Jan. 7, 2005
7 Days: Jewish tsunami aid

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When disaster strikes, Jews are there to help.

That's the message many American Jews are hoping to convey as they pour millions of dollars into tsunami relief efforts by channeling them through American Jewish aid groups. So far, about $6 million has been collected by the largest few of these groups, and officials say they haven't even counted checks donors have sent by mail.

But how-and how fast-is that money getting to Southeast Asia, and do the recipients know where it's coming from?

Perhaps the quickest US Jewish organization to get aid to the region was the American Jewish World Service, a Jewish peace corps type group that funds more than 200 projects in 33 countries worldwide. With more than 24 non-governmental partners in Southeast Asia, AJWS was able to begin sending money to three partner groups in India within 36 hours of the disaster, officials there said.

A medical shipment went to coastal areas of India with life-saving medical supplies, 1,700 families were helped to evacuate from the disaster zone, and food and shelter were provided to victims of the tsunami through AJWS' partner Direct Relief International.

By early this week, more than $2 million had been donated to AJWS for the effort, and the service began evaluating additional aid organizations in places where it lacked partners to figure out how best to get aid there.

Catherine Shimony, director of international programs at AJWS, said AJWS advertises its Jewishness and does not take politics, religion or nationality into account when granting aid.

"Our response is basically a humanitarian one," Shimony said. "The organizations that we work with know both through our name and the information in our mission who we are and that we represent the American Jewish community."

Similarly, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewry's central address for overseas aid, regularly funds projects in disaster areas that have no connection to Jews or Judaism. After an earthquake in Turkey several years ago, the JDC worked with the Israeli government in rebuilding a school in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. In Kosovo, the JDC rebuilt a mosque. In both cases, the institutions posted JDC plaques bearing a Magen David.

"It's a reminder to the population that the Jews were there and the Jews helped-part of the concept of being a light unto the nations," said Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC. "We leave behind something long term that the populace will remember that the Jews were here and they helped."

Schwager said he expected the JDC would collect between $6 million and $10 million for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia-most through North American Jewish federations.

So far, the 40 or so federations actively raising tsunami relief funds had collected $1.2 million by early this week, according to an official at the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group. The largest by far was UJA-Federation of New York, which had collected $500,000 in individual gifts ranging from $25 to $25,000.

The JDC first met Monday to decide where to send the funds it had collected so far-about $2 million. Schwager said long-term relief is just as important as getting immediate aid to the region, and by Tuesday money was on its way to partner organizations in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

One of the recipient groups in Thailand is Chabad, one of the few Jewish organizations with facilities at or near the areas affected by the Tsunami.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, head of Chabad in Thailand, said he has turned his Chabad centers in the country into makeshift shelters, providing food, clothing and a place to sleep for thousands of people-including many Israeli backpackers who were in Thailand when the tsunami struck.

While money has been pouring into his organization, Kantor said he has not yet had time to count it-or plan its use.

"We don't have the luxury of sitting back in an office and trying to make a projection of what we will spend," Kantor said. "For now we're spending"-using credit cards and the good line of credit Chabad has with local vendors-"and we'll let the Jewish hearts do the rest."

Many of the Jewish aid groups said that while they were trying to advertise the provenance of their funds to aid recipients, the top priority simply was to get them aid.

"We would like them to know" where the aid is coming from, but "that's not why we're doing it," said Paul Kane, senior vice president at the UJA-Federation of New York. "Let's face it. They want food, water-they don't care where the aid comes from."

Kantor said most Thais are not aware of what Jews are, but giving them help in a time of trouble is a great way to provide them with a positive image of Jews, rather than the negative stereotype that exists in much of the world.

One day this week, Kantor used an open field adjacent to the mayor's office in an affected area to put on his tallit and tefillin and recite his morning prayers, and a crowd gathered to stare as his tzitzit blew in the wind of supply helicopters taking off and landing nearby.

"I had a great crowd looking at me, but I felt very comfortable," Kantor said. "I told my driver that if anyone asks, he should tell them I'm praying on behalf of the victims. And I was."