My 72 Hours: Leadership in Times of Tragedy

November 14, 2018

My 72 hours started on the afternoon of Nov. 8, when I wrote my bimonthly email: “Thank G-d for the Jewish Federation.” This was said to me by a woman at one of the National Solidarity Shabbats, organized by our federation and The Jewish Federations of North America in response to the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. It detailed the work of our Community Security Initiative (CSI), as we ensure the safety, security and vibrancy of our Jewish community. It covered the hours after the attack and calls I received from our mayor, chief of police and sheriff.

Soon after, I received word about the start of the Woolsey Fire. CSI immediately began monitoring the fires and sending updates to Jewish organizations in the affected areas. I woke up in the middle of the night, saw that the fire was already impacting the Jewish community, and began plans to convene our staff the next morning.

On Nov. 9, our Chief Program Officer Becky Sobelman-Stern turned her program staff retreat into a crisis response session. We reached out to every organizational leader and rabbi in the area. We set up a hotline — (323) 761-8100 — staffed by a professional from our Caring for Jews in Need strategic initiative. The platforms we have in place, CSI and the Ezra Network, provided the infrastructure to do what was needed. I rewrote my e-mail to let the community know that we were directing our full attention and staff resources to address the immediate and long-term impact of the fires. I began to contact political leaders. Numerous calls offering help and support poured in from many national colleagues.

We immediately created our L.A. Wildfire Relief Campaign to raise funds for impacted individuals and organizations.

Rabbi Jon Hanish invited me to speak at Kol Tikvah’s Friday night services, shared with another impacted congregation, Valley Outreach Synagogue. I expressed our readiness to help in any and every way possible.

The night of Nov. 9 I kept waking up to add items to my to-do list and monitor the fires. Very early on the morning of Nov. 10, it became clear that the fire was moving toward three of our cherished summer camps: the Wilshire Boulevard Camps Hilltop, Hess Kramer and Camp JCA Shalom/Shalom Institute. I couldn’t go back to sleep.

On the morning of Nov. 10, I received another flurry of emails from Israel, detailing a barrage of rockets from Gaza hitting southern Israel. I contacted partners and colleagues there to ask how we could help. Our partners at the Israel Trauma Coalition said they were already engaged, thanks to work we did together in 2012 and 2014.

“A man came up to me and said the words that made all of our work worthwhile: ‘Thank you and the federation.’”

At 8 a.m., I began a series of in-person meetings with representatives from the organizations most impacted by the fires. I spent the rest of the day and night on conference and individual calls with the leaders in the impacted areas.

After another sleepless night, it became clear that the three camps had been destroyed by the fires.

At 8 a.m. on Nov. 11, I began a series of meetings with people from Jewish organizations. I spent hours supporting and strategizing with Camp JCA/Shalom Institute’s Rabbi Bill Kaplan and his staff. I joined a now daily conference call with rabbis, leaders of organizations and individuals.

At 1 p.m., I attended the memorial service our federation organized for the family of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, the couple murdered at the Pittsburgh synagogue. I spoke about how their lives truly were a blessing. Afterward, I offered support to Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The federation then created a crisis center at our offices in Tarzana and offered space to any organization or synagogue that needed a place to call home.

At 7 p.m., I addressed more than 500 campers and alumni of Camp JCA Shalom at de Toledo High School in West Hills. I shared our commitment to rebuild what was lost and told them what I truly believed: The power of camp and our community was in that room.

As I left, a man came up to me and said the words that made all of our work worthwhile: “Thank you and the federation.”

He then gave me just what I needed after everything I’d experienced in those 72 hours — a hug.

Jay Sanderson is CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

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