, the American Jewish World Service raised some $200,000, an official said Tuesday, while the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) said it had to hire temporary employees to accept a torrent of phone donations.
By Wednesday, the AJWS figure exceeded $500,000.“All over the country, there has been an overwhelming response,” said Tommy Loeb, vice president of AJWS.
The $500,000 sum was only from phone and Internet donations, he said, and the sum is likely to rise substantially when mailed donations are counted. Contributions ranged from $18 to $10,000, he said.
The money would be sent to some of the 23 aid organizations with whom AJWS runs joint programs in areas affected by the disaster. “We are working as quick as possible to get them supplies,” said Loeb.
A spokesman for the JDC, Josh Berkman, had no fund-raising sum available but called the response “staggering.” He added that “a healthy percentage of contributions are coming from the New York area, where people know what it’s like to need help.” Berkman said the agency was in the process of identifying agencies for whom to purchase food, water, clothing and shelter materials.
Late Tuesday afternoon UJA-Federation announced that it would set up its own relief fund. “This disaster calls for immediate support,” said Morris Offit, the organization’s president, in a statement.
Also Tuesday, the American Jewish Committee made an initial allocation of $60,000 to several aid groups working in the region. Additional donations will be made as funds become available and relief priorities are further defined. “This is an unimaginable crisis,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said.
As most New Yorkers saw the tragedy unfold through news reports, one local Jewish family witnessed the disaster first hand and was counting its blessings Tuesday after escaping the tidal waves unscathed in southern India.
After a run along the beach, David Elcott and his family had just sat down for breakfast Sunday morning when the first warnings sounded.
All around them people were fleeing inland as the Indian Ocean rose up into the coastal town of Mamallapuram, where Elcott and his family, Westchester residents, were vacationing.
“People started screaming, ‘Run!,’ ” recalled Elcott, who is director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “We jumped up and saw a wall of water. Everyone screamed.”
He and his wife, Rabbi Shira Milgrom, and their daughter, Liore, jumped into their rented car and headed for high ground, stopping along the way to pick up as many passengers as they could cram into the four-seat vehicle.
“We were just throwing people in our car, lots of old people who couldn’t run,” said Elcott.
As Sunday’s catastrophe unfolded, with massive tidal waves caused by an undersea earthquake slamming into coasts from Thailand to Somalia, at least 3,000 people would die in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which includes Mamallapuram, where an estimated 100 were killed.
The village, known for its ancient temples, is on the Bay of Bengal about 90 miles south of Madras (also known as Chennai), the hardest-hit city in India.
The Elcott-Milgroms, who live in White Plains, spoke to The Jewish Week Tuesday from a hotel in Maduria, India, where they are continuing their trip. Liore, 22, who recently earned a master’s degree from Cornell University, is in India for six months as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service, working with an Indian agency in Kanchipuram on women’s empowerment and economic development programs.
“The water kept coming, pushing forward with incredible force, knocking everything over,” recalled Liore.
When the ocean began to recede, the family took their five passengers back to the partially submerged Ideal Resort, thinking that the danger had passed. They were unaware that a second, more powerful wave would hit a short time after they packed their things and left. This time the water reached to the second floor of the hotel, they later learned. No one was killed at that resort, they were told.
The family and their driver took to the road, this time with a second group of locals packed inside and headed inland for Thanjavur, as they had planned to do later in the day. Along the way they saw thousands fleeing the coast in a scene that reminded David Elcott of the Exodus from Egypt.
“There were flocks of goats and cows and oxcarts filled with people, families on bicycles,” he said. “They were all fleeing inland. Women were wailing and crying.”
Added Liore: “People were carrying children, but no one was carrying belongings. We wanted to do something to help, but did not know what to do. All we could do was squeeze more people into the car and take them as far as we could go. Three people in the front seat, four in the back… we took them to the next city, Chengal Patu.”
There was no information available from any official source about what happened, and the Elcott-Milgroms would not know until Sunday evening the extent of the devastation that claimed as many as 70,000 lives as of Wednesday’s estimates.
“There was no police, no news,” said David Elcott, who was to return to New York Thursday with his wife. “But everybody was leaving and going inland. As we arrived in each town, people were going to the next town.” Only some of the older women, who may have remembered previous tsunami disasters, seemed to understand, said Liore.
She said her family was particularly lucky because they had earlier planned to stay in another resort where some of the guests had been trapped and killed. And only a day earlier, they had taken a long Shabbat walk along the beach, some two miles from the resort to the main village. Had the disaster struck then, they may have been stranded without a cell phone, money or identification.
“It is not by the grace of God,” said Rabbi Milgrom, who is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains. “This is luck. When there is so much devastation around, it is not possible that it was by the grace of God that we survived, when there is no way to describe the suffering of countless others.”
Luck was also on the side of another New Yorker and American Jewish World Service worker, Howie Katz, who was vacationing in Thailand when the disaster struck.
Katz, 52, a Manhattan resident, planned to visit the island resort of Phuket, where at least 200 were believed dead as of Tuesday. But Katz, who is the director of national outreach at AJWS, had been unable to get a flight to the island. He has since been in contact with friends who live there.
“Life has changed forever for these people,” said Katz in a call from Bangkok. “They have no idea how many people are gone. Livelihoods are ruined and lots of people are still missing.” Katz, who planned to meet with relief agencies that work with AJWS in Thailand to discuss aid efforts, said he would remain in Thailand until January 16, with a modified itinerary. “I doubt I’ll go anywhere near the water,” he said.
Katz said the Thai media was filled with “heart-wrenching” stories, such as efforts to reunite a Scandinavian child with his parents, and the death of a 21-year-old grandson of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was on a jet-ski when the waves hit.
But as shock wears off, he said, people are beginning to raise questions about why the calamity struck with so little warning. “There is starting to be a little bit of criticism,” said Katz. “But the truth is they never experienced a tsunami like this. They didn’t know what to tell people.”
Nervous Israelis wait for news; 70 still missing.
Joshua Mitnick Israel Correspondent
Tel Aviv — As tidal waves wreaked havoc in Southeast and South Asia and as grief-stricken residents there buried the untold dead, the horror spread thousands of miles away to the calm shores of the Mediterranean where Israelis struggled to learn of the fate of friends and family traveling in the region.
Several hundred Israelis were thought to be spending the holiday season on the exotic beaches where the tsunamis swept ashore on Sunday morning, killing more than 70,000. But word of the tourists’ whereabouts and safety filtered back home only at a trickle, stirring confusion and anxiety in Israel.
“I became hysterical,” Esther Turkenich told The Jewish Week Monday, describing her realization that the earthquake-spawned tidal waves had hit India’s Adaman Islands, where her son Ori and a friend had arrived after two months traveling abroad. At any given time, thousands of Israelis — most of them backpackers in their 20s and 30s — are traveling through destinations in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, according to the Foreign Ministry. In the 24 hours after the first word of tidal waves, hundreds of Israelis were still unaccounted for. Highlighting the disorder, the Foreign Ministry Monday evening lowered the number to below 100, and then raised it back to more than 800 by Tuesday morning. By Tuesday evening the number of missing Israelis was put at 70.
As of Wednesday morning, Thai officials said that two Israelis were among 473 foreigners known to have been killed. Their identities were not immediately known. Roughly 1,400 Israelis have been contacted, according to the Foreign Ministry.
In a country where tens of thousands of tourists visit Southeast Asia every year, news of the Israelis’ fate dominated news headlines pushing aside reports on Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The military readied its rescue units for deployment in the disaster areas in order to locate the missing. Meanwhile, Israel sent a medical delegation to Thailand on Monday and is planning several more for that country and for Sri Lanka (India has not requested Israeli aid). The delegations will set up field hospitals to help prevent disease from spreading among hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors lacking basic health services, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Israel also plans to send $100,000 worth of food and medical supplies to Sri Lanka and Thailand. Israel had planned to send a 154-member delegation to Sri Lanka along with supplies, but reduced it to a handful of doctors, relief workers and journalists after intense negotiations between the Israeli and Sri Lanka governments, according to the Jerusalem Post. Neither side has given an official explanation for the change.
Despite Israel’s aid to the area, the Vatican newspaper reportedly denounced what it called Israel’s decision to deny emergency aid to disaster victims in Sri Lanka.
On Sunday Israel’s Foreign Ministry set up a situation room to collect inquiries from worried relatives and information of travelers’ whereabouts from disaster areas. But as the dimensions of the disaster became apparent, the ministry began drowning in a frenzy of calls and was forced to add staff and phone lines. “There are a lot of Israelis in the area and they are dispersed,” said Amira Oron, a ministry spokeswoman. “The telephone infrastructure in those areas isn’t very good, so it’s very difficult to get information.” Israeli embassies in India and Thailand dispatched diplomats to the vacation sites popular with Israeli tourists to search for survivors being treated in hospitals. The efforts were appreciated by at least one Israeli located bruised but otherwise safe on the Thai resort of Phuket. “Everyone has been great. I have been visited by Israeli diplomatic representatives, as well as Chabad,” Yaron Weiss told Channel Two television from his hospital bed. “I have a feeling that the other tourists here are a bit jealous that their countries are not as attentive.”
A team of 20 rescue and recovery workers from the disaster victims identification organization ZAKA left for the region Monday night, and another 13 volunteers were scheduled to leave on Tuesday.
Without readily available updates from the Foreign Ministry on the whereabouts of their son, Turkenich’s husband used a business associate to establish contact with police authorities on the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal. Although the local police had registered their son as safe, Turkenich said she was still holding her breath for a phone call. “Information continues to flow, but we still haven’t succeeded in talking to our son,” she said on Monday evening. “Until we hear from him, we won’t be able to relax.”
As the hours passed, every ring of the phone brought with it the hope for the families of the missing, that on the other end would be the voice of the previously unaccounted for relative. Some families didn’t wait for the call and decided to fly to the disaster area to conduct the search themselves, Turkenich said. Travelers’ insurance agencies dispatched executives to Asia as well.
In Thailand, an Israeli couple celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary were swept away from one another in the fast-moving current. For more than 16 hours, the two remained separated, fearing the worst had befallen their spouse before they were reunited.
Mazal Ben Dahan was also vacationing in Thailand when she noticed a look of panic on the faces of her hosts, she said in an interview with Israel Television. Minutes later she found herself fleeing from a wall of water nearly 10 feet high.
“It was monstrous. And we ran like crazy,” she said. “There were dozens of wounded and the sound of screaming. It was a nightmare.”