L.A’s Helping Hands

Two months ago, I had dinner with a friend who lived in New Orleans. We chatted about our communities, and I reminisced about the two years I spent in her city almost 40 years ago.

Last week, I received an e-mail from the same woman, who emotionally recounted fleeing New Orleans with two children, just in front of Hurricane Katrina. Although safe, she and her family were trying to adjust, dealing with the children’s schooling and arranging housing. They had taken only two days of clothing, expecting to return home in 48 hours.

My friend’s tale is one among tens of thousands; many are far more devastating, as families are dealing with the deaths of loved ones and the loss of nearly everything they own. As New Orleans is dredged, the true scope of the devastation will be understood. Already, the evacuees realize that a return to their former lives in that wonderful city may take months or years, and that some things may never be recovered. Into that disheartening reality, the Jews of Los Angeles and elsewhere have stepped in willingly and generously to help as they can, exactly as their religion says they should. And all the fractiousness, all the confusing, competing layers of the various Jewish organizations have seemingly melted away, coordinating the relief aid very much as they were designed to do.

As one of the largest social service agencies in Southern California, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles kicked into gear to coordinate our region’s Jewish response, and to play an active role as part of the nationwide response of the United Jewish Communities.

The efforts of the voluntary community and nonprofit organizations, both sectarian and nonsectarian, have been extraordinary. Thousands of volunteers have come forward and given time and money. Clothing and food have been sent to assist evacuees in cities like Houston, Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss.

It is a tribute to the organized Jewish community that there was never a question — but that its assistance would go to all who needed it, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

The Houston Federation, in particular, is playing a central role. With its partners in the synagogue community, the Houston federation has responded compassionately and effectively in helping to collect small items like toothpaste and soap, to distribute food and to sort clothing for those with nothing but what is on their backs.

They have helped evacuees with temporary housing and the essentials of daily living. They have counseled the traumatized, and made it somewhat easier for the bereaved.

Beyond the affected region, the organized Jewish community is mobilizing across the country. Here in Los Angeles, we began our work immediately. After the hurricane, our communal network of affiliated human service agencies was convened by Federation senior staff, representing Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service, Hillel, the Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Free Loan Society and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, among others, to share information and to discuss how to coordinate and how assist evacuees expected in our city. The Board of Rabbis reached out to the synagogue community to help both Jews and non-Jews from the impacted region who started to arrive.

A natural disaster of this sort creates confusion exacerbated by the difficulty in using normal channels of communication. Our Federation has stepped in, fielding calls from local residents, connecting them with friends and family in the Gulf Coast.

We also have reached out to connect local manufacturers and businesses that have offered crucial in-kind contributions of supplies and locations needed to feed, shelter and clothe, including offers of water, trucks or mobile homes. And we’ve tried to quickly and thoughtfully match those offers with needs.

We can do so because we have over many years been set up to do it. Of no small consequence is the nearly $600,000 donated by Los Angeles residents through The Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Much of this money is going directly to food banks in Houston and for other vital supplies in Houston, Baton Rouge and Jackson.

Going forward, the organized Jewish community will continue to raise funds. It will continue to coordinate the collection of goods. And it will attempt to broker opportunities for volunteers who wish to do something meaningful in the healing process. This relief work to assist hurricane victims is a reminder of the importance of the social service network through which The Federation plays a lead role. Today, such efforts to help residents from the Gulf Coast are in the spotlight, but even when that spotlight fades, we intend to stay on the job.

Raising money, delivering services and building networks to help people here and around the world is what we are supposed to do and part of our daily life as Jews.

John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.