JFNAs Emergency Committee helps communities hit by natural disasters get back on their feet by handling everything from disaster preparedness to financial assistance for relief efforts

Deborah Danan
Promoted Content
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Theres not a bathtub to be had in Baton Rouge because the whole city is redecorating. So quipped Herschel Brunner, who was a victim of the flooding that devastated much of southeastern Louisiana in August. Brunner made it out of his home in Walker on the outskirts of Baton Rouge just as the waters started to infiltrate his house. There was very little warning. By the time he stepped out onto the street, the water had surpassed the height of his children, making it necessary for Brunner to carry them through the neighborhood that looked, he said, like a giant lake or a fishbowl.

JFNA's William Daroff (left) and Brian Seymour (right) assist in the clean-up effort in Baton Rouge

In 2012, bathtubs were pretty scarce along the US Eastern Seaboard too. The total devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy left cities and suburbs alike in a state of emergency they could never have prepared for, causing over $70 billion in damages, much of it to neighborhoods with large Jewish populations in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. Thats a lot of redecorating.

But the Jews of the Eastern Seaboard were never alone. In the aftermath of Sandy, over 80 Federations teamed with other Jewish organizations to raise more than $8.5 million in relief aid, helping thousands of people repair their homes; restore their community centers, schools and synagogues, and rebuild their lives. And as for the Jews of Baton Rouge, Herschel says, Without the Jewish community, I would feel alone. And I dont feel alone. He credits the Jewish Federations of North America for the assistance they provided to his synagogue and local Federation. They were very generous. The financial assistance helped us return to what I would call livable conditions; it helped ease some of the anxiety and made it possible for us to meet some of our basic needs and essentials to get back on our feet. 

Reaching out when emergency strikes

JFNAs Emergency Committee was established in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo at the end of the 1980s. The organization, then called UJC, realized that a collective response was needed to prepare and assist Jewish communities in the event of natural disasters. This is one of JFNAs more aptly named committees, notes Brian Seymour, who chairs the committee. From California wildfires to Florida hurricanes to Texas flooding, we immediately reach out to local Federations when emergency strikes to check if they need national assistance.

Though this committees mission is to respond to domestic disasters, Federations Israel and Overseas Subcommittee works closely with partner agency The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on international disaster relief efforts in places like Nepal, Ukraine, the Philippines, Haiti and Japan.

Seymour, who personally lived through several Florida hurricanes, explained that the first step is to assist with immediate emergencies like locating and relocating residents and ensuring they have the basics –  food, blankets, clothes, a satellite phone to reach their loved ones. The next step focuses on homes – removing water, mud and furniture, ripping out drywall and pulling out floorboards – a process that can take ten volunteers from partner groups like NECHAMA–Jewish Response to Disaster several days of work on a single house. The actual rebuilding and renovating comes in the months that follow.

But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Emergency Committees mandate is the long-term. Much of the funds raised go to local Federation-supported Jewish Family Services (JFS) agencies that help people who have lost their jobs to find new ones, receive vocational training, obtain legal aid and mitigate the devastating effects that natural disasters have on childrens education. According to Seymour, one of the most important aspects of long-term relief JFS provides is ministering to the mental health of disaster victims – particularly where children are concerned – including emotional counseling and PTSD treatment.

In the days following the Louisiana flooding, Seymour visited Baton Rouge with William Daroff, JFNAs senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office. In addition to providing the Federation with its first disaster relief check, they joined volunteers, including some from the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicagos TOV Volunteer Network, in piling up the remains of peoples flood-engulfed homes and carting them off to landfills. One of the most rewarding aspects of the work of our emergency response is providing local Federations with opportunities for all of us, but especially young people, to see that there is a Jewish way to respond to disasters, Daroff said.

The desire to help

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, Jews from all over come together to ask how they can help, but are often not sure how they can be most useful, says Fred Zimmerman, president of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee and former chair of the Emergency Committee.

The response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a good example of this. Through Katrina, we learned where our real stock and trade is. We realized were not going to build buildings, but were going to do everything to make sure that both immediate relief and long-term recovery are taken care of, he says.

Within a few days of the storm hitting, Federations dispatched an emergency team to the Gulf Coast, funded some 1,000 volunteers from various Jewish groups and eventually raised some $30 million for relief. In the months and years that followed, Federations allocated tens of millions of dollars toward repairing and replacing damaged communal institutions, aiding evacuees, and providing social services ranging from geriatric care to community housing, for the Jewish and general communities alike. 

Yet for Daroff, one of the most heartwarming parts of this story actually occurred much later. According to him, after virtually every disaster, the most recent Federation that received assistance is among the first to offer dollars, volunteers and expertise to help that next community in need, and New Orleans has become a shining example of this.

Theyve vowed to never forget that the Federation system was there for them in their time of need, so they now always seem to be among the first to offer to pay it forward to other communities, he says. They and so many Federations, large and small, exemplify our shared responsibility to come to the aid of others in times of disaster.

Our values of chesed, Torah and avodah, service, must guide everything we do, adds Cheryl Fishbein, chair of Federations Israel and Overseas response to disasters and chair of the Emergency Committee during Sandy. Our partner NECHAMA is always looking for volunteers eager to make a difference, especially now as they work to help victims of Hurricane Matthew. Every community has its own needs. Be in touch with your Federation and ask how you can help. 

All things considered

Beth Morison says that the help she received from the JFNA after her home in Baton Rouge became flooded this summer was invaluable. They have been so wonderful I can hardly even put it into words. They contacted me so quickly, and immediately had funds from the Federation, she raves. The Federation alleviated so many worries for me because they were just there, as a source of help, providing information, as well as a monetary source.

Morison had just reached her deck when it started to separate from its foundations. After huddling on the top floor of her house for 13 hours, she, her son and her dog were rescued by boat. She thinks of herself as being very fortunate, all things considered.

Morison was herself a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge during Hurricane Katrina, taking part in countless meetings aimed at helping the devastated communities get back on their feet. Never in my life did I think I would be on the receiving end of that help, she says. And its a beautiful thing.

For more information about JFNAs Emergency Committee and to donate, visit jewishfederations.org.