Typhoon Haiyan: How you can help


In response to the devastation wreaked on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit land on Nov. 8, killing thousands and obliterating whole towns and villages, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.

The solicitation for donations went live on Monday, Nov. 11, on the Federation website, jewishla.org, according to Mitch Hamerman, Federation’s senior vice president of communications and marketing.

The L.A. Federation’s response is only one example of local Jewry attempting to reach out to Filipinos suffering in the aftermath of the largest storm surge in modern history, despite the absence of a sizable Jewish population on the Southeast Asian island country. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has already sent emergency teams, and the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID has dispatched a team of humanitarian workers. The L.A. Federation is working with both organizations.

“We know our community wants to take action in this time of crisis,” a statement issued by Federation said.

On Monday, members of Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson received an email from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky asking for donations to IsraAID.

“We're all aware of the horrible death and destruction that occurred in the Philippines over the weekend. There is a special connection, as you may know between the Philippines and the State of Israel,” Kanefsky wrote, emphasizing that members of the Filipino community often are the healthcare workers who care for elderly Israelis.

Israel’s reaction to the storm has been robust, with the Israel Defense Forces and Magen David Adom both promising aid. Israeli consul general in Los Angeles David Siegel estimated that “several hundred” people, representing the Israeli government and Israeli non-government organizations, may join the relief effort in the Philippines.

“We’re very happy to do this, and I think you’ll see Israel put not insignificant resources into this, both in aid and in the representatives that we send,” he said. As a leader in trauma medicine, Israel is expert at responding in the immediate aftermath of mass casualty events. And helping another country in need fulfills the obligation of tikkun olam, Siegel said.

“Whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, we’re poised to be the first, if not one of the first, to provide immediate aid,” Siegel said.

Additionally, The United Kingdom’s World Jewish Relief organization has said it plans to offer help, and a fund launched by American Jewish World Service is providing support to local Filipino-run groups on the ground in the Philippines.

A prayer for Oklahoma


Lord our God, we stood before You just a week ago to receive the Ten Statements of Your Torah. We stood, as though with our ancestors, and listened to the Torah reader chant descriptions of the smoking mountain, the thunderous rumbling, and the long-awaited voice of God.

This afternoon, the people of central Oklahoma did not stand to hear the voice of God. We sat, we paced, and we huddled. We listened to the voice of the meteorologists and watched as dark clouds swirled together over a cone of destruction. The rain fell upward, not down, and the thunderous roar of the swirling winds carried, and we saw the awesome power of God. This was not Shavuot — the Feast of Weeks that marked our days of freedom. This was minutes that seemed like years and trapped us into watching the same images of destruction.

Merciful God, a great and powerful windstorm has passed, and it has torn apart the buildings and shattered the rocks before You. You told Elijah, the prophet, that You were not in the windstorm. Please, then, be in the still, small voices of the children crying out to be found. Be in the voices of the rescuers calling out for survivors. Be in the cries of those who are lost and of those who have lost.

May it be Your will that those who are missing be found alive and be cared for well, and may the people of central Oklahoma find strength in You and in one another as we rebuild what we can.

House clears path for disaster funding for religious institutions


The U.S. House of Representatives easily passed legislation that makes clearer the eligibility of religious institutions for disaster relief.

The bill, approved in a 354-72 vote on Wednesday afternoon, stipulates that the act funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a program that is “neutral with regard to religion,” according to statements from the offices of the sponsors of the new language, Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).

An array of groups had pressed for the clarification in the wake of superstorm Sandy, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.

FEMA had withheld assistance because of the law's vagueness.

The Orthodox Union in a statement praised Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, for facilitating the vote.

“We look forward to seeing this legislation pass the Senate,” it said.

Agudah in a statement said religious institutions “should receive federal relief in the same manner other nonprofits are afforded such assistance, without prejudice or discrimination.”

The sole major Jewish group opposing the legislation is the Anti-Defamation League.

The Reform movement, which has opposed similar bills in the past, has said it sees assistance after Sandy as “distinct from other forms of aid that we have historically opposed.”

Turkey quake kills at least 279, hundreds missing [UPDATE]


[UPDATE: 10:43 a.m.]

Rescuers searched the rubble of collapsed buildings Monday for survivors and victims of a major earthquake that killed at least 279 people and injured more than 1,300 in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Rescue and relief efforts focused on the city of Van and the town of Ercis, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, but hundreds were also feared dead in remote villages of mud-brick houses after Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake, Turkey’s strongest in a decade.

Desperate survivors cried for help beneath heaps of smashed concrete and twisted metal, some using mobile phones to tell friends they were alive, as earth-moving machines and troops raced against time in Van and Ercis.

Thousands of people made homeless by the quake were forced to spend a second night outdoors in the hilly, windswept Van region, enduring near-freezing temperatures. Families huddled round open fires that glowed in the dark. Some stayed in tents put up on soccer pitches, living on handouts from aid agencies.

The U.N. disaster agency said almost 1,000 buildings had collapsed, many of them poorly built. A Red Crescent spokesman said the agency was preparing to provide refuge for as many as 40,000 people, though it was so far impossible to tell how many would need shelter.

Some residents of Van and outlying villages complained of a lack of government assistance, despite the dispatch of troops, mobile kitchens and up to 13,000 tents.

“We have to fit 37 people in one tent,” said Giyasettin Celen, a 29-year-old who lost three family members in Dogonu Koyu, a village beside Lake Van where he said 15 people died.

“Our lost ones were carried like animals, on top of each other, in a transport van. Our main source of income here is livestock breeding, but we don’t have anywhere to keep them. We will have to sell them now,” he said.

Throughout the day, rescue workers pulled people out alive.

“Be patient, be patient,” rescuers in Ercis told a whimpering boy pinned under a concrete slab with the lifeless hand of an adult, a wedding ring on one finger, visible just in front of his face.

A Reuters photographer saw a woman and her daughter being freed from beneath a concrete slab in the wreckage of a six-storey building.

“I’m here, I’m here,” the woman, named Fidan, cried out hoarsely. Talking to her regularly while working for more than two hours to find a way through, rescuers cut through the slab, first sighting the daughter’s foot, before freeing them.

In Van, an ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, cranes shifted rubble from a collapsed six-storey apartment block where 70 people were feared trapped.

One woman, standing beside a wrecked four-storey building, told a rescue worker she had spoken to her friend on her mobile phone six hours after the quake trapped her in the wreckage.

“She’s my friend and she called me to say that she’s alive and she’s stuck in the rubble near the stairs of the building,” said her friend, a fellow teacher. “She told me she was wearing red pajamas,” she said, standing with distraught relatives begging the rescue workers to hurry.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew to Van to assess the scale of the disaster. It is a quake-prone area that is a hotbed of activity for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

Erdogan said he feared for the fate of villages with houses made of mud brick, saying: “Almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the death toll had reached 279, with 1,300 injured, and more were unaccounted for.

The quake brought fresh torment to impoverished southeast Turkey, where PKK militants fighting a decades-long insurgency killed 24 Turkish troops south of Van last week.

The area it struck, near the border with Iran, is remote and mountainous, with long distances between villages and people who live off stock-raising, arable farming and trading.

The hardest-hit town was Ercis, a town of 100,000, where 55 buildings crumpled, including a student dormitory.

At one collapsed four-storey building, firemen from the major southeastern city of Diyarbakir were trying to reach four missing children. Aid workers carried two large black bags, one apparently containing a child’s body, to an ambulance. An old woman wrapped in a headscarf walked alongside sobbing.

A distressed man paced back and forth before running toward the rescue workers on top of the rubble. “That’s my nephew’s house,” he sobbed as workers tried to hold him back.

The Red Crescent has delivered 5,000 tents to Ercis alone and a tent city has been set up at Ercis stadium. But residents said tents were being given only to relatives of police and soldiers, a possible source of tension if confirmed.

“The villages have not received any help yet. Instead of making a show, politicians should be visiting them. The Turkish military says they sent soldiers, where are they?” said a municipality official in Van who did not want to be named.

Ibrahim Baydar, a 40-year-old tradesman from Van, accused the government in Ankara of holding back aid. “All the nylon tents are in the black market now. We cannot find any. People are queuing for them. No tents were given to us whatsoever.”

Rescue efforts were hampered by power outages after the quake toppled electricity lines to towns and villages.

More than 200 aftershocks have jolted the region since the quake, lasting around 25 seconds, struck at 1041 GMT Sunday.

“I just felt the whole earth moving and I was petrified. It went on for ages. And the noise, you could hear this loud, loud noise,” said Hakan Demirtas, 32, a builder who was working on a construction site in Van at the time.

“My house is ruined,” he said, sitting on a low wall after spending the night in the open. “I am still afraid, I’m in shock. I have no future, there is nothing I can do.”

The Red Crescent said about 100 experts had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Sniffer dogs had joined the quest for survivors.

Major geological fault lines cross Turkey, where small tremors occur almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in the northwest.

The quake had no impact on Turkish financial markets when they opened Monday.

In Van, construction worker Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had at first mistaken the rumble of the quake for a car crash.

“Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water. May God help us. It’s like life has stopped. What are people going to do?”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler; Editing by Tim Pearce

Turkey rejects earthquake aid offers, including Israel’s


Turkey has rejected all international aid, including an Israeli offer, in the wake of a strong earthquake that collapsed buildings and left hundreds dead.

Sunday’s temblor, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale and was centered in southeastern Turkey, was felt in central Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported. At least 239 people are confirmed dead, with many others reportedly trapped in collapsed buildings.

“The State of Israel shares in your sorrow following the earthquake that has claimed victims from among your people,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday in a call to Turkish President Abdullah Gul.  “I speak as a man, as a Jew and as an Israeli who remembers, and is well aware of, the depth of the historic relations between our two peoples and thus I send the condolences of the entire nation to the families of those who lost their lives.  At this difficult time, the State of Israel is ready to render any assistance that may be required anywhere in Turkey, at any time.”

Gul thanked Peres for the telephone call, the expression of condolences and the offer of assistance, according to the president’s office, and said that he hoped Turkish search and rescue could handle the emergency alone. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey are now nearly nonexistent.

Israel’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Minister had been in contact with Turkish officials Sunday in order to offer assistance. An Israel Defense Forces search and rescue delegation is prepared to leave for Turkey if it is called upon, according to reports.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated since nine Turkish nationals, including a Turkish-American dual citizen, were killed in May 2010 during an Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged aid flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families.

Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been going downhill since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Turkey sent several firefighting airplanes to Israel last December to help battle the massive Carmel Forest fire.

Netanyahu offers quake aid to Turkey


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Monday to offer condolences for those killed in a devastating earthquake and said the Jewish state was ready to help, officials of both countries said.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have been frayed since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks during a raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010.

Sources at Erdogan’s office said Netanyahu reminded Erdogan that Turkey sent fire-fighting planes in December last year to help Israel battle a brush fire that killed 41 people and said Israel was now ready to help Turkey.

At least 279 people were killed and more than 1,300 wounded when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey on Sunday.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the call between the two men took place.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the victims of the terrible earthquake and offered Israel’s help in dealing with the tragedy. The Turkish prime minister thanked him for his words and for his offer to help,” the official said.

It was too early to know if the exchange would lead to a rapprochement. Turkey has demanded Israel apologise and pay compensation for the killings and lift the blockade on Gaza as a condition to normalise ties with its former strategic ally.

Tensions between the two U.S. allies rose last month when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologise and said its marines acted in self-defence in clashes with pro-Palestinian activists on one of the vessels.

Israel has sent rescue teams to quake-prone Turkey in the past after earthquakes struck.

Turkey has received offers of assistance from countries as far as China and Pakistan but so far has accepted aid only from Iran and Azerbaijan.

Earlier on Monday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc denied Turkey had declined an offer of aid from Israel.

“Our ties with Israel may not be at desired levels, but it’s out of the question to refuse humanitarian offers,” Arinc told a news conference.

“Turkey is thankful and respects all countries who offered help,” he said, but cautioned that “if aid from all countries arrived in Van it would be chaos”.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Michael Roddy and Roger Atwood

Israel prepares earthquake aid for Turkey


Israel has offered to send aid to Turkey following a strong earthquake that has collapsed buildings and reportedly left hundreds dead.

The scope of the aid in response to the earthquake that hit southeastern Turkey early Sunday will depend on Turkey’s willingness to accept it, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are now nearly nonexistent.

The temblor, which measured 7.3, was felt in central Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported.

Israel’s Defense Ministry also has been in contact with Turkish officials. An Israel Defense Forces delegation is preparing to leave for Turkey as soon as it receives clearance, according to reports.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated since nine Turkish nationals, including a Turkish-American dual citizen, were killed in May 2010 during an Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged aid flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families.

Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been going downhill since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Turkey sent several firefighting airplanes to Israel last December to help battle the massive Carmel Forest fire.

Turkey: no call yet for foreign aid after quake


Turkey has not yet made any call for international assistance after Sunday’s powerful earthquake in which many people were feared killed, a Foreign Ministry official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Turkey had received offers of assistance from dozens of countries, including Israel, and so far had declined help from all of them.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said earlier that Ankara had declined aid offered by the Jewish state after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey.

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Tim Pearce

Israel reconsidering nuclear power plans in light of Japan crisis


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN that Israel is reconsidering its plans for a nuclear energy facility in light of what happened in Japan. The interview is set to be aired later on Thursday.

Japan is facing a nuclear crisis after a major earthquake and tsunami led to explosions and rising radiation levels in the country’s nuclear plants. The UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday the situation at the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant remained very serious but no major worsening had occurred since Wednesday.

Israel created a plan for a nuclear energy plant to be located in the Negev several years ago but it has yet come into fruition.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Japan disaster and Itamar killings put Jewish giving on the spot


Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding last Friday, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.

In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like ZAKA and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north. In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts in the Pacific.

But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Itamar, and the focus of the Jewish community seemed to shift.

“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levine, a British Israeli event planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The devastated remaining members of the Fogel family from Itamar, Gilad Shalit — 5 years in Hamas captivity — or the survivors of the Japanese tragedy and the dangers they may be facing.”

The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message last Friday calling on supporters to donate to the organization’s newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent out another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.

As of late Monday, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, the OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, said in an interview.

“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need,” he said, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

By Tuesday, Israeli teams of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.

Several American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation in Chicago and the American Jewish Committee, are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.

In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center also trucked several tons of food and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.

In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.

“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $100,000 over the first weekend.

What makes the Japanese situation a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations is the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.

Indeed, when the American Jewish World Service, which led the Jewish aid response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, was asked what its aid effort would be for Japan, the answer was none at all because AJWS has no partners in the country, spokesman Joshua Berkman said.

The JDC found itself in a similar situation.

“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake; we just worked with the local Jewish community,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC.

But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By Tuesday, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based organization specializing in shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable and emergency supply distribution that had managed to send personnel to the ravaged Japanese prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima.

As with other disasters, Recant said JDC will stick around to help with long-term relief, budget allowing. Only money raised specifically for Japan will be spent on disaster relief. There is no money in JDC’s budget for additional nonsectarian, humanitarian work, Recant said.

While Japan continues to reel from the triple disaster of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami and a subsequent nuclear crisis, experts in Israel are trying to figure out what lessons from Japan can be applied to the Jewish state, which lies on two fault lines, the Carmel fault and the Dead Sea fault.

Israel experiences tremors every so often, but the last time a ruinous earthquake struck the area was in 1927, when the West Bank city of Nablus suffered serious damage. An 1837 earthquake destroyed much of the northern Israeli cities of Safed and Tiberias and left thousands dead.

Israeli building codes have been updated for better earthquake safety compliance, but regulations and enforcement still are said to lag behind places like California, which experiences larger and more frequent quakes.

“There’s still a lot that has to be done as far as building codes are concerned,” said professor Michael Lazar, a tectonics expert at the University of Haifa. “There’s an attempt to encourage people to renovate older buildings and make them earthquake ready, but it really hasn’t caught on.”

A scenario in which Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, would face the kind of meltdown scenario situation that Japan is seeing now is much less likely, Lazar said, because Dimona is far from the tectonic lines that cross Israel.

“But,” he cautioned, “it’s hard to tell how an earthquake would disperse.”

Japan earthquake relief: How you can help

‘World Trade Center’ Writer Views Film as Catharsis


“I wanted the movie to be a catharsis,” says Andrea Berloff, the screenwriter of “World Trade Center,” the Oliver Stone-directed docudrama that opens Aug. 9. “I’ve felt that way from the beginning.”

The film is a surprising coup for the young writer, a soft-spoken graduate of Cornell’s Drama School, who has never before had a script produced. The famously headstrong director of “Platoon,” “JFK” and, most recently, “Alexander,” told Berloff he would shoot the film faithfully to her script – an almost unheard-of tribute in an industry where multiple rewrites are customary.

If having her script produced is a coup for Berloff, the completed film is likely to be greeted with hailstorms of discourse, not least because it seems the current spate of 9/11 movies is a reminder that films have become a primary way for Americans to digest difficult and painful events.

For many, particularly New Yorkers, the wounds of Sept. 11 have scarcely closed. Will the film be received as an homage to the dead, the survivors and their rescuers, as Berloff says she intended or as a flag-waving disaster flick?
Even more problematic are the politics of interpretation surrounding the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Sept. 11 has been appropriated, in part, by the Bush administration as rationale for pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, some left-leaning observers like Noam Chomsky have named the attacks as the inevitable comeuppance for what they describe as America’s bad behavior in foreign places.

Given the politically polarizing nature of her material, “the fact that the studio made this movie at all is remarkable,” Berloff says, adding, “It is rare that you can do something with this kind of meaning” in the world of commercial film.

For her part, Berloff does not look like a person braced for controversy and criticism. An attractive woman with pale eyes and auburn hair falling nearly to her shoulders, she is quiet, focused and poised. But is she prepared for flak from both the left and right?

She seems to shrug off the question.

“Actually, most of the responses I have gotten so far have been overwhelmingly positive,” she says, neither defensive nor arrogant.

I suggest that the character of Dave Karnes, a real-life former marine who assisted in the rescue of several trapped policemen, seems to personify the militaristic mood that followed the attacks.

Karnes (played by Michael Shannon) says at various points, “You may not realize it yet, but we’re at war,” later mentioning that the attacks need to be “avenged.”

Berloff replies calmly that Karnes, ideological or not, is a real person who played a pivotal role in the real-life rescue of Port Authority Policemen John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). At the same time, “people find that character very polarizing,” she acknowledges, without saying more.

If Berloff seems reluctant to jump into the politics of 9/11, it may be because she views the film as essentially nonpolitical.

“If there is any political issue that all Americans can get behind, it is idea that Sept. 11 brought out the goodness in people,” she says. “That’s what impressed me most at the time.”

The story Berloff wants to tell, she says, is of ordinary people and their families caught in extraordinary circumstances, both as victims and rescuers. The response to crisis is human goodness, generosity and, in some cases, heroism, she continues. Berloff undertook thorough research, interviewing many survivors.

At the same time, Berloff allowed herself certain poetic insertions. She gives Karnes one of the most striking lines in the movie, delivered as he arrives at the smoldering site of ground zero: “Maybe the smoke is hiding something we’re not ready to see.”

Although the film has its share of crowd scenes and mayhem, Berloff’s approach to the script was not to write about mass emotions but to focus on two characters trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers.

“Once I decided just to focus on those two characters and their families, that’s when I knew I had found the way to tell the story,” she explains.

Berloff’s respect for research led her to make contact with several World Trade Center survivors and their families. Striving for the greatest possible accuracy in the portrayal of events, she transcribed more than 1,000 pages of notes from her interviews with former officers Jimeno and McLoughlin.

“I met the guys and their wives, who were so kind and who had had such a tough run in their lives,” she says. “I felt this enormous responsibility to do right by them.”

The responsibility she felt was so great, in fact, that she found it “paralyzing” for several months in the course of writing.

One part of the script she found personally challenging deals with religion and prayer. At one point, believing himself at the point of death, McLoughlin says the “Lord’s Prayer,” very much the way a pious Jew would say “Shema.” In another scene, Jimeno sees an image of Jesus beckoning him to heaven.

The characters’ beliefs are “so uncynical, and their love for their fellow man is really genuine,” she says, “it made me feel open-minded and open-hearted.” At the same time, she says, “To think of this Jewish girl writing this ‘Christian’ movie is really funny.”

Berloff’s biography is the trajectory of a young actress into a writer. Raised in Framingham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, she majored in drama in college, subsequently moving to New York to pursue an acting career.

After getting some roles in New York, she and her husband later moved to Hollywood. Berloff says she grew disenchanted with acting, however.

“If it’s all about who’s the most skinny and who’s the most cute, I don’t want to do it, because I’m never going to be that,” she says in a tone of disgust.

She responds warmly to a suggestion that “World Trade Center” is ultimately about family. Married, with a 7-month-old child, perhaps she has been thinking about family recently. Or perhaps, family is her chosen theme, as it has been for many writers.

“The family is central to everyone,” she says. “There is no more complicated relationship in life than that with your family,” she adds. “It’s your primary experience in life.”

She is currently working on a different kind of family drama concerning the mutual backstabbing of the Gucci fashion family of Italy for director Ridley Scott.

“It’s the high drama of a family whose members destroy one another,” she says.
Despite working on a script about mutual betrayal, Berloff herself retains the idealistic tone of “World Trade Center.”

“As horrible as it was, it was a day of love when we took care of each other,” she says. “To include that goodness as part of the oral history of Sept. 11 is important,” she adds.

“It might be idealistic,” she reflects, “but I would like to live in that world.”

Remembering Zvika


“I have the worst possible news,” said our friend Avram Bar-Shai, calling from LAX. “Zvika has been killed in a helicopter crash and we are on the way to his funeral.”

This Time They’re Ready for the Wave


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Women’s Lib Rises in Wake of Disaster

Some 50 South Indian villagers are spread out along the sandy beach. Women clad in brightly colored saris converse in groups, while men repair fishing nets. Teenage boys playfully tackle each other.

Then, the residents of Vellakoil get some news from fellow clansmen: Dangerous weather is on the way.

A year ago, when the tsunami hit, 19 died in this village of less than 500; 14 were children. And everyone’s house and belongings were washed away.

This time, they are ready.

As the storm descends, men, women and children fan out, each with a task. Some run into the Sea of Bengal to save those stranded in the water. They use rafts and life preservers made of readily available local materials, such as empty plastic water bottles and bamboo branches. Using makeshift stretchers — blankets stretched across tied bamboo — others carry the injured to a first-aid station.

Welcome to an emergency preparedness exercise organized by an Indian nonprofit, with support from the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).

The effort was launched about a decade ago in another part of India, after a devastating earthquake, through Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), which stands for “self-learning through empowerment.”

Funds contributed after last December’s devastating tsunami are helping to pay for training and travel to make the program work. The idea is for villagers to help teach people from other villages, a concept central to the ideology of nonprofits funded by AJWS.

Vellakoil residents are serious about the drill. Beforehand, they proudly announce their duties — monitoring weather systems, performing first aid, documenting damage — to a group of visitors.

Of course, it’s hard to prepare for a tsunami that strikes on a clear day and sweeps inland across 4 kilometers of land, as happened here a year ago. But the planning already has paid dividends. Even though the region and the village suffered severe flooding during recent rains, residents successfully removed themselves and their belongings out of harm’s way.

This exercise begins and ends with villagers lined up along the beach, their arms outstretched as they pledge loyalty to their village and to each other.


In disaster drill, Vellakoil residents use supplies at hand — water bottles and bamboo — to fashion a rescue raft. Photo by Howard Blume

When they first performed the exercise about a month ago, at least one resident broke down in tears as memories resurfaced. Just two weeks before, a man who had lost two sons in the killer wave hanged himself. On this day, one woman recalls trying futilely to save two grandchildren.

For some, however, the emotions are beginning to subside. Several teenage boys wear excited smiles as they carry the “wounded” to safety.

Even psychological benefits are no small thing.

“Now we have confidence that we can escape,” says Kuppamanikkam, the woman who lost two grandchildren. “Now we no longer have to fear.”

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site: http://www.jdc.org/

American Jewish World Service
Web site: http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: http://cwscrop.org/californiasouthwest/
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: http://www.globalfundforchildren.org/
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site: http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: http://www.theirc.org/
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site: http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355

Oxfam

Web site: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site: http://www.jdc.org/

American Jewish World Service
Web site: http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: http://cwscrop.org/californiasouthwest/
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: http://www.globalfundforchildren.org/
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site: http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: http://www.theirc.org/
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site: http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355

Oxfam

Web site: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site: http://www.jdc.org/

American Jewish World Service
Web site: http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: http://cwscrop.org/californiasouthwest/
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: http://www.globalfundforchildren.org/
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site: http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: http://www.theirc.org/
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site: http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355

Oxfam

Web site: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326

Their Spirit Survives


It was hard to be in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the biggest natural disaster in our history. I had some previous Red Cross training, and, with some additional fast-track prep on disaster response, I was on my way to Louisiana — first by plane to Houston, then by car to Baton Rouge.

Lodging on one of the first nights was the floor of a church gymnasium. At times, I felt like I was part of a sad “Amazing Race,” hurrying throughout Louisiana to provide some assistance to some of Katrina’s victims.

Then, when teamed with a fellow mental health professional from Utah, I felt like a modern-day civil rights’ worker, driving through such small towns as Bunkie, Mansura and finally to Marksville, La. Marksville, in the heart of Avoyelles Parish in central Louisiana, hardly has a downtown. There’s a WalMart and two gaming casinos — one on Indian property — on the neighboring highway.

As the first on-site Red Cross volunteer workers in the Marksville area, we had to do some of everything. Initially, we checked on several local shelters to make sure the needs of evacuees were being met. Then, we were able to concentrate on our main focus — to provide counseling to the hundreds of displaced families from New Orleans and surrounding communities who were staying in these shelters.

Most of those staying at the local shelter were extremely poor, and were so even before the hurricane. Some literally had no money, no place to go, with all their belongings in a box by their cot.

Many originally had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster. When they left their homes — and some only did so reluctantly — they believed that they would be able to return after two or three days.

One tearful older couple blamed themselves for taking only the family truck and little else. Most were dealing with shock, loss, sadness and gradually with the reality of the magnitude of the situation and what to do next. This reality was accentuated when families were encouraged to register their children for school in the cities where they were sheltered.

One wonderful lady had recently retired to take care of her elderly mother. Now she has no home — and no city.

“I thought I had the rest of my life all planned out and quite well,” she told me. “Now I have to start all over again. And I don’t even know where I am going to end up living.”

One man I met was more concerned about finding a place for his two dogs than for himself.

Some evacuees expressed frustration and anxiety over the slowness in getting FEMA-type assistance, but they seemed more universally outraged at the looters who further destroyed their homes and terrorized their city. Instead of waiting for government assistance, many of these storm victims have already begun trying to find housing and jobs. They are striving, as quickly as possible, to leave the shelter and become self-sufficient again.

I was struck by an incredibly strong sense of family — this included the sadness of not knowing whether loved ones were still alive, and the struggle to reunite with loved ones who sometimes ended up at shelters in different states. I also couldn’t help but notice that some young mothers were little more than children themselves.

The outpouring of support from the people of central Louisiana to maintain these shelters is heartwarming and even amazing. They know the true meaning of tzedakah (charitable giving).

I met one dentist and his wife who were working day and night to tend to almost 200 shelter residents, even though they both have full-time jobs. One minister in Tennessee contacted a shelter and offered to sponsor two or three families, letting them live with or near his family as he helped them get jobs.

With the help of local citizens, these shelters have become full-functioning communities almost overnight. One shelter took an empty warehouse and turned it into a temporary home for almost 450 people.

There are doctors and nurses who come in on a daily basis to tend to medical needs and provide medications. Barbers and beauticians provide haircuts, children get trips to the zoo and adults are ferried to the library.

I was struck by the resilience and indomitable spirit of the shelter residents. One woman who works full time at the shelter was herself displaced from her home in New Orleans and was trying to locate her husband. When I asked who was helping her, she just smiled and said that she wanted to help others first.

“The Lord will take care of me,” she said.

So many of the homeless echoed the confident faith of these words. So many say they feel blessed that their lives were spared.

“They’re going to build a better New Orleans,” one man said.

People are making do with humor and hugs. At one point, I pulled up an aluminum chair to sit near a woman’s cot.

“This is my office,” I told her.

“And this is my house,” she replied with a twinkle.

These hard-pressed people face many trying months, but they showed me they have the strength and determination to rebuild their lives.

Richard Sherman, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Tarzana, is president of the L.A. chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition and past president of the L.A. County Psychological Association.

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A Race Against Time and Floodwaters


Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm’s wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.

Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.

“We have mobilized our community around all the areas that seem to be current and potential needs,” said Lee Wunsch, the federation’s CEO. “There’s a lot of activity. People are very generous with their time. Our phones have not stopped ringing.”

Approximately 15,000 Louisiana evacuees were being housed in the Astrodome, the city’s covered sports stadium, after conditions in the New Orleans Superdome grew unbearable. Houston is hosting tens of thousands of evacuees, including an estimated 5,000 Jews.

The federation has joined an interfaith coalition taking responsibility for feeding the refugees in the Astrodome for the next 30 days, a service that the federal government is not providing, Wunsch told JTA. The effort will require 700 to 800 volunteers each day and is expected to cost between $7 million and $8 million.

“We’re trying to raise the money to make a sizable contribution to that,” Wunsch said.

In the first 24 hours when the fund was opened last week, the federation raised about $75,000 in online donations. Donations are coming in so quickly that by the beginning of this week, the federation had decided to hold off calculating the total until a quieter time.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced it would be donating $1 million to help relieve survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Funds will be allocated as $500,000 grants to both United Jewish Communities (UJC) and Catholic Charities USA.

On Tuesday, UJC said it had raised nearly $4 million, including the Weinberg Foundation grant. The UJC also said that the local federations directly affected by the hurricane were overwhelmed and had asked that those with questions or seeking to make donations contact the UJC directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jews may be among those still trapped in water-inundated homes or missing in the Gulf region, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, Chabad-Lubavitch’s spokesman based in New York.

Chabad rescue teams, comprised largely of New York-based medics and others with relevant expertise, have rescued 32 Jews from their houses over the last several days, he said. The teams are operating both on foot and in boats.

Some elderly Jews resisted leaving their homes, as did one woman who was reluctant to leave her pets behind to fend for themselves. The teams were able to convince some victims to evacuate their homes; others stayed put.

The Hurricane Relief section of Chabad’s Web site asks anyone who knows of people still missing or trapped to provide details through the site (www.chabad.org.).

As of Tuesday, the official death toll in New Orleans was 71, and in Mississippi it was 161. However, those figures were expected to climb into the thousands as floodwaters begin to recede, revealing the true toll of those lost.

Hunger and fear of disease in affected areas engendered anger and disbelief as the federal government’s handling of the crisis garnered sharp criticism. President Bush toured the battered region Monday, comforting victims and vowing to do what is necessary to aid them. In a visit to the area last week, Bush said relief efforts to that point were “not acceptable.”

Jewish organizations in the hard-hit region and beyond pitched in to help those whose lives have been disrupted by Katrina.

Israeli universities are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm. Tulane University in New Orleans announced that it will not hold classes for the fall semester. Loyola University is also closed though January, and Dillard University is examining its options for the immediate future. The two schools are also in New Orleans.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA — the Gateway to Long-Term Israel Programs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have forged a coalition of the five major Israeli universities with study-abroad programs to allow displaced students — Jews and non-Jews — to quickly continue their studies.

Meanwhile, Jewish day school networks across the United States and across the denominational spectrum are working to absorb Jewish students and their families, offering everything from free tuition and school supplies to employment opportunities for parents and living accommodations.

“Jewish day schools across the streams walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

The UJC and local federations throughout the United States and Canada have also established funds to aid those in need. Numerous other Jewish organizations, both national and local, are also offering help — raising money, coordinating housing and looking into specific medical and religious needs of refugees in their communities.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has composed a special prayer for the victims.

“In the path of Katrina’s destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood,” it reads, in part. “Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors. Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair. Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.”

At Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., congregants are preparing backpacks full of school supplies for young Katrina evacuees who will shortly be enrolling in the Houston public school system.

Each school bag is being filled with grade-appropriate supplies in accordance with Houston school guidelines — younger students may get crayons and markers while older pupils will receive items like graph paper and protractors.

“In terms of rallying the community, it was really wonderful,” said Gari Julius Weilbacher, who is coordinating the synagogue’s effort. “It’s giving people something to do besides writing really, really vital checks.”

Weilbacher said that she expects more than 150 backpacks to come in, and some congregants are writing checks to pay for postage, while others are donating boxes in which to pack the bags for shipment.

The Houston federation is working feverishly to meet Jewish evacuees’ needs.

A number of New Orleans families are now living with families in Houston, Wunsch said, and local day schools are allowing students from New Orleans to enroll for free. The Maimonides Society, a group for local Jewish doctors, has been mobilized to help those evacuees with medical concerns, and several local rabbis are coordinating an effort to ensure that their Jewish religious needs are met.

Synagogues in the Houston area are providing free Shabbat meals and are expected to open their doors to evacuee families, both in the immediate future and during the High Holidays.

At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, members are making room in their homes for those with no place to go and have prepared welcome packages of toiletries, snacks and beverages. The synagogue was also arranging kosher meals for those who want them, and sent about 250 volunteers to the Astrodome this week.

The community response has been swift and overwhelming, say those involved in coordinating area relief efforts.

“I’m 150 e-mails behind,” said Adam Bronstone, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 and has since been working at the Houston federation office and living with a friend. “There’s one guy here answering four phones at a time.”

The situation, Bronstone said, is “crazy, it’s surreal, it’s loving, its warm. It’s the worst of times — but it’s also the best of times.”

Hurricane damage in the region was staggering. The full extent of damage to sites of Jewish concern remained uncertain. West Esplanade Avenue in Metarie, La., is home to about five Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes, who rode out the storm at his home there with his family and four others seeking refuge, saw downed trees, power outages, some damage to roofs and up to two feet of water.

Those with knowledge of New Orleans geography said that based on news reports about damage to particular neighborhoods, they suspected that some other buildings, including a Jewish museum, were badly damaged or destroyed.

As Nemes, his wife, seven children and four house guests sat on the second floor of his home — winds howling outside, water rising on the bottom level, rain pelting the sturdy brick home’s protective hurricane shutters — they prayed and played board games.

“We weren’t worried for our lives,” he recalled on Tuesday from Chabad’s offices in New York, where he had arrived by car in the morning after three days in Memphis. “But it was very, very nerve-wracking. We were hoping and praying for the storm to end.”

Things grew more tense, he said, when some of the city’s levees broke. At that point, Nemes had no idea how his neighborhood would fare. In the end, the power went out and his house took in about two feet of water — but everyone got out safely.

“All the appliances and furniture are damaged,” he said. “It’s dirty, bacteria-filled water. There’s extensive damage, but I don’t believe it’ll be condemned.”

In addition to those who landed in Houston, Jews also ended up in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

Many also fled to Memphis. The Orthodox Union (OU) dispatched Rabbi Chaim Neiditch on a fact-finding mission to Tennessee.

“They’re living Jewish lives as best as they can,” said Neiditch, the director of the southern region of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. They are attending prayer services and eating kosher food, he said, but there is a real fear that the community, stretched to its limits by the influx of evacuees, will run out of kosher food.

“There is a sense of despair and worse — every single possession is lost, jobs gone,” he said. “They are separated from family and friends. They have no means of communicating with each other. It is beyond comprehension what is going on.”

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City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories


In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, “Someday, we Jews’ll all be floatin’ down the river.”

Just as in California, where we know that one day “the big one” will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.

Last week, I accompanied my daughter, Jen, to New York University for her freshman year. I returned home from New York on Monday, Aug. 29, with the expectation that I would be tending an empty nest. However, on the flight home, the CNN images on my private television screen, showed me that the nest that needs tending is the city itself, the one that nurtured me and held my memories — the place that gave me such delight throughout my youth and so much heartbreak as a young adult, when my mother and sister died in 1971.

I hope to be able to join the Red Cross relief effort, starting in Houston and from there, perhaps, deployed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we vacationed when I was a girl. I will then connect with the recovery efforts of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, which has moved to Houston and Baton Rouge, along with much of my New Orleans Jewish community.

I would like to be a Jewish face in the rescue efforts with the larger community — a student rabbi working in a non-Jewish setting. And then I want the solace of comforting my own.

My hope is to try to provide consolation to the people who surrounded me as I said Kaddish for my father during the flood of 1995. That was said to be the greatest flood in 500 years, and people who came to comfort me came through mud and water, but that experience doesn’t come close to the water and heartbreak that now must be drained from the streets of New Orleans.

My family came to New Orleans at the turn of the last century, and they took part in building many of the Jewish institutions. At one time, we belonged to two Orthodox synagogues, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in the classically Reform Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in the United States.

My grandfather sold furniture from the back of his horse cart, and around 1925, he and five other peddlers pooled their meager resources and opened a store, Universal Furniture House.

As one of seven children, my father inherited one-seventh of his family’s one-sixth share in Universal. He became its manager and built it into one of the largest furniture businesses in the South. Though he only owned a small part of it, as head of it he was able to play a prominent role in the New Orleans business and philanthropic community, particularly the New Orleans Jewish Federation and the Louisiana Red Cross.

My father loved New Orleans almost as much as he loved me. I am so glad he is not alive to see this. Or my Aunt Rosalie, who was the executive secretary to the mayors of New Orleans over a period of 20 years, which means that she had more influence than just about anyone in the city.

As a child, it seemed natural to me to go in and out of the mayor’s office whenever I wanted. We were seated in the mayor’s box at City Hall for all of the Mardi Gras parades, while Aunt Rosalie embarrassed us as she pranced around in her Mardi Gras costumes that were more fabulous each year. My Aunt Ida had an antique jewelry shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter.

Every Shabbat, when I sing “Shalom Aleichem,” I hear their voices, see their faces and smell the chicken being prepared by their cook, who was the sister-in-law of Louis Armstrong.

Until Thursday, Sept. 1, when they were rescued, driven to Baton Rouge and flown to New York, my elderly cousins, 95-year-old Rosalie Cohen (three brothers married three sisters, and they all named their children Rosalie, Ida, Mose and Lazard), and Mildred Brown, 87, were stuck in Mildred’s condo in the Garden District, a part of New Orleans where the water did not get too terribly high — only a few feet. They had a caregiver with them. I actually got through to them on the phone three times.

Rosalie Cohen was one of the grand dames of the Jewish world — think Miss Melanie of “Gone with the Wind” meets “Driving Miss Daisy.” A celebrated beauty and intellect. Warm and charming, with a lyrical voice and, of course, perfect manners.

She was the first woman vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, a Hebraic scholar who stayed at the Beit HaNasi (the president’s house) when she visited Israel.

She and Teddy Kollek were the last survivors of one of the major Zionist gatherings, a witness to the Arab riots of 1929 at the Wall and, I believe, one of the last Jews at the Wall before it became inaccessible to Jews for so many years. I have a picture of her with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Rosalie does not understand why she is not in her beautiful home in a lower part of the city, with her ancient and rambling oak tree, which is registered as a “protected tree.” Her younger sister, Mimmie, says she has to explain what is going on to Rosalie 20 times a day.

On Wednesday, I spoke to Rosalie who greeted me in her melodic upbeat voice, “Oh darling, how nice of you to call. We’re just riding it out and waiting for things to get back to normal.” The caregiver told me that they were waiting, hoping to be rescued by the National Guard.

When I told Rosalie that I might be coming in with the Red Cross, she said, “Well, do give us a call when you are in town.” I imagine that when the rescuers came, she put on white gloves and stockings.

How they were able to drive out of New Orleans without the car being hijacked and what they must have seen from that car is beyond me. The survivors whose harrowing stories I know are the ones with means and, therefore, the lucky ones.

When I last spoke to them before their rescue, there was only about a foot of water in their street, but they were probably the only ones remaining in their building. Of course, there was no electricity or air conditioning. The caregiver said they had adequate food and water, although Mimmie said otherwise. When I asked why she didn’t leave, she said she was “too old to travel.”

Today, Sunday, Sept. 4, I spoke to a dear family friend, age 90. She is in Houston with her grandson, having come with only the clothes she was wearing.

She said, “We were given a directive by the mayor to get out in one hour. I left everything, but we, at least, have our lives.

“I’ve just cried constantly since this happened. Such a feeling of loss. Not for the material things … but all the people….

“I wonder who I’ll ever see again. I tell myself, ‘Stop crying, at least you are alive.’ The people in the Holocaust didn’t even have their lives.”

When I told her of Rosalie and Mildred’s whereabouts, she said, “I saw Rosalie at a meeting about a week ago. She was as elegant and beautiful as ever. I told her that she had been my inspiration, all those years ago, for getting involved in Jewish community life and how grateful I was to have her as a role model. Now I will probably never see her again.”

She began to cry.

Was it Ellie Weisel who said, “There are things that are real that could not possibly be true?”

When I speak, I give this picture as a definition of healing:

In 1971, after my mother and sister died, I left New Orleans. When people asked, “How can you leave?” I said, “I have to go. Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is unbearable.”

Years later, when I returned to New Orleans and people asked how it felt to be home, I would say, “Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is exquisite.”

Now every tree and every street corner needs healing.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, forwarded, these words:

“Perhaps we cannot expect to know why the world is broken; it may be enough to be blessed with the capacity to see the brokenness and to respond with love.”

Please all of you, do what you can.

Love to all of you. For those of you who pray — send prayers to my beautiful city. For those of you who know New Orleans, you know what a treasure we have lost. n

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

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Disaster Exposes Government Failures


President Bush and Congress talk a good game when it comes to homeland security, but the tragic truth is that the country is less able to cope with disasters than before Sept. 11, 2001. The proof is on the flood-ravaged streets of New Orleans, where an unprecedented natural disaster quickly produced violent anarchy and a flaccid government response that multiplied the suffering.

For all the money thrown at preparing for massive terror attacks and other disasters, the new Department of Homeland Security looked more like a Third World bureaucracy, as armed gangs roamed the city and people died for lack of food, water, sanitation and medical supplies.

If a hurricane turned New Orleans into Haiti, imagine the impact of a nuclear detonation in Washington or New York. And it’s hard to argue that years of tax cuts and corresponding reductions in important programs didn’t severely impair the ability of government agencies at every level to respond, compounding the misery of the drowned city’s most vulnerable residents.

That fact will put Jewish organizations to the test in the next few months, as Congress and the administration consider new tax and spending priorities. Put simply, it may be time for reticent Jewish leaders to abandon the comfort of silence and directly address policies that threaten the future of the nation.

In the shocking aftermath of Katrina, Americans were digesting numerous lessons, many centered on the failure of government at every level and politicians in both parties to address basic needs.

Skyrocketing gas prices and the threat of shortages, as old refineries and oil terminals along the stricken Gulf Coast went out of service, pointed to the nation’s abject failure to craft a practical, forward-looking energy policy, despite past oil shocks and the threat of terrorism against oil facilities.

Oil companies have been reaping record profits, but not investing heavily in new capacity; political interests have prevented tough new mileage standards, as the nation’s love affair with gas-guzzlers continues unabated. The result is a nation whose economy and way of life continue to depend on a fragile energy lifeline easily disrupted by natural or manmade disasters.

That poses a long-term threat to U.S.-Israel relations, as well, because it increases America’s dependence on supplier nations that are implacably hostile to the Jewish state.

The disaster also pointed to the reality that billions of dollars in homeland security spending have left the nation no more secure than before Sept. 11.

From the start, the idea of homeland security turned into a supersized boondoggle. Jurisdictions and programs with strong political backers got piles of money; others were left strapped, and need was rarely a factor. Everybody played the game. Political payoff blended with real need until it was almost impossible to sort out what was what.

Giant bureaucracies were created, but with blurry lines of command and vast tangles of red tape. Planning was slipshod and unrealistic.

Top officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) didn’t even know what was being reported on television at the height of the emergency. FEMA Director Michael Brown is a political appointee without a scrap of disaster experience.

How many other leaders of the new Homeland Security bureaucracy were hired for reasons of cronyism, not competence?

Another lesson of New Orleans may center on a conservative political philosophy that is systematically working to “starve the beast” of the federal government.

While claiming national security is their top priority, the Republican administration and Congress have steadily been reducing funding for even the agencies that are supposed to deal with such crises, including FEMA, as well as countless agencies that address the needs of the poor and the sick.

Bush says more tax cuts are needed to spur the economy, but leading GOP theorists are more honest, expressing the view that cuts will help them do what they haven’t been able to do over the decades: cut even big entitlement programs like Medicaid and slash and ultimately kill countless other health and human service programs.

Katrina revealed some of the costs of that policy: first responders who couldn’t respond, agencies without the resources to prepare for the hurricane as it approached and a decayed social service infrastructure that left the poor to fend for themselves once it struck.

New tax cuts as the nation struggles to meet the costs of rescue, cleanup and rebuilding — even as it continues to fight two expensive wars — will vastly compound the problem.

For five years, most Jewish organizations have stood on the sidelines as this assault on domestic programs intensified because of a lack of consensus on tax policy and a fear of antagonizing the administration and Congress, not to mention big communal donors.

Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftershocks reveal that reticence for what it is: an excuse to avoid controversy, not a response to the needs of the Jewish community or the nation at large.

Events of the past week demand a major reevaluation of the nation’s approach to homeland security and disaster preparedness. Just as importantly, they demand a re-examination of tax and spending policies that are rendering the federal government increasingly impotent.

 

Memo to Oscar: Just Say ‘No’ to Swag


 

The contrast was just too much. On one channel, I watched as tens of thousands of people struggled to survive the devastating impact of the tsunami that left more than 250,000 dead and countless others injured and homeless, and on another channel, presenters at last month’s Golden Globe Awards leaving the ceremonies with their “travel-themed” gift baskets worth $37,890 each.

The Golden Globes took place exactly three weeks after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, creating the largest natural disaster in our lifetime. The gifts, which were contained in a custom wicker ottoman, included:

• An Australian wine adventure package with first-class Qantas airfare and accommodations at Rosemount Estate, where guests will create their own wine (value $16,000).

• A sitting with portrait photographer Judy Host ($5,000).

• Ehrlooms diamond pendant ($2,700).

• Sports Club L.A. six-month bicoastal membership ($2,250)

• Brite Smile teeth whitening ($1,100).

• Missoni shawl ($900).

• Chopard watch ($865)

• Janet Lee luxury pet carrier ($400).

This tradition continued at this year’s Grammys, where each presenter and performer received a $35,000 basket.

Gift baskets have become a cottage industry. They are a part of every major Hollywood event. I have never understood this concept. These people are already blessed with so much. They are pampered and catered to at every turn. Why do they need these extravagant presents? Why do people who need it the least receive the most?

The companies that donate the goodies for the baskets do so because they see it as a great advertisement and endorsement for their products.

Where will it stop?

In 2002, the Academy Awards baskets were worth $20,000 — each. In 2004, they were estimated at $100,000 each and contained more than 50 items, including a seven-day cruise to the Mediterranean or Caribbean and a 43-inch, high-definition Samsung TV, coupled with one year of Voom HD satellite service. The baskets were given to approximately 100 presenters, performers and other select individuals.

The perks actually begin as soon as the Oscar nominations are announced. For example, Estee Lauder gave each of this year’s 20 nominees in the acting categories a Michael Kors leather bag filled with such goodies as: Manolo Blahnik sandals, a personalized Loro Piana cashmere blanket, Baccarat crystal and La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot champagne. They were also invited to a private spa in the penthouse of the Regent Beverly Wilshire (value $15,000).

Victoria’s Secret gifted the five best-actress nominees with a pair of black lace panties that have a little something extra — a removable 7.2-carat diamond and pink sapphire brooch. The lingerie comes in a pink leather clutch, with another sapphire-and-diamond piece, a detachable four-leaf clover ($15,000).

The full contents of this year’s Academy Awards basket is being kept under wraps until this Sunday’s show. However, a few gifts have been revealed: a red leather case filled with Shu Uemura cosmetics, including mink eyelashes; and Kay Unger cashmere pajamas. It’s amazing to realize that just one basket could probably pay for a child’s four-year college education.

I would love to see one of the award shows step forward and set a precedent by discontinuing the gift basket extravaganza and instead, have the various companies honor the presenters by making monetary donations to their favorite charitable causes.

Because of the magnitude of the tsunami disaster, it would have been most appropriate to not distribute any baskets at the Golden Globes, Grammys or Oscars this year. However, because these groups decided to proceed, it would have great meaning if each recipient would make a matching monetary donation equivalent to the value of their basket to tsunami relief or another charity of their choice.

Another option would be for them to sign the basket, and then put it up for online auction, with the proceeds going to tsunami relief or another favorite charity. It would be wonderful to see these ideas become an ongoing tradition at all award shows, whenever gift baskets are distributed. (Kudos to the presenters at the Critics’ Choice Awards for auctioning their baskets to aid tsunami charities.)

Celebrities have tremendous influence in our culture. Turning gift baskets into charitable contributions is an opportunity to be a role model and teach everyone, especially our children, about gratitude and the importance of helping others.

One organization is already a shining example of these lessons: Clothes Off Our Back. which was conceived by a group of actors, including “Malcolm in the Middle” star Jane Kaczmarek; her husband, Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing”; and his co-star, Janel Moloney. The project encourages celebrities to donate the gowns, tuxedos and accessories that they wear at award shows to an online auction (www.clothesoffourback.org). They have given $350,000 to various children’s charities in the past three years.

They raised $130,000 following the Golden Globes in support of the UNICEF Tsunami Fund. The highest bid was $31,000 for “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher’s gown. Their Grammy auction, which is taking place online until March 1, includes dresses donated by such celebrities as Beyonce.

They will continue their fundraising efforts with the Oscars. Kaczmarek described the group’s purpose so eloquently: “The idea behind the auction is all about what you can do to give back.”

It is a sentiment all of us can take to heart, especially at this time. As Maurice Sendak once said, “There must be more to life than having everything.”

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.

 

What You Can Do


GIVE

In times of tragedy and disaster, blood supplies oftenrun critically low. Giving blood is an incredible mitzvah, and one which costsyou only time. Call 1-800-GIVELIFE (1-800-448 3543); if the number is busy, theRed Cross requests that you please keep calling so that you can schedule anappointment at your local blood donation center. You can also try Cedars-SinaiMedical Center (blood donations). — (310) 423-5346.

Undoubtedly, much financial help will be required toassist the individuals, families and institutions affected by the recentattacks. We will provide information about where monetary donations can bedirected as soon as such information is available. Check www.jewishjournal.comfor updates.

The Victims of Terror Fund set up by The JewishFederation of Greater Los Angeles will provide financial support for crisiscounseling and other needs to victims of recent terrorist attacks in the UnitedStates.

Donations made payable to:

The Jewish Federation
Victims of Terror Fund
6505 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1000,
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 761-8207
www.jewishla.org

BE SAFE

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

provides security guidelines for Jewish institutions, which are especially relevant during the High Holy Day season. http://uscj.org/item104_681.html

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

For emergency assistance or information, call:
The Jewish Federation (City Office)
(323) 761-8000
The Jewish Federation (Valley Office)
(818) 464-3200
Jewish Family Services (City Office)
(323) 761-8800
Jewish Family Services (Valley Office)
(818) 464-3333
Board of Rabbis of Southern California
(323) 761-8600

PRAY

Individually, or with your family or community, reciteprayers.

It is customary in Jewish tradition to recite Psalms inresponse to tragedy or in a time of fear and concern. Choose Psalms that aremeaningful to you, or try Psalm 23.

Bring your community together: organize a prayer vigil,reciting Psalms and other readings, and a sharing of thoughts and feelings.

JewzNewz.com contributed to this report.