Monday, December 5, 2016 Kislev 5, 5777

Essen​ce of Who We Are

January 21, 2010
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The images emerging from Haiti are staggering; the statistics mind-boggling. While it would be easy to be struck with paralysis by the depth of such death and destruction, this is not the Jewish way.

And so, from day one of a crisis of incomprehensible proportions, Israel and a host of Jewish organizations have rushed to join -- and, in many cases, lead -- the international outpouring of relief efforts in the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation.

Amid the devastation, it's hard not to feel a surge of pride as we learn that a young Haitian woman named her newborn "Israel" because the Israeli army field hospital was the only one up and running fast enough to deliver her baby. Or that Orthodox volunteers with the Israeli disaster-relief group ZAKA worked through Shabbat searching for -- and rescuing -- survivors buried beneath the rubble.

"A Shabbat from hell," is how the Zaka team leader put it, illuminating that the very Jewish concept of saving lives, or pikuach nefesh, trumped Sabbath observance.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is purchasing medical supplies and food items, partnering with on-the-ground Israeli and other agencies to funnel relief. The JDC and the American Jewish World Service were among the first to open special aid boxes, which together have already raised several million dollars, much of it through the Internet.

While much of the international media has missed the poignant story of heroic Israeli efforts, they have not gone completely unnoticed. ABC's medical correspondent on the scene touted Israel's rapid-response site hospital, while the United States was still struggling to get started. Even the BBC, often criticized for anti-Israel bias, reported on such stellar efforts.

Clearly, the instant and effective outpouring of help was not done to help Israel's image, but it can only help. Too often, the Jewish state is portrayed in the media as a country steeped in violence or embroiled in diplomatic disarray. As Danny Biran, ambassador of logistical and administrative affairs for Israel's mission to the United Nations and the Americas, was quoted, saying of his country's rescue and relief operations: "I am sure it is good for the Israeli image, but we're not doing it only because of this. We are doing it because we believe in what we are doing."

Indeed, it is the central Jewish concepts of tzedakah and tikkun olam that motivate Israel, Jewish groups and the countless Jewish individuals who have opened their hearts and their wallets to give so generously.

For us, it's not just about responding humanely to the agony and anguish of others. We, as Jews, are obligated to act; it's the essence of who we are. So while we can feel immense pride in Israel and our Jewish efforts, we must also remember that it could and should be no other way.

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