It’s been a tumultuous season for natural disasters. Hurricanes have breezed through the alphabet, making it hard for those on the coast to catch their breath.
But the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hopes to subside the catastrophes with a bit of relief as part of a funding drive coordinated by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
A crisis management committee was formed last year to create a tactical approach by lay and professional Jewish Federation leaders to manage the Jewish Federation’s response to crises.
“This year unfortunately … we had just a mess of hurricanes,” said Holly Nelson, chair of the committee, as well as vice chair of Jewish Federation’s annual campaign and a member of the board of directors, “and loads and loads of damage done.”
Damage remains in parts of Florida and Puerto Rico, where locals struggle without their homes or electricity after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Only a quarter of small town Toa Baja’s 80,000 residents have running water, CNN reported, and about half of the gas stations are open while supermarkets are rationing food.
Chabad-Lubavitch sent private planes to Puerto Rico full of essentials, including 4,000 pounds of food and supplies, JNS.org reported. The island is home to roughly 3.4 million U.S. citizens.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also partnered with IsraAID to provide emergency assistance, including supplies and psychosocial trauma support.
Of the 51,000 Jews in Houston, 71 percent live in areas affected by flooding, according to JFNA, and 1,000 people have been displaced.
Fourteen percent of Jewish day school students and 20 percent of day school staff confirmed flooding, as well as six major Jewish institutions, including three of the area’s largest synagogues.
As a government agency, FEMA cannot fund religious institutions.
In response, JFNA has raised about $15.5 million so far, which benefits those affected synagogues, Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions.
“They’re really dependent on the donations people make to help them from across North America,” Nelson said. “We in Philadelphia are making sure that we’re getting the word out that people can donate to the Hurricane Relief Fund, and it goes to JFNA and then it’s distributed to the communities who need it most.”
While there was a demand for clothing, food and personal items immediately after the destruction, the focus now is on funding so communities can start to rebuild.
On the Jewish Federation’s website, there’s a banner that links to JFNA’s donation site, of which 100 percent of proceeds go toward those affected by the hurricanes.
“Our network of local and international partners serves Jewish community members and all in need quickly, effectively, and with personal care,” the site reads. “We fund urgently-needed basics like food and medicine, and long-term needs like trauma counseling.”
Of the money JFNA has raised so far, the Jewish Federation — one of 20 large-city Jewish federations — has collected more than $107,000 from individual Philadelphia donors who have clicked through the website, called or mailed in a check.
“We’re asking people to consider making a gift above and beyond the gift that they would normally give to Jewish Federation,” added Nelson, while still counting on donors to contribute to the Jewish Federation’s annual fund to aid local Jewish agencies.
The Hurricane Relief Fund benefits members of Jewish communities in affected areas, and JFNA releases it where it is needed most.
Representatives are also on the scene to determine where the most need is.
“A lot of people have felt the need to give, which is a visceral reaction to knowing that somebody’s synagogue, the sifrei Torah, are ruined,” she added, “so there’s a reaction in wanting to give to these disasters.”
Many Philadelphia snowbirds flock to Florida in the winter months, too, Nelson noted, so it hits home for locals as well.
In Houston, funding will go toward “helping people with basic needs, anything from diapers for babies to rebuilding of homes and food and water,” as well as rebuilding damaged infrastructures.
Nelson added that they hope to respond soon by sending delegations and missions of people to the affected areas to “roll up their sleeves” and help rebuild, similarly to how they responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“It was extremely empowering for everybody who was there,” Nelson recalled.
Jewish Federation President and CEO Naomi Adler has heard heartwarming responses to the financial support.
So far, the most impact has been made in Houston, as it’s been the longest amount of time since Hurricane Harvey landed, and JFNA could assess the damage.
“Most of the relief efforts for the Jewish community have been around ensuring that Jews who have been made homeless have places to stay, so that they have shelter, they have supplies,” she said.
At least one day school can’t operate, and although Perelman Jewish Day School extended free tuition for Texas students, no one has taken advantage of that offer, since other day schools and camps that reached out are closer to Houston.
“Those people who are in poverty or are on the cusp of poverty, this pushed them over the edge,” Adler noted. “We’ve done everything from trying to meet the most basic needs as well as ensure that if they can’t go to work there’s some kind of loan or some kind of response.”
Additionally, many synagogues in Houston either abandoned their flood insurance or they paid it but are waiting for construction to begin.
“This is the biggest humanitarian disaster for the Jewish community in the U.S. in a number of years,” she said. “So we’ve been very careful to ensure that the money is only being used for things not covered by insurance or any other source of funding like FEMA.”
Adler noted that there are separate funds people can donate to, either a general JFNA hurricane fund, one specifically for Houston or an international fund in response to the earthquakes in Mexico in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“This could easily happen to any of us,” Adler said. “We feel it’s our obligation to help Jews.”
“Even though something may not remain top of [the] news,” Nelson continued, “people need to look beyond and be continually reminded that the world is a bigger place than just our backyards, and the needs never go away.
“Any little bit they can do to help someone else is way more than the person had the minute before.”