Recruiting Jews to the Cause of Persecuted Yazidis, One Synagogue at a Time

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of the disaster relief organization IsraAID, called his friend Haider Elias in Houston to see if IsraAID could help him.

Instead, Elias countered with his own proposition: His home was spared by the flooding, so he and half a dozen members of his religious community — a Middle Eastern ethnic group called the Yazidis — offered to work alongside IsraAID packing possessions and removing debris from flooded Jewish homes.

“There is really a shared destiny,” Polizer told an audience on Sept. 17 at University Synagogue in Brentwood, sitting next to Elias. “There is a unique partnership between the Yazidis and the Jews.”

Because of their historical proximity to genocide, American Jews are a prime target for Elias’ effort to lobby the United States government to come to the aid of this ancient religious sect as it struggles with an ongoing genocide at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

During two trips to Los Angeles last month, Elias addressed the local Jewish community in a series of synagogue visits, private dinners and High Holy Days appeals, hoping to mobilize them to lobby the United States on behalf of displaced and enslaved Yazidis. With Yazidis a population of well under 10,000 in the United States, Elias is increasingly relying on Jews to join the ranks of his supporters.

“As soon as we talk to a Jewish community member, they understand it right away,” Elias said in a phone interview after he returned to Texas. “They absorb it. They relate. They know exactly what is happening. It’s very hard for some other communities to understand.”

The Jewish community has loomed large on his recent travel schedule. In late July, Elias flew to Israel and visited Yad Vashem with fellow Yazidi activist and former sex slave Nadia Murad.

In September, he spoke on four panels in West Los Angeles with Polizer, whose group has offered aid and counseling to Yazidis in Iraq and Europe, and Rabbi Pam Frydman, an activist who heads the Beyond Genocide Campaign for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. All four panels were co-sponsored by the Jewish Journal.

Returning to Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, Elias spoke at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. In muted tones from the lectern, he described the events of Aug. 3, 2014.

In a single day, ISIS overran the Yazidi homeland in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, murdering nearly 6,000, Elias said, including his 24-year-old brother, two of his cousins and nearly 50 close friends.

ISIS fighters loaded thousands more Yazidis onto trucks, with women and girls destined for sexual enslavement and young boys due to be brainwashed as child soldiers. About half a million Yazidis were driven from their homes, ending up in displaced persons’ camps where hundreds of thousands still live in tents.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government has prevented Yazidis from returning home with any food, medicine and supplies that would enable them to rebuild their lives, Elias said.

Elias grew up in Til Azir, a small city of 28,000 Yazidis in the Sinjar region. Today, it’s a ghost town.

He followed news of the genocide from Houston, his home since 2010 after earning a visa for his work as a U.S. Army translator.

His home in Iraq was ransacked down to the windows and doorframes.

At the time, he was studying toward an undergraduate degree in the hope of becoming a doctor. But shortly afterward, he abandoned his medical ambitions to start Yazda, a lobbying and advocacy group based in Lincoln, Neb., where most American Yazidis live (

Elias engages audiences on a frenzied schedule. Between his two L.A. engagements last month he flew to New York and San Francisco, stopping each time for a brief layover in Houston.

To some extent, his efforts have succeeded. In the days after the genocide, demonstrations and lobbying in Washington, D.C., by Elias and others helped persuade President Barack Obama to launch strategic airstrikes that enabled Yazidis to escape an ISIS siege.

In March 2016, following lobbying efforts by Yazda and Frydman’s Beyond Genocide Campaign, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Yazidi genocide.

Now, Frydman and Yazda are pushing for Congress to pass the Justice for Yazidis Act, which would extend psychosocial support and speed refugee resettlement for Yazidis and other persecuted minorities in Iraq.

Elias said his work takes its toll. Each time he speaks to an audience, it traumatizes him anew.

He drew a contrast with his previous occupation as a translator.

“Translators, they’re like instruments,” he said. “They transfer the words. Most of the time they’re too busy to feel the information. If you’ve gone through something, it’s different.”

“It affects you,” he added. “And if it doesn’t affect you in the moment, it has its negative impact soon after, in the future. It makes you different.”

With all of his speaking engagements, Elias has little time to see his wife and three children, ages 16, 14 and 6 years old, and little leisure time for himself. Once a film buff, he hasn’t finished a film since August 2014, he said. His mind always returns to the massive amount of work on his docket.

His work also impacts his children. “Their daddy is not around most of the time,” he said.

Elias said his children understand why he’s gone so often. When other kids ask what their father does, “they say nothing directly,” he said. “They say he’s helping people.”

For Jews fighting Ebola, specialty is psychosocial therapy

Even amid the unceasing horrors of Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, it was a case that stood out.

A 5-year-old boy had been found in his home in a remote village, the lone survivor in a house riddled with the corpses of family members. He needed to be extracted; the bodies needed to be buried.

The operator who took the call at the Freetown hotline that coordinates the dispatch of ambulances, police and burial teams was shaken.

Enter IsraAid. The lone Israeli or Jewish disaster relief organization on the ground in the Ebola zone, IsraAid is providing psychosocial counseling and training to service providers – health workers, social workers, teachers, police — dealing with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. The locals staffing Freetown’s Ebola hotline are among those receiving counseling.

“Dealing with the psychosocial trauma is critical to addressing the Ebola outbreak,” Shachar Zahavi, IsraAid’s founding director, told JTA in an interview. “A major deterrent to treatment is that people don’t trust one another. If you don’t feel well, your family immediately hides you and you then infect your entire family. We’re trying to teach police, social workers, health workers and teachers how to deal with people who are afraid of them – and how to manage their own stress and anxiety.”

Last month, IsraAid’s work earned the organization a letter of praise and thanks from Sierra Leone’s first lady, Sia Nyama Koroma. She also happens to be a psychiatric nurse, and when IsraAid held a two-day psychosocial counseling workshop last week in Freetown, Koroma cleared her schedule to attend the entire program, according to Zahavi.

A 13-year-old organization funded in part by U.S. Jewish institutions and federations, and supported by the Israeli government, IsraAid honed its techniques in other disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. But IsraAid staffers say Ebola is their most challenging crisis.

“It’s more difficult than other disasters, mostly because it’s an ongoing disaster and it’s scary,” said Yotam Polizer, IsraAid’s regional director for Asia and now the person in charge of the Africa response. Polizer spent most of October in Sierra Leone and will head back there next week from his home base in Japan.

IsraAid has brought four Israelis to Sierra Leone: two psychosocial trauma specialists and two logistics experts. Next week another six will arrive, and Polizer is working on hiring a team of locals.

It’s hard to recruit Israelis to join the effort, organizational officials say, because they must be fit enough to work in grueling conditions required by Ebola protocols and be able to clear their schedule for at least six weeks: one week for training, three to four weeks in the field, and two to three weeks afterward to make sure they’re not infected.

And then there’s the fear factor.

“At least two to three times a day people start to freak out, worrying they have a fever, and they have to be calmed down,” Polizer said. “It’s very challenging.”

When he returns to Sierra Leone next week, Polizer said he’ll have to reacquaint himself with the demanding strictures of life in the Ebola zone, including taking his temperature every few hours; washing his hands with chlorine 20-30 times a day; refraining from any physical contact, even handshakes, with other people; and eating only at three or four carefully vetted restaurants. Most difficult of all will be trying to make sure not to touch his own eyes. Relief workers say eyes are the most easily infected part of the body.

IsraAid is the only official Israeli presence in the Ebola zone. But while Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declined a U.S. request to send Israeli military staff to Africa, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is sending equipment for three mobile medical clinics in the affected region. IsraAid has been tasked with receiving the two shipments going to Sierra Leone and Liberia, and helping integrate the clinics into existing international aid efforts run by such groups as International Medical Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and the U.S. and U.K. armies.

In the United States, the New York-based American Jewish World Service has been leading the Jewish effort to send financial help to the hot zone, funding 10 groups in Liberia and one in Senegal that are working to contain the Ebola outbreak.

These groups’ efforts include using radio stations and rural media organizations to carry out public education campaigns combating Ebola’s spread; training and equipping volunteers to deliver hygiene materials and information pamphlets to local households; providing psychosocial support and counseling to Ebola survivors and their families; renovating a clinic to act as an Ebola quarantine and triage center; and in one case, providing primary medical care services to locals in light of the collapse of local health care systems.

“When the outbreak grew in intensity this summer, we consulted our existing grantees in Liberia to find out which resources they needed to respond to the epidemic in their communities,” said Ruth Messinger, the president of American Jewish World Service. “These local activist groups were well positioned to take this work on because they were already well-established and trusted members of their communities.”

AJWS has disbursed about $405,000 to its recipient organizations and raised about $820,000 from donors. Most of that sum has come in over the last six weeks, since AJWS increased its fundraising goal to $1 million from $200,000.

Despite all the challenges of working with Ebola, Polizer said there have been moments of satisfaction. In IsraAid’s stress management workshops for relief workers and Ebola survivors, leaders employ a variety of tactics. Role play exercises are designed to help Ebola survivors cope with people who stigmatize or reject them because they’ve had the disease. Health workers practice movement and dance therapy to help cheer them up, and breathing exercises to help them relax.

The head nurse of one hospital outside Freetown came to one of IsraAid’s stress management sessions burnt out and afraid after having lost more than 35 colleagues to Ebola, Polizer recalled. Instructors helped the nurse with a relaxation technique in which participants close their eyes and imagine themselves in a safe place.

The nurse fell asleep, and when she awoke she was smiling. It was the first time since the outbreak began, Polizer said she told him, that she had enjoyed a proper sleep.

(This story has been updated to reflect the updated total sum distributed by AJWS,)

As Nigeria is declared formally free of Ebola, Israel preps for domestic readiness

Israeli officials welcomed the World Health Organization announcement on Oct. 20 that Nigeria has been declared formally free of Ebola following six weeks with no new cases of the deadly virus.

“This is an important development for Nigeria and highlights their swift and effective response,” said Dr. Roee Singer, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. 

“It’s also a relief for us, because Nigeria is not only the biggest country in Africa, Nigerians comprise the largest group of tourists who visit Israel from the continent,” Singer said.

[Related: Jews at the helm of U.S. Ebola response]

Recent years have seen a marked deepening of ties between Jerusalem and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, with Israelis advising Nigeria on security measures to combat the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, as well as in development of water and agricultural resources and in the signing of a civil aviation agreement.

Singer added that the defeat of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria will alleviate the need to put into effect the most stringent level of screening protocols for airline passengers, many of whom are Christians on pilgrimage journeys.

In Israel’s own effort to prevent the disease from entering the country, Ben Gurion Airport held an Ebola defense exercise on Oct. 17 with Immigration and Health ministry officials conducting a drill on how to locate passengers from high-risk countries, practicing isolation and preliminary medical treatment measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Israel’s National Security Council to lead staff work on Israel’s domestic readiness to deal with the epidemic, even as the government dispatches three emergency clinics to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“These fully equipped emergency clinics include personal protective gear for medical workers, and we are assisting the governments in operating them with help from Israeli civil society volunteers,” said Ambassador Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV — Israel’s Agency for International Development.

Other officials involved in the country’s Ebola response planning told the Jewish Journal that the prime minister is facing “tough choices” on the scope of Israel’s participation in the front line effort against the epidemic.

Israeli media reports claim Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had urged rejection of an American request for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to deploy army field hospitals to affected African countries similar to those sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Ya’alon is in Washington this week, and his spokeswoman declined to answer an inquiry from the Journal about the decision not to bring the IDF in on the Ebola response effort. Ya’alon has recently expressed strong dissatisfaction with the 2015 defense budget and has complained that non-military-related items eat up to a quarter of his ministry’s available funds.

“The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] have defined the next six months as the emergency phase,” said Yotam Politzer, a disaster response director for IsraAID who headed back to Sierra Leone on Oct. 21.

IsraAID is the nongovernmental organization designated by officials to recruit and train the Israeli volunteers who will operate the medical and psychological response to Ebola in West Africa.

“We are bringing at least 30 mental health specialists from Israel to do psychosocial training for medical workers, and we hope that at any given moment we will have at least a team of five or six professionals from here on the ground,” Politzer said.

“There are many organizations and institutions involved in the medical field, but no one is really taking care of the mental health aspects of the disaster, which is crucial, we think, to stop this outbreak,” Politzer added.

Despite the good news from Nigeria, Sierra Leone is still battling the epidemic, and Politzer’s team from IsraAID is making its base in the capital city, Freetown, where between 40 and 60 new cases are being reported daily.

At the Kenema Hospital, about 185 miles east of Freetown, 35 doctors and nurses died from Ebola in August.

The remaining staff, Politzer said, “didn’t receive any kind of counseling or emotional support. Many of them just don’t want to go back to work because they are scared and traumatized, having lost their colleagues, so providing support for the medical teams is extremely important.” Politzer added that IsraAID teams have drawn up plans to reach remote towns and villages on a consistent basis.

Navonel Glick, a 27- year-old program director at IsraAID, said the organization’s specialization in providing programs and therapy to traumatized communities comes from the experience the Jewish state has had in regrouping after wars and terror attacks.

Glick will be in Sierra Leone by the end of the week, having just returned to Israel from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the organization runs a program for Christians and Yazidis who have fled from the penetration of ISIS into the region.

“I would not say that my parents are thrilled, [and] all these situations have their own risks, but they’ve come to terms with the life that I’m leading,” Glick said.

“We have quite a lot of social workers and therapists volunteering to do the trainings. Yes, there are some people who have come for other missions that aren’t participating in this one. But, on the other hand, there are quite a number of people who feel this is important, and they are joining us because they understand that Ebola is something that really has become a global threat.”

IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi believes his group has the credibility and connections to raise the funds required for the kind of response the world expects from Israel and the global Jewish community.

“I can tell you that our partnership with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the Southern California Jewish community at large is supportive. They are very open-minded, and they see the global picture,” Zahavi said. “They supported us in Haiti and Japan and the Philippines.”

“IsraAID has approached all its Federation partners, from the West Coast to the East Coast, asking them to open a disaster relief fund for this Ebola epidemic so we can show the world that Israel and the Jewish people are at the forefront of disaster relief and helping communities around the world.” (At present, according to an email sent on Oct. 21 by Mitch Hammerman, spokesman for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the L.A. Federation is “not doing anything related to Ebola.”)

Opinion: In Japan, pride in the Jewish response to tsunami

As I sit here in Tokyo with the first anniversary of the tsunami fast approaching, I recall my surprise the first time a Japanese person thanked me, as a Jew, for Israel’s immediate response to the disaster. It was certainly not the time to instruct that well-meaning person that not all Jews are from Israel—the average Japanese does not make a distinction between them—so instead I proudly basked in the thought of Israel being the first country to come to Japan’s aid with its emergency field hospital.

The second time, however, I was not caught off guard: I had prepared a little speech in which I told of what the the Jewish Community of Japan, of which I am the rabbi, was doing together with the global Jewish community to help people in the face of crisis. I was able to report on stories of individual members of our community—mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews—who in the first hours after the disaster purchased tons of flour and food, and managed to deliver it to the displaced. I also told them about the many local Jews who organized food drives, raised money and took time from work to volunteer with the cleanup.

Most especially, I told them the tale of the 11-year-old girl from our thriving Hebrew school who singlehandedly organized the first bicycle drive through which she collected nearly 100 pairs of shoes to distribute in a destitute town in the north of Japan.

I have told these stories many times. But what really impresses the people here is the story of the almost instantaneous global Jewish response to the disaster. The effort came in many forms, such as Chabad, the Israeli field hospital or IsraAID. For us at the Jewish Community of Japan, the effort manifested itself in our partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which reached out to us within 24 hours of the earthquake offering its support.

In the first days after the disaster, those who remained in Japan felt the urgency to do something. This desire was combined with the fear and anxiety caused by the conflicting reports about the situation. It was a “time to act for the Lord,” but it was not clear what we could do. Some 2,000 Jews are living in Japan, and none of us had been affected irreversibly by the quake, thank God. However, the tragedy we faced as a nation was overwhelming.

As such, it was deeply important that our individual efforts at the time were soon combined with the help of those from outside Japan. It represented a powerful vehicle for us to act quickly and collectively on our natural desire to help. After all, we wanted our country to know that we care for her and her people, as the Talmud says, “at a time when the community is in distress, none should say: I’ll go to the privacy of my home and have a party.”

Since those early days, we have made a lasting impact on the life of tens of thousands of individuals. By combining the Jewish Community of Japan’s local guidance—including accessing our friends and family, business relationships and closeness to Japanese society—and the JDC’s expertise in disaster relief, we’ve put programs into action to support various groups in the disaster areas – for children, the deaf and hearing impaired, the elderly, the physically disabled and the displaced. Among our many achievements, we have brought in Israeli post-trauma specialists who have worked and trained the local social workers and teachers to help children suffering in fear, and found ways, in addition to our other work, to provide meals for those living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing.

But what I believe is the biggest success yet is the establishment of 13 community cafes in Ishinomaki, the town hit the hardest by the tsunami. I knew full well about these cafes, a venue for displaced people of the area to gather and receive informal psychological support while participating in activities, classes and programs, or plain, old-fashioned schmoozing.

I was pleasantly surprised to have another moment of Jewish pride, when at one of the many interfaith meetings I attend, a church minister lauded the cafes as a successful example of outreach and support. At that moment I could not help myself and expressed with true satisfaction that these cafes had been possible thanks to the generosity and expertise of the Jewish community. Seeing the look of positive surprise on the faces of my fellow clergy, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the bread coming back to us upon the water?”

Perhaps no greater example of this connection between the Jews of Japan and our neighbors is our project to repair the Buddhist Komyogi Temple in Oshu. As part of the effort, we are creating a joint program to provide a respite for the beleaguered children of Rikuzentakata, a city devastated by the tsunami. Through children’s activities and numerous opportunities for exchange between our families and theirs, a dialogue between our communities will be built on the ideals of mutual responsibility and human compassion. All of this, of course, would not be possible without the support of Jews from abroad.

A constant source of “naches” for me as a rabbi, this outpouring of help speaks to one of the Jewish values I cherish most, tikkun olam. It also highlights, perhaps better than anything I have ever seen, the strengthening of bridges existing between the Japanese people and Israel and the Jews. Despite my initial reaction to the compliment from my Japanese neighbor, I have seen in the last year that we are one people. And together we can save lives, wherever in the world we are needed.

Antonio Di Gesu, a native of Italy and graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan.

IsraAID opens training program in South Sudan

The Israeli nongovernmental organization IsraAID opened a training program to deal with gender-based violence for social workers in the fledgling country of South Sudan.

Helen Murshalli, the South Sudanese minister of social development, inaugurated the program in Juba organized by the Israeli assistance group in cooperation with Operation Blessing Israel.

During the 10-day workshop, 29 social workers from the ministry and the local NGO Confident Children out of Conflict will learn how to guide and support survivors of gender-based violence from Juba and the entire Central Equatorial district.

Murshalli praised IsraAID for organizing the training program, and highlighted the historic relationship between Israel and South Sudan, calling for a deepening and strengthening of the ties that connect the two countries.

She also stressed the key role that social workers play in building a stable and healthy nation.

“In Israel, contemporary therapists and trauma specialists are in the unique situation where they are also the founding generation in the field of GBV,” said Sheri Oz, a family therapist and trauma specialist who helped pioneer the field of sexual trauma treatment in Israel. “In other Western countries, today’s therapists were most likely trained during a time when treatment frameworks were already in place, but we have experience in establishing services where there previously were none.”

Israeli, Jewish groups team to help famine-plagued Somalia

An Israeli aid group and Canadian Jewish federations are teaming to help ease the famine in Somalia.

IsrAID is partnering with the Canadian Jewish organizations UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and UIA Canada to bring food and water to suffering populations in Africa. The relief efforts are targeting Somalians who are crossing the border into Ethiopia and Kenya in order to escape the famine.

IsrAID is communicating with the United Nations and government officials to determine distribution logistics and the types of food that are needed.

The United Nations has declared a state of famine in several regions of Somalia; some expect the entire Somali South to be similarly declared in two months.

Droughts, rising food prices, conflict and other factors and have left approximately 11 million in need of assistance in Somalia and neighboring countries. Large numbers of Somalians—approximately 2,000 a day—are fleeing to Kenya seeking food and aid.

IsrAID also has funded refugee camps in Kenya to house approximately 40,000.

The UJA Foundation of Greater Toronto said it is providing $25,000 to the Somali relief effort. The foundation has been a strong supporter of IsrAID, raising at least $2 million to provide relief in areas of natural disaster such as Japan, Haiti and New Orleans.