Israel, U.S. Jewish groups aiding hurricane victims

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WASHINGTON — Both Israel and American Jewish groups are reaching out to the survivors of Hurricane Mitch.

This week, Israel began sending emergency aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The aid includes medical supplies, a group of nine doctors and nurses, and agricultural teams to help rebuild crops in the stricken areas.

In addition, the American Jewish World Service, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the UJA Federations of North America are tapping the American pool of resources to help.

As of last week, $40,000 had poured in from Jewish groups and individuals, AJWS president Ruth Messinger said.

"We're hearing from people who want to contribute their expertise, money or supplies and we're acting as a liaison between Honduran and Nicaraguan groups and Jewish organizations that want to donate canned food, clothing or supplies," Messinger said.

"One man walked into the office and wrote us a check for $1,000. Another called to see if shoes were needed — he owns a shoe factory."

The powerful hurricane killed at least 11,000 people, and left more than a million others homeless in Honduras alone.

The country's small Jewish community was not spared Mitch's wrath.

In the Honduras capital of Tegucigalpa, the community's 30 Jewish families lost the small synagogue they built a year ago from an old home and the two Torahs brought to Honduras by German Jewish immigrants before World War II.

"We are starting from zero," 39-year-old Florencia Colindres said in a telephone interview from Honduras. "We found one Torah in the mud, but it is probably ruined."

The AJWS relief has reached Central American soil before. For 10 years, the organization has contributed funds — and for the past five years, volunteers — to education, farming and conflict resolution projects in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

"The central office we work from in Honduras is OK, but they can't assess the damages to the projects yet because the roads and bridges leading to the villages are destroyed," Messinger said. "We've been told progress has gone back 30 years."

Will Recant, director of special projects for the JDC, said his organization will concentrate on both the intermediate and long-term needs of those who survived Mitch. The destruction of crops and the inaccessibility of many regions leads observers to believe that the hardships have just begun.

"This situation cannot be taken care of in an hour, a week or a month," Recant said. "This will take months and years."

After assessing the damages and determining what resources are needed, Recant said, "we'll contact partners already active in the region to see if our medical volunteers or maybe small business developers can be of help."

The AJWS will work alongside the JDC and will also provide medical supplies and food through Direct Relief International, an established source of medicine and tools to disadvantaged people around the world. Messinger expected the first plane of medical supplies to depart for Central America this week.