IsraAID—and Jewish values—on the ground in global refugee crisis

Thessaloniki, Greece — What’s a nice Jewish girl doing working with Muslim refugees in an overwhelmingly Christian country? As the North Greece Head of Mission for IsraAID, Liat Rennert has been running the Israeli NGO’s operations out of Thessaloniki for the past three months.

In Greece, secular, faith-based and interfaith groups have set aside their differences and joined forces to meet the basic needs of refugees. But Israelis and Jews, because of their history and ethics, can often add a dimension to their relief work—an acute understanding of the challenges migrants face. Many Jews working in aid organizations feel that centuries of persecution mean they can empathize with the hopeless and the desperate, and can serve as living examples of what can be achieved when the global community comes together to support those in need.

And showing a compassionate face to the world may also help boost Israel’s beleaguered public image in the world community, say international affairs experts.

IsraAID, launched in 2001 and now serving refugees in 39 countries, is itself an interfaith organization, with team members of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Yazidi and Hindu faiths. But the organization’s co-CEO, Yotam Polizer, says Jewish values are a driving force for much of its leadership.

“The work that we’re doing is definitely inspired by Jewish values. For me, it’s something very Jewish to not only work for the stranger, but also to do something for people who would maybe be considered my enemies,” he said, referring to providing aid to Muslim refugees.

While refugees are generally grateful to any group providing assistance, some are surprised when they learn exactly where it’s coming from.

“People will say ‘I would never have thought that I would receive treatment from an Israeli doctor, or share my story with an Israeli who will empathize with what I’ve been through,’” said Tali Shaltiel, a doctor working for IsraAID, in the CBN documentary “Island of Tears.”

Working in four shelters near Thessaloniki, IsraAID responds to the gaps it identifies in services provided by other aid groups. In Greece, that means offering psychosocial support (PSS), often in the form of group therapy sessions. The group’s staff works to empower refugees whose displacement has led to a loss of drive and purpose.

“These people are depressed, discouraged—they’ve been on the road for so long and they don’t know when it’s ending. The uncertainty leads to despair,” said Rennert. “The men especially have lost their role, because they’re traditionally the breadwinners. And they tend to be overlooked by NGOs.”

In addition to providing services to women and children, IsraAID makes a point of hiring male professionals who work to reestablish a routine for men during their uncertain transition to a new country. They conduct “occupational history surveys” to match adults with work that’s both familiar and rewarding for them personally. For example, IsraAID assigned one former shop owner the role of storekeeper in a camp, and set up a former barber with a makeshift barbershop on another camp’s premises.

Rennert says mental health professionals look for creative ways to provide psychosocial support, because some cultural groups aren’t open to traditional therapy sessions. IsraAID recently acquired a number of sewing machines, which they used to start an informal chat amongst a handful of women.

“The women started talking, and we got a PSS session that was masked as something else. That kind of informal gathering is a great way of adapting to current circumstances,” said Rennert.

IsraAID is not the only primarily Jewish group helping refugees. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) also works with diverse refugee groups near Thessaloniki and around the world, though the organization originally served a different purpose. Founded in the 1881, HIAS has long supported Jewish refugees, beginning with those fleeing pogroms in Russia, but expanded its mission to include other religions and nationalities in 1980.

In Greece, HIAS provides free legal aid services such as educating refugees on their rights, helping them seek asylum and even reuniting families.

“The idea of the work we do is not because refugees themselves are Jewish, but because we’re Jewish,” said Rachel Levitan, HIAS’s associate vice president of global programs.

The organization’s work is “based on Jewish values, based on the 36 times it says in the Torah to welcome the stranger,” Levitan said. “Because we were refugees too. Because Jewish values tell us to provide welcome and support to people who are forced to flee their homes because of who they are, because of what they believe.”

Polizer, the co-CEO of IsraAID, said the Jewish history of persecution has primed his organization to make special connections with marginalized groups. In particular, one camp near Thessaloniki is home to a large population of Yazidis, a Kurdish minority group from Iraq that the Islamic State has targeted.

“The Jewish people went through the Holocaust and were able to rebuild their countries afterwards,” Polizer said. “So Yazidis have come to us for mentorship.”

USC public diplomacy professor Nick Cull says Yazidis also acknowledge the unusual bond.

“The Kurds see Israel’s struggle for statehood as somehow anticipating the Kurdish struggle for recognition—so some of this is reflected in the bond between Israelis and Kurds,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Israel has been an early and enthusiastic responder to an international crisis. In fact, the country has established a pattern of doing so: for instance, during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“The aid is clearly branded so that people know it’s Israel helping them, and it’s part of a strategy to show countries around the world that Israel cares, and that Israel is a valuable member of international community,” said Cull.

Cull says that Israel may want to “win friends” for key United Nation votes, or to simply redefine itself as a country.

“When people hear the word Israel, they hear the word crisis—whether they’re an anti-Semite or a passionate Zionist. Anything Israel can do to show that it’s just another state, for instance by providing aid abroad, will improve its image,” he said.

The choice to do so in Thessaloniki is particularly serendipitous given the city’s rich Jewish history. When thousands of Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain in 1492, many settled in Thessaloniki, earning the city a new moniker: the Jerusalem of the Balkans. For centuries, Jews coexisted with Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox citizens in a rare interfaith metropolis.

Today many Jews in Thessaloniki, including volunteers who have come temporarily to help, feel a special connection to the place—but they still must navigate local antisemitism with deep roots.

“If you’re Jewish here, you have to be very careful about revealing your identity,” said Giorgios Antoniou, a historian at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “You don’t see people wearing a kippah or advertising their faith, and they’re very, very discreet.”

In the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 survey, Greece ranks first among European countries in terms of anti-Semitism, with 69 percent of the adult population harboring anti-Semitic attitudes.

These opinions rarely translate into action. But for organizations like IsraAID and HIAS to dive headfirst into the mix, they must see potential gain in the mission.

“We’ve all been exposed to the refugee crisis, and those of us who came to help were so drawn to it we wanted to get involved,” said Rennert of IsraAID. “We’re here to stay.”


Episode 45 – IsraAID: Providing disaster relief around the globe Part I‏I

Last week we uploaded an episode with the inspiring and diligent Ophelie Namiech in which she told us about her work with IsraAID and the 5 years she spent in the freshly independent country of South Sudan from 2011 to 2016. This week we’re talking to Voni Glick, Co-CEO of IsraAID, to hear more about the organization as a whole, about its history and about his involvement.
Voni was born in Israel but quickly became a classical nomadic Jew, moving to France with his family when he was only two, winding up in Canada and finally returning to the Jewish State in 2011.
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Lynne Silbert (left) and Ada Horwich with a Syrian child at a refugee center in Greece. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

How to help save Syrians

Why did we go?
As images of the Syrian refugee crisis played out on our TV and computer screens, we, like so many people, felt helpless and horrified. 

We wanted to help, and fortunately for us, we knew where to turn.

Both of us had met Yotam Polizer, co-chief executive of IsraAID, Israel’s largest humanitarian nongovernmental organization. Working with Muslims, Christians and Jews, IsraAID has provided lifesaving disaster relief and long-term support in nearly every humanitarian crisis of the 21st century — setting a good example for Israel in the process.

The group currently is working in 17 areas of the world, including South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Colombia, Peru and Greece, where Syrian refugees are landing to flee a civil war now in its sixth year.

IsraAID has been working in Greece since September of 2015.  By now, fighting between the Syrian government and opposition groups has resulted in the deaths of 470,000, by some estimates, and displacement of over 6 million more, according to the United Nations. Greece has become a primary way station, from where refugees hold out hope that they will reach Germany, a “promised land” of sorts that has absorbed the most Syrian immigrants — more than 600,000 — among all countries in Western Europe.

As mothers, grandmothers and psychotherapists, we fell in love with IsraAID’s mission to respond immediately to people facing natural or man-made disasters, even those from countries like Syria that have declared Israel its enemy.

Polizer invited us to see firsthand the magnitude of the crises and the work IsraAID has been doing in Greece.  And, because of our training, we were asked to be consultants to the staff for the eight days we visited. IsraAID has sent 120 Arab and Jewish-Israeli professionals to provide support for the refugees, focusing on long-term trauma counseling for about 750 refugees.

IsraAID works in seven refugee shelters and camps around Greece, providing psycho-social support through therapeutic groups for women, men, children and adolescents, as well as individual counseling and specialty needs for others, such as art therapy for women and children.

Most organizations either save lives or change lives. IsraAID does both. Polizer invited us to visit IsraAID’s project in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, which has a long Jewish history. There, at the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, we met members of his team: Sigalit, a Jewish Arabic-speaking psychotherapist; Anat, a Jewish Arabic-speaking art therapist; and Khaled, an Arab-Israeli occupational therapist.

We visited three sites where the refugee families are housed: An abandoned high-rise, a rundown hotel in the countryside and a converted factory with no private kitchen or toilet facilities. Each site is supported by NGOs from Greece, Italy, Great Britain and elsewhere, offering various services, such as facility management, facility construction, education and recreation.

All the refugees in Thessaloniki had arrived by boat after observing drownings and illnesses on their journey from Syria. After first living in tents, suffering a terribly cold winter, they were moved to more “permanent” shelters, like the ones we worked in. Most of the families were not intact, separations caused by deaths and relocation: three or four children with no father, fathers with no children, children with no mother.

What did we do?

On days that we were with children, we observed their need for attention and affection and an eagerness to learn English, play, do art projects, dance and throw around balls. We spent hours facilitating play and communication skills as children described their treacherous sea journey by holding their tummies and pretending to shiver.

We sat in women’s groups led by Anat and Sigalit. As they slowly built up trust, the women became open to new challenges facing them: How to parent in new lands with new cultures, how to encourage education for their children, and how to speak up for their needs and express their feelings. Some of the mothers even forgot how to play with their children. The leaders helped them to remember.

We watched Khaled, age 26, who did not appear old enough to be a father but was old enough to reach the adolescent boys, helping them to express their feelings and cope with undue stress and aggression. Without speaking the language, we recognized in the boys hope, excitement and connections. For instance, Amid, 12, began the session sitting apart from the other boys but with Khaled’s skills and encouragement, moved next to another boy and even left the session speaking with some of the other kids.

Often, we were invited in for a cup of tea with the families in their meager surroundings. Despite their circumstances, their culture of hospitality remained.

We met Fatima from Aleppo, a mother of four. Her youngest child is only a year old and has never met her father. He was able to relocate to Germany and hoped that would hasten the family’s permission to move there. So far, there is no indication that the move will happen. While Fatima attended a women’s group, we sat with her children and played games.

Each refugee family is given an allowance for food and necessities, and Fatima’s small apartment was immaculate despite her limited resources. Due to traumatic experiences walking from Syria to Turkey and crossing the water in a dangerous lifeboat, she insisted her children stay inside. We had hoped to take them outside to meet others, but she was too frightened.

Susi, 7, was living in the rundown hotel with a depressed aunt and her father, whose culture did not teach him parenting skills. Her mother relocated to Germany, hoping to speed the family’s reunification. Susi was in perpetual motion due to her high level of stress, depression and separation anxiety caused by being away from her mother. She hugged us as we entered the grounds, pulling us away from others in a desperate attempt to find comfort and affection. When we had to leave, Susi ran after us and jumped into the car. Our hearts were broken, not knowing what to do. We drove away but the sad memory has stayed with us.

Mohammed, 16, was living in the concrete factory. We first saw him body-building in a parking lot. Although he looked quite healthy as the leader of a group of adolescent boys, led by Khaled, we learned later that he has had two heart surgeries since arriving by lifeboat.

As we observed him in the group, we realized Mohammed’s anger and aggression were transformed into leadership and role-modeling. It was hard to imagine that he recuperated in this rundown facility without private bathrooms and quiet surroundings. We couldn’t help but wonder what his future will be. We pray for his future.

Realizing the need for important supplies, we went shopping and bought personal items for the women, formula and diapers for the babies, and soccer balls and art supplies for the children. We also bought colorful wooden chairs to add to the community’s limited supply. IsraAID distributed the items for us.

As these families wait for relocation, which may take one or two more years, if ever, we felt grateful for the work of IsraAID in making the delay less difficult.

There are many reasons to despair while watching the darkness descending on Syria. But don’t ignore the light.

Amal Clooney (left) and Nadia Murad Basee at the ceremony where Murad was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking. Clooney is Murad’s lawyer. Photo by Janet Mayer / Splash News

A sex slave survivor fights back

Nadia Murad Basee, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman, is sitting in an elegant living room high up on the Wilshire corridor, staring out the window. Her ebony hair hangs to one side of her face, falling over her shoulder like a blanket. As she turns her head, about to speak, her eyes appear glassy, as if on the verge of tears. But her expression is vacant.

More than two years ago, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters invaded Murad’s village of Kocho in northern Iraq and began a siege that devastated her life and decimated the Yazidi population. Murad was barely 20 when she was separated from her family — a mother, eight brothers and three sisters (her father died when she was 10) — and then abducted and sold into sexual slavery.

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle
for existence, the world does little to help

She remembers the sound of the firing squad that murdered six of her brothers and her mother, and the nightmarish months that followed when she was bought and sold like chattel, beaten and sexually assaulted daily.

“The total number of men that raped me was 12, and I will never forget their faces,” she said during a visit to Los Angeles last November.

And yet, Murad considers herself one of the lucky ones. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred on the spot, and an estimated 3,200 Yazidi women still languish in sexual slavery. Since regaining her freedom, Murad has launched a global campaign to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide and draw attention to the plight of those still in captivity. Over the past year, she has testified before the United Nations alongside her lawyer, Amal Clooney, and was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for human trafficking. Last October, she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, and, for a time, was considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.

But none of those honors has brought her joy; her focus is on rescuing her people and bringing ISIS to justice for its crimes. As she recounts the details of her story through a translator, her trauma is evident.

At times, she stares ahead blankly, avoiding eye contact. And during parts when she is overcome, tears streaming down her face, she barely seems to notice. She is so far away — her heart, her imagination, everything she loved still in Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi population in Iraq.

“My life before Aug. 3 [2014] was only life inside the small village,” she said of Kocho, with a population estimated at 2,000. “I didn’t even know other parts of Iraq.”

Murad grew up in a family of farmers that eked out a modest living tending sheep. They were so poor, her parents couldn’t afford to send her siblings to school, so her brothers wound up serving in the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. By the time Murad came of age, though, their economic situation had improved and she was able to enroll in classes. She recently had completed her 11th year of schooling when ISIS stormed into town.

After Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were protecting the area retreated, Sinjar was left defenseless. According to a report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, most villages in the Sinjar region were completely emptied within 72 hours of the siege, with the exception of Kocho. For nearly two weeks, villagers like Murad and her family huddled together in their homes awaiting rescue, even as they heard rumors of mass executions.

Before ISIS cut off the local cellphone tower, Murad’s family reached out to everyone they knew, begging for help. They could smell the stench of rotting corpses wafting from the countryside. “We told [everyone we could] that they will kill the men and take the women and the children,” Murad recalled. But help never came.

The family considered escaping, but with three pregnant women in the house, it would have been too arduous a journey. The night before the family was captured, they considered taking their own lives. “My brother said, ‘I know they will kill us and they will take the women and children. Perhaps I should kill you and then kill myself because I do not want to see you taken,’ ” Murad said.

The next day, the family was rounded up and sent to the local school, where male and females were separated promptly. Men and boys ages 12 and older were given the choice to convert to Islam or die. Hundreds of Kocho men were subsequently beheaded or shot. Girls ages 9 and older were transferred to holding sites in larger cities, where they were sold as sex slaves. Depending on their youth, virginity and beauty, girls could fetch prices from $200 to $1,500, and were often sold back and forth among ISIS fighter-owners.

When Murad arrived at a holding site in Mosul, the women and girls were instructed to wash. After being abused during transport, many knew there was more to come. “The first place they took us was the shower, the bathroom, and there was blood on the walls,” Murad said. “Women tried to commit suicide.”

Murad testified at the U.N. that the first fighter who tried to buy her was a “huge man, like a monster.” She pleaded with him to let her go. “I cried out — I said, ‘I’m too young, you’re huge!’ But he hit me, kicked me, beat me.”

A smaller man, the first of a dozen captors, bought her, forced her to dress up, wear makeup and then raped her at will. When she tried to escape, he locked her in a room with a number other fighters, who gang raped Murad until she was unconscious.

None of this violence is arbitrary. It is a deliberate, organized system designed to annihilate dignity, hope and prevent future population growth.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will Be happy then.” — Nadia Murad Basee

In describing the way rape is used as a mechanism of genocide, the U.N. report emphasizes the assault on human dignity. “The sexual violence being committed by ISIS against Yazidi women and girls, and the serious physical and mental harm it engenders, is a clear step in the process of destruction of the … group — destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”

The Islamic State’s use of sexual slavery is uniquely insidious because it ensures women are doubly victimized — by their gender and their religion. In the case of the Yazidis, the organized sexual violence occurred on such a massive scale, women and girls as young as 9 years old were subjected to “multiple — sometimes hundreds — of rapes by their various fighter-owners.” The combination of physical and sexual violence with psychological trauma “rises to the level of torture” — a war crime —  according to the U.N. report, and is ultimately designed to prevent future birth of the Yazidi population. When sexual desire is vanquished, so is a group’s future.

The challenge of proving and prosecuting the Yazidi genocide will fall to Clooney, who faces the daunting task of creating precedent for it within the international justice system. At present, the International Criminal Court is the only tribunal that could hold ISIS accountable, but neither Syria nor Iraq are party to the league of nations invested in it. When an attempt to issue a special referral was made by the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed it.

“This is a clear case of genocide, and genocide that’s gone completely unaddressed and ignored,” Clooney told NBC last fall. “I can’t imagine anything worse being done by one human to another.”

During her visit to Los Angeles, Murad met with members of the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID, which currently is providing disaster relief and psychosocial support to Yazidi survivors in Greece, Iraq and Germany, where Murad is based, along with other refugees of the Syrian war.

“The typical response we get from Syrian refugees is that they’re shocked to see Israelis and Jews working with them, and it takes a while to build trust,” Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAID said. “But with the Yazidis, it was the opposite. They came to us and said, ‘We want to work with the Jews.’ ”

According to Polizer, the Yazidi advocacy organization Yazda reached out to the Israelis because they wanted to learn how to document their genocide as efficiently as Jews documented the Holocaust. “They came to us and said, ‘We need mentorship. We want to learn from the Jewish experience how you were able to rebuild your communities after the Holocaust, rebuild your peoplehood, and build strong advocacy around the world.’ ”

Over the past year, IsraAID has worked with Yazda to help train Yazidis to collect survivor testimonies. “We’re helping them build their own Yad Vashem,” Polizer said.

While much of the world remains indifferent to Yazidi suffering, Polizer said the Jews have a responsibility to help. “There’s a very special connection between Yazidis and Jews,” he said. “We’re both religious minorities in the Middle East; we’ve both suffered from a lot of atrocities throughout history, and according to the Yazidis, [when there were still] Jews in Iraq, they had a strong connection to the Jewish community there. They are big fans of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, which is kind of unique in that neighborhood. There’s a feeling of shared destiny.”

And yet, Polizer lamented, “I don’t feel like we’re doing enough. With all that’s happening in the Middle East, the Syrian crisis, and with everything going on in the U.S., the Yazidis have been suffering from the worst persecution you can imagine and they’ve been sort of left behind.”

Murad was fortunate enough to escape her captors, but her people remain trapped by an intractable conflict. To counteract the international community’s silence, Murad is determined to broadcast her story in forums around the globe. The more she speaks out, the more ISIS threatens her life. The stakes are impossibly high. “I don’t know if Yazidis will continue to exist as a people or not,” she said.

Worn down by so much sorrow and loss, Murad is a young woman who seems old already. Her skin is marked by the acceleration of time that comes with too much tragedy too soon.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will be happy then,” she said defiantly.

But the terrible truth of the matter is that for now, “the path to accountability remains blocked,” according to the U.N. report. “The genocide of the Yazidis is on-going.”

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
(415) 369-2860

(832) 298-9584


How Israeli volunteers on the ground in Europe are helping Syrian refugees

As the small rubber dinghy crowded with Syrians and Afghans emerged from the midnight-black sea to land on a desolate pebble beach, the first people to greet the bewildered and frightened refugees were two Israelis.

“Does anyone need a doctor?” Majeda Kardosh, 27, a nurse from Nazareth, shouted repeatedly in Arabic as the asylum seekers scrambled ashore amid cries of celebration and tears of relief at surviving the short but perilous crossing from Turkey to this Greek island.

Her team partner, Tali Shaltiel, 31, a physician from Jerusalem, stood knee deep in the water, helping a shivering 4-year-old girl out of her wet clothes and a pair of inflatable armbands that would have provided little protection had the overloaded boat capsized at sea.

Kardosh and Shaltiel are part of a small advance group of volunteers from IsraAid, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that is trying to provide some assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who are flowing into Europe.

While IsraAid has plenty of experience in disaster relief and assistance in 31 countries — from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — this mission presents a unique challenge: The beneficiaries come from countries that are traditionally hostile, or even officially still at war, with Israel.

But for Shaltiel, that’s unimportant.

“You are meeting fellow human beings,” she said. “You see agony and pain, you see a need, then what does it matter where the person is from.

“In the end you hope that the human contact will bring us forward,” added Shaltiel, who also volunteered for the IsraAid mission in South Sudan.

But she does acknowledge that for the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis — who make up the vast majority of those arriving — having Israelis as a first contact in Europe can be unexpected and unnerving.

“We try to find a balance,” Shaltiel said. “On the one hand, we are wearing IsraAid shirts and speaking most of the time in Hebrew to each other. But, ultimately, you just want people to get help, you don’t want to put up barriers to that.”

Plus, in reality, even though the Israelis are wearing bright blue Stars of David on their shirts, most of the refugees don’t even notice amid the chaos and tumult of emotions of the landing beaches, said Kardosh, who does most of the communicating with them in Arabic.

A dinghy carrying refugees arrives at a beach on the island of Lesbos in northern Greece (Boaz Arad/IsraAid)

A dinghy carrying refugees arriving at a beach on the island of Lesbos in northern Greece. Photo by Boaz Arad/IsraAid

Among those who recognize the T-shirts, most have a positive response — although some are resistant. One man who was receiving treatment from Shaltiel kept asking Kardosh, “Tell me the truth, is she a Jew?”

“I tried to ignore him, but he persisted. Eventually I said to him, ‘She is here to help you, what does it matter who she is?’” Kardosh said.

“After about 10 minutes he came back and offered Tali a biscuit and apologized.”

Another issue for IsraAid has been finding Arabic-speaking personnel who can communicate with the refugees. That’s particularly important for the second part of IsraAid’s mission, which is providing psychological first-aid to those who have experienced trauma.

One IsraAid volunteer social worker spent Saturday providing support to the family of a 5-year-old girl who drowned on the crossing.

Another team was on the island of Rhodes assisting survivors from a boat that sank, killing 34, including 15 infants and children.

“We are working in complicated conditions and our Arabic speakers have that experience of working in difficult situations,” said Naama Gorodischer, IsraAid’s global programs manager.

Still, it’s a challenge for those who have never done field work before.

“Usually I’m dressed in heels and a skirt with my regular shift and going to the gym four times a week,” said Kardosh, who is also a lecturer at the Schoenbrunn Nursing School at Tel Aviv University.

“Now I’m here,” she said, pointing at the beach strewn with deflated dinghies, hundreds of life jackets, lost shoes and trash — the debris of thousands of journeys.

At the moment, the main aim of the team is to assess the needs of the refugees and find gaps in the services provided by the overwhelmed Greek authorities and other volunteer groups.

IsraAid plans to expand the medical teams and eventually establish a mobile clinic that will provide emergency care for new arrivals on the beaches. It will also expand the psycho-social help to bases in the registration and refugee camps that have been set up.

The NGO also has volunteers providing assistance on the Croatia-Hungary border. Eventually IsraAid plans to be in final-destination countries, like Germany, where they hope to help with refugee rehabilitation.

“The aim is to have a presence as an organization along the entire journey,” Gorodischer said.

On the beach in Lesbos, the work goes beyond the medical. When she is finished dealing with the hypothermia, dehydration, wounds and illnesses of the travelers, Shaltiel gathers some of the refugees to explain their situation to them.

Israeli Doctor Tali Shaltiel explains to a group of Afghans how to get to the refugee registration center some 40 miles away. (Gavin Rabinowitz)

Dr. Tali Shaltiel explaining to a group of Afghans how to get to the refugee registration center some 40 miles away. Photo by Gavin Rabinowitz

Most have only a vague idea of which country they are in, or that they are on an island and not the mainland. None realize that their landing spot is still a grueling 40-mile walk from the registration camps.

“It’s safer to stay here during the night and start your walk in the morning,” she tells them, giving them a map made by the IsraAid team with instructions written in Arabic.

The volunteers look to assist in any way they can.

“The situation is chaotic, you don’t always know what you need in the beginning, so we keep looking for ways to help, to see what’s needed,” said Boaz Arad, a volunteer who was documenting IsraAid activities and also organizing the logistics and transportation.

After finding hundreds of people sleeping in the open along the road, IsraAid volunteers bought sleeping bags to distribute to families with children. They were also waiting for a shipment of donated baby carriers from Israel.

The American Jewish Committee said it was increasing funding to IsraAid, which is also supported by other American Jewish groups and the Israeli government.

“During this holiest period of the Jewish year, we are proud to assist … in offering vital help to Syrians who fled the horrific war in their homeland and seek a new start,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris.

For Shaltiel, the sight of tens of thousands of refugees walking across Europe was especially poignant.

“When we say ‘Never again,’ it is also an obligation to do something,” she said. “Apparently I can’t stop the war in Syria, but I can do something.”

Nepal: How you can help

Jews in Israel and abroad are responding to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25 —resulting in the death of more than 4,000 Nepalese people — through action and financial campaigns.

“The people of Nepal are in desperate need right now,” American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) spokesperson Michael Geller said in a phone interview from New York.

The organization ( has set up a Nepal Earthquake Relief fund that will provide urgent assistance, with a focus on medical relief and providing aid supplies. JDC is also helping the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with the setting up of an Israeli field hospital in the region, Geller said.

“A lot is happening,” he said. “JDC is partnering with the IDF field hospital, as we have done since the [2010] quake in Haiti. And we are providing them with equipment, such as neonatal incubators, and also partnering with Tevel b’Tzedek, which is an [Israeli] organization operating on the ground, and also with UNICEF.”

Geller was unable to provide an up-to-date total of JDC’s fundraising efforts thus far.

Another organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is collecting tax-deductible donations for the Nepalese via its Earthquake Emergency Relief Fund ( AJWS representatives were not immediately available for comment.

In addition, Chabad has a full time operation in Kathmandu, and the organization is raising money for the relief effort, working with organizations such as JDC, on the ground. To donate, visit

 Jay Sanderson, CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a partner organization of the JDC, expressed empathy for the victims of the disaster, saying Angelenos know the consequences of earthquakes all too well.

“Living in Los Angeles we understand earthquakes are something you can’t predict, you can’t control,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

While Federation is not participating in this particular relief effort — Sanderson said the organization has other responsibilities at this time — the Federation leader recommended that people donate to either JDC or IsraAID (, an Israeli-based agency that provides disaster relief .

“We have so many hot spots in the Jewish world that we have to focus on that we’re recommending people make gifts to other organizations,” he said. “We’re not conducting any kind of campaign. … We’re recommending if people want to make gifts through a Jewish lens, to [give to] either IsraAID or the JDC.”

IsraAID, the IDF, Tevel b’Tzedek, and Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, are among the Israeli-based organizations that are involved with the Jewish State’s wide-ranging relief effort in Nepal. Their work includes dispatching search-and-rescue teams to aid Israelis tourists of the region and to rescue premature babies of Nepalese surrogate mothers who are connected with Israeli adopting couples. (Israel has laws restricting its gay couples from adopting from Israeli surrogate mothers, leading some to look abroad — to places like Nepal — for babies.

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, was among the hardest hit areas of the earthquake. Trekkers at Mount Everest were also affected, as the earthquake triggered an avalanche. Meanwhile, the region has had many aftershocks in the aftermath of the earthquake, prompting Sanderson to describe what’s happening as a great humanitarian crisis.

“There are so many people living out[side] … not even willing to live in any kind of structure because they’re afraid of aftershocks,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible crisis, affecting tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands who live in that country.”

Israeli NGO sends relief workers to Pacific island in wake of cyclone

The Israeli NGO IsraAID has sent a team of relief workers to the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which suffered extensive damage from Cyclone Pam.

A team reportedly arrived Sunday in the resort town of Eratap to see the damage and meet with local leaders, including the island’s chief. Another team visited the capital of Port Villa to coordinate with other agencies and the island’s government.

Vanuatu was struck by a category 5 tropical cyclone, called Pam, on March 13.

IsraAid reportedly sent its first team of relief workers two days after the cyclone hit. Relief efforts are being funded in part by the American Jewish Committee.

Last December, IsraAID provided relief in the Philippines in the wake of a deadly typhoon, which left at least 21 people dead and displaced more than 1.6 million Filipinos.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, a 147-member medical and humanitarian mission from the Israel Defense Forces spent nearly two weeks running a field hospital in Bogo City. Israel also delivered more 100 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies for typhoon victims.

Israel prepares to fight Ebola in West Africa

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new measures on Oct. 12 to screen for Ebola cases at Israel’s points of entry, officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Health had worked over the weekend to put in place an emergency response program to help combat the epidemic on the ground in West Africa. 

“After the meeting at the prime minister’s office we reached a decision to change the mode of our expected operation, and instead of sending three clinics to peripheral countries, which was our original program, we will deploy mobile field hospitals to Liberia and Sierra Leone,” Gil Haskel, director of MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, said on Oct. 10.

The virus has hit Liberia and Sierra Leone the hardest, with the World Health Organization counting more 3,000 Ebola fatalities since the start of the outbreak in March 2014. 

“We don’t have the finalized numbers, but we are planning the configuration of the hospitals and staff,” Haskel told the Journal. “This will be a joint effort between MASHAV, Israel’s agency for development and global cooperation, and IsraAID,” a nongovernmental organization known globally for its crisis support, as well as its sustained work with earthquake survivors in Haiti and Japan.

The Ebola effort is aimed at helping medical professionals quarantine and care for their patients. 

Multiple reports from the outbreak zone indicate panic-filled health care workers are entering communities, issuing directives and then fleeing the areas without following through with the required prevention and quarantine measures. 

“We are putting the main emphasis on isolation units and protection gear for the medical staff,” Haskel said. “It doesn’t help if the virus will affect the nurse treating the first patient, because, of course, from there it is downhill.” 

IsraAID already has sent an advance team to Sierra Leone, and two of its staff members were the only representatives from international health groups at an Oct. 11 emergency Ebola meeting convened by Sierra Leone’s first lady, Sia Nyama Koroma. 

Yotam Polizer and Irina Polak, IsraAID staff specializing in social welfare and trauma programs, outlined training programs aimed at trauma prevention for health care workers and the affected communities.

“This is not going to be a hit-and-run. We’re looking at doing this Ebola work for a substantial time period, and we’re likely to be there for the next two years,” said IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi, who has issued a call for volunteer doctors, nurses and paramedics to set up the field clinics with supplies provided by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. 

“We will start with service providers to help reduce their stress, and then we will go with them into the communities and help them engage the community with a consistent message around Ebola prevention and treatment,” Zahavi said.

Health professionals serving in front-line medical teams are required to be in peak physical condition, as the conditions in which they work are extreme; while wearing their protective suits, they can lose up to a liter and a half of water per hour.  

The Israeli medical volunteers in the front lines of Ebola treatment will be integrated into teams already on the ground that were deployed earlier this month by the World Health Organization.  

“Ebola is a threat to global security, and we need to be in the front lines and demonstrate that Israelis and Jews care about the world. We can have a real impact on this situation,” said Zahavi, who added that he’s been in extensive consultations with North American Jewish leaders on ways to make the fight against this epidemic a genuine Israel-Diaspora partnership. 

IsraAID has been selected to lead the psychosocial aspect of the operation in this multinational effort, with the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross allocating the tasks in coordination with the governments in West Africa. 

“A colleague in Cameroon told me that Israel is a magical country, that we can do anything,” said Dr. Roee Singer, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. 

Singer was part of a team invited last month by the Cameroon government to train hospital and emergency service workers in Yaoundé who are anxious to prevent the incursion of Ebola into their country. 

“Of course we can’t solve all of their problems, but Israelis are treated with great esteem in places like Cameroon, where we’ve been involved for many years in health, agricultural development and security assistance,” Singer said.

“We ran seminars with doctors from the leading hospitals in the capital city, the army, police, firefighters and paramedics and airport workers. Our mission was to explain how personal protection works and how to then organize a protected space to treat Ebola patients,” said Singer, who when interviewed late in the day on Oct. 11 was working on crafting the Israeli border disease control measures. 

“I have to tell you that you can see the results of the training at the airport,” Nadav Cohen, Israeli Ambassador in Yaoundé, said in an interview Oct. 11. “They are checking the temperatures of arriving passengers and educating people with a visible public information campaign.”

Israeli NGOs bringing their expertise to meet Africa’s needs

When they first arrived in northern Kenya in 2011 at the height of a massive drought, the Israeli refugee aid organization IsraAid planned to offer food and other core necessities to the 100,000 residents of the Kakuma refugee camp.

When the drought subsided a year later, IsraAid’s directors saw that this sort of assistance was becoming less crucial. Much larger organizations were providing food, clothing and medicine.

But rather than leave, IsraAid shifted its focus from short-term aid to long-term support through something Israelis do best: post-trauma counseling. Decades of terror attacks have equipped Israeli experts to serve the camp’s residents, many of whom are survivors of hunger, torture or the violent death of relatives. IsraAid has trained 18 camp residents to be social workers; most of them are now helping other camp residents cope with their pain.

“Part of the health of a person is mental health,” said Naama Gorodischer, IsraAid’s Kenya country director. “We can do what we know, and what we do in all our projects is use Israeli knowledge and specialization to perform capacity building.”

IsraAid is one of several Israeli NGOs working to improve the lives of Kenyans by importing Israeli technology and expertise. Their work is enabled by a history of friendly ties between Israel and Kenya and the relative stability of Kenya’s government and economy.

Nairobi, a booming city where new malls and roads intersect with destitute slums and gated communities, has emerged as a center of humanitarian work in East Africa. International organizations from the United Nations to Oxfam have located their regional headquarters there. Even after the terrorist attack on the city’s upscale Westgate mall in September, international aid workers continue to operate in Kenya with little fear.

“Nairobi is an international hub in East Africa for development,” said Gilad Milo, the founder of Israel for Africa, a Kenya-based nonprofit that teaches young people to farm using Israeli technology. “It’s like an entry point, spreading to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi. It’s a good melting pot for ideas.”

Kenya has been a friendly destination for Israelis since it gained independence in 1963. Israeli businesses helped build the country’s infrastructure and boost its agriculture sector, and the two countries coordinate on security issues. Exchange between the two countries has been robust, with Israeli military personnel advising Kenya in the wake of the Westgate attack and Kenyans routinely traveling to Israel for professional training programs. Israeli experts come to Kenya to lead seminars on everything from agricultural technology to Krav Maga, the martial art developed in Israel.

“There’s a strong sense of affinity with Israel as a country struggling for liberation,” Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Gil Haskel, told JTA. “Kenyans understood that they could benefit from relations with Israel.”

Such close relations have led to a booming industry in Israeli humanitarian assistance. Israel for Africa provides impoverished young Kenyans with farming kits that include the equipment necessary to raise a small plot of crops, from Israeli-made greenhouses to Israeli-designed drip irrigation systems.

Members of one of the youth associations with which Israel for Africa partners, a dance group called Ramsa Africa, begin work at 6 a.m. on rows of tomatoes, peppers, spinach and kale, watering the crops with drip-irrigation hoses and checking each plant for signs of disease. After lunch they have dance rehearsals.

“It doesn’t make any sense that we invented drip irrigation [only] for our little strip of land,” Milo said as he rode a 4-by-4 along the bumpy roads of a Nairobi slum. “There’s got to be a bigger picture.”

A similar mission drives Brit Olam, an Israeli nonprofit running an agriculture development program in the semi-arid northwest region of Turkana. Droughts have made reliance on grazing cattle impossible, so Brit Olam imported Israeli technology for desert farming to give local residents economic independence.

“This is a change in mentality for people who never had to wake up early and go every day to the field to do a routine,” Brit Olam project developer Millet Biberman said. “But until you have water and food, you can’t do anything else.”

The Israeli nonprofit Save A Child’s Heart, which was founded in 2008 and is active in 44 countries, brings underprivileged Kenyan children in need of heart surgery to Israel. Its Kenya branch went on hiatus from 2009 until this year, when founding director Rina Attias returned to the the helm. According to Attias, the waiting list has 250 children.

Attias, who survived the Westgate attack by hiding in a closet, said that experiencing terror in Kenya only made her more dedicated to saving lives there.

“Every place has terror,” she said. “This can happen anywhere. If I was supposed to die, I would have died, but my time apparently has not come yet. So I chose to do more for this community.”

Israeli military in Philippines to assess typhoon damage

Representatives of the Israeli military landed in the Philippines to evaluate the situation on the ground and determine how Israel can best assist in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

The team, including search and rescue experts, doctors and representatives of the Home Front Command, arrived Monday. A representative of the Foreign Ministry arrived with the team, according to Ynet.

The Israel Defense Forces plans to send additional doctors and other officers once it receives the go-ahead from the government.

The Israeli team plans to set up a field hospital to treat wounded survivors of the typhoon.

[Typhoon Haiyan: How you can help]

The death toll in the typhoon, which made landfall in the central Philippines on Friday, could be at least 10,000, according to reports, though the official death toll currently stands at more than 1,700. At least half a million people also have been left homeless by the devastating typhoon.

An emergency response team sent to the Philippines by the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAid to the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Haivan also arrived Monday and will be working primarily in Tacloban City in Leyte, one of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon. A larger team is expected to land by the end of the week, according to IsraAid.

“On behalf of the government and the people of Israel, I extend heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives as a result of the horrific typhoon, and I send best wishes for a speedy recovery to those who were injured,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a letter to Philippines President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. “I hope Israel’s assistance will help alleviate the suffering of those affected by this disaster.

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,, 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.

Israeli team leaves for Japan aid mission

A civilian Israeli search-and-rescue team left for Japan in the aftermath of a major earthquake and tsunami.

The team organized by IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian umbrella group, left Israel Sunday morning to assist in an area to be determined by Japanese authorities, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The group—six medical professionals and search-and-rescue experts—said it would reach Japan, which was struck last Friday by an 8.9-magnitude quake and then a tsunami, through South Korea, and then continue on to Toyko or Osaka.

Meanwhile, five Israeli businessmen and one Israeli tourist had not been located as of Saturday night, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

As many as 400 Israeli tourists are currently in Japan, according to reports.

Jewish groups mobilizing response to massive Japan earthquake and tsunami

Japan earthquake relief: How you can help

Jewish organizations are mobilizing their responses to the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday.

IsraAid, an Israel-based coordinating organization for 17 Israeli and Jewish humanitarian groups, said Friday that it has two teams of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers and water pollution specialists ready to deploy to Japan but was looking for ways to reach the affected area.

Because the airports in the affected area are flooded and Tokyo-area airports closed on Friday, IsraAid said it was exploring the possibility of flying to a nearby country and then trying to make it to northeast Japan, where the tsunami has killed hundreds and devastated cities and towns.

“We’re in touch with local groups to check the situation in the area,” Shachar Zahavi, chairman of the group, told JTA in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to get to the closest airport and then get to the affected area from there.”

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement reported that its emissary in Tokyo said the Jewish community there largely was spared any serious injury or damage from the 8.9-magnitude quake that rocked the city Friday morning.

ZAKA, the Orthodox-led rescue and recovery organization, announced Friday that it would send a search-and-rescue team to Japan as soon as Shabbat in Israel ended on Saturday night.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would help in whatever way possible.

The Japanese consul in Israel, Mitoshiko Shinomya, told the Israeli news webstie Ynet that he was heartened by the Israeli government’s offer of assistance. “Israel officially offered its help an hour after the earthquake struck,” Shinomya said. “It is very heart-warming, but at this point we do not know exactly what the extent of the damage is, so it is difficult for us to say what can be done.”

The Jewish Federations of North America is setting up an emergency relief fund to help those in affected areas, a spokesman said, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a federation partner, opened a mailbox Friday for donations to be used for Japan/Pacific disaster relief. Donations can be made at

“JDC is now conducting an up-to-the-minute assessment of the situation in Japan and the Pacific Rim and has activated its network of partners to determine critical, immediate needs of the hardest-hit areas,” the organization said in a statement Friday.

A spokesman for American Jewish World Service, which played a leading Jewish role in responding to the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, said it would not be responding to the Japan tsunami because AJWS, which works in the developing world, does not have any partner organizations in Japan.