Caring for the World – in This Case, Asia

It causes no consternation for Betsy Sheerr that in the tsunami-ravaged region of the world most victims are Muslims, and that some of the countries don't even recognize the State of Israel.

Instead, she explains, the idea of tikkun olam – or the healing of the world – refers to the entire world, not just to the Jewish one.

To that end, Sheerr took a trip earlier this month to Sri Lanka and Thailand, two countries devastated by the Dec. 31 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. She went as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Almost immediately after word of the calamity spread – during the same weekend that the world was celebrating the major holidays of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa – the committee mobilized, and within a few short weeks amassed nearly $18.5 million from a combination of organizational donations and the contributions of nearly 40,000 people. The figures broke the JDC's previous record of more than $5 million, which it raised for Bosnia relief back in the 1990s.

During her nine-day visit, Sheerr saw firsthand how the money was being spent, and observed the rebuilding progress that has taken place over the past six months. She met with regional leaders from other organizations involved in the relief effort, attended a groundbreaking for a school in Sri Lanka, planted trees and participated in part of a five-day seminar in Thailand.

And rather appropriately, the seminar – geared for regional psychiatrists and teachers helping others deal with grief as they, too, grapple with their own emotions – was led by Israelis, a people well-acquainted with the effects of loss and trauma.

"I met a psychologist who had lost her mother and 26 members of her family," relayed Sheerr.

The seminar, she added, "was a matter of helping the helpers."

A vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Sheerr is also national chair of the International Development Program, the division of the JDC dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to non-Jewish communities suffering from natural disasters, famine or war. Funds for this cause are not extracted from regular Jewish programming.

'Friendship and Interest'
Through the division's work, the JDC has acquired a long history of working with Muslims.

Sheerr, who this spring also made a trip to the ethnic Kurdish regions of Turkey, feels that building bridges with Muslim countries gives Jews credibility in the Muslim world.

"We made no secret that we were an American Jewish organization," said the resident of Bryn Mawr. "I took frequent opportunities, where appropriate, to talk abut Jewish values, and America's friendship and interest in working with these populations."

Sheerr said she didn't feel any religious tension while overseas, and that the local populations welcomed the help she offered when they came to understand that the JDC had no interest in proselytizing Muslims.

To those that believe Jewish organizations should only support Jewish causes, Sheerr refers back to the notion of tikkun olam, an idea that she says is not constrained by nationality, race or religion: "The impulse to take care of Jews and the rest of the world is very firmly rooted in our traditions.

"As a people, it's the right thing to do."



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