Jewish organizations take in millions for relief efforts

Over the past week, the American Jewish community has cracked open its collective piggybank as Jewish organizations small and large have raised millions of dollars to help in the relief effort following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shattered Port-au-Prince last week, killing an estimated tens of thousands in Haiti.

IsraAid volunteers unload earthquake relief supplies in Port-au-Prince. photo/jta/israaid

Dozens of Jewish organizations, from the Reform movement to the Orthodox Union, have set up links on their Web sites for constituents to donate money toward the relief effort.

Most have directed their giving to the American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — two U.S.-based organizations that do work in the developing world — or to IsraAid, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, a coordinating organization for 17 Israeli and Jewish humanitarian groups that has sent a team of rescue workers to Haiti.

As of Jan. 19, AJWS had raised an estimated $2.4 million to distribute to the grassroots economic development organizations it already works with in Haiti.

The JDC, the foreign aid agency backed by the Jewish Federations of North America, has brought in more than $2 million that it will direct to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which is sending money to the Israeli field hospitals in Haiti. The coalition is composed of some 30 organizations, including the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, World ORT, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, AJWS and the American Jewish Committee.

While some relief efforts have been slow to reach Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, on the ground Jewish dollars were quickly at work. The AJWS says that all of the 10 organizations with which it normally works in Haiti are now in emergency mode and have shifted focus to help in the aid effort.

IDF workers load supplies in Israel that will be sent to Haiti as part of the relief effort. photo/jta/yossi zeliger

For instance, one AJWS-funded group in the Dominican Republic that normally focuses on helping Haitians in the Dominican Republic has formed a caravan from that country to Port-au-Prince to bring feminine hygiene supplies, diapers and other needed items into Haiti.

Aside from providing funding for the IDF and IsraAid field hospitals in Haiti, which Israeli officials say can treat up to 500 patients per day, the money from JDC and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief is going to organizations such as Heart to Heart International and Partners in Health to provide emergency medical supplies.

If past experience is any guide, some of the money the Jewish community raises in the coming weeks for Haiti relief will not be spent for months or even years. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, B’nai B’rith International raised $900,000, which it spent on relief and rebuilding efforts over the next four years. Similarly, the JDC took five years to spend the $18 million it raised following the tsunami.

The immediate days following the earthquake tend to be the most critical for fundraising. About 90 percent of the $18 million the JDC raised for Southeast Asia was raised in the month immediately following the disaster.

The president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, said it becomes more difficult to raise money when the issue disappears from the headlines.

“This is when most people get alerted to the situation,” she said. “They want to know who is raising money and who has a plan for what is being raised and what they are doing and who can explain to us what is different and discrete about what we are doing.”

Meanwhile, organizations and donors large and small are pitching in. Billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, gave $4 million to the relief effort through his Open Society Institute. The Workman’s Circle and the New Yiddish Repertory are organizing a benefit concert for later this month with the goal of raising $20,000.

Those involved in the fund-raising effort say the Jewish community’s gifts to the people of Haiti stem from Jewish values.

“Here is a vast group of people in desperate need, and we are committed to helping them, and in helping them we are bettering the world,” said the executive director of the Workman’s Circle, Ann Toback. “It combines our cultural identity with our commitment to social justice and improving the world.”

Giving also provides a teaching opportunity, said Paul Schneider, principal of the Krieger Schechter Day School in suburban Baltimore, whose weekly tzedakah tally of around $200 jumped to $4,600 after Schneider decided to direct it toward Red Cross efforts in Haiti.

“I think some of the older children understand what is happening in Haiti. I have talked to them about it. They are concerned. They wonder how these people are going to survive, what will they eat? Will they still be alive when someone finally comes to try to find them?” Schneider said.

“We talk to the children all of the time the importance of human life and pikuach nefesh [saving lives]. The children know all human life is sacred, not just Jewish life. This is an opportunity to teach that.”