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Disaster response: A Yom Kippur imperative

Lessons learned in the trenches of disaster relief include the need to train locals to help themselves
Evacuees sheltering at Florida International University ahead of Hurricane Irma in Miami, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Evacuees sheltering at Florida International University ahead of Hurricane Irma in Miami, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Every Yom Kippur, it is natural to think about how precious and fragile life is. We feel fortunate to be alive, and we appreciate all that we have been given.

For me, these feelings are even more powerful this year. The natural disasters we have experienced in recent weeks – the string of hurricanes and earthquakes – are a stark reminder of how suddenly things can change, of how vulnerable we are. The loss of life in Houston, Florida, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands has been heart-breaking, and the destruction of property and livelihoods has been agonizing as well.

There are deep questions here, which I cannot answer, about why terrible things happen to good people. But there is one thing we all know: The right response when people need help is to help them, and to make sure this help is effective.

For me, it is inspiring that Israel and Jewish groups swung into action – along with so many others – responding quickly and decisively in recent weeks. Israel’s search and rescue responders, teams from Jewish Federations, JDC (my organization), and other Jewish groups were proud to join other faith-based and secular organizations in answering the call.

Volunteers in Atlanta’s Orthodox Jewish community coordinate homes for evacuees from Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Adam Starr via JTA)
Volunteers in Atlanta’s Orthodox Jewish community coordinate homes for evacuees from Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Adam Starr via JTA)

Unfortunately, we know there will be more disasters in the future, so it is worth reflecting on how to ensure that responses are as effective as possible. Disaster relief experts at JDC emphasize four lessons from their work in Nepal, the Philippines, Haiti, and other places across the globe in recent years.

First, disasters are not just short-term events. Needless to say, it is essential to mobilize quickly, and to ensure that basic needs are met immediately. But after the news cycle fades, people in the disaster zone face a stark “new normal.” Even the smallest disasters can have a major impact on a person’s life. One flood can wipe out a harvest, leaving people hungry for years to come. So an effective response helps people to be less vulnerable to the next disaster. For example, in the Philippines, we’ve helped farmers diversify their livelihoods and integrate “climate-smart” techniques, so they have something else to fall back on after a disaster.

Second, post-disaster landscapes change quickly, so we have to be flexible. Needs change as conditions evolve, and we need to adapt, especially as we have seen that subsequent crises exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In Haiti, for example, where JDC has worked since the devastating earthquake of 2010, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic demanded flexibility and agility from responders, as do extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Maria.

A Palm Bay police officer walks over debris from a two-story home in Brevard County, Florida, after Hurricane Irma passed over the state, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP
A Palm Bay police officer walks over debris from a two-story home in Brevard County, Florida, after Hurricane Irma passed over the state, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Third, we should train communities to be as self-sufficient as possible, so they are prepared for disasters that inevitably will come. It is better not to rely on help from outside, since destroyed roads, poor communications, and debris can delay this assistance. Instead, we should do what we can to prepare communities to be empowered to save lives. In Nepal, following the twin earthquakes of 2015, we worked with remote communities to create disaster mitigation capacity which included constructing evacuation centers, designing school-based disaster risk reduction plans and providing community members with critical psychosocial support skills so that they would be more resilient in future crises.

Fourth, local Jewish communities are valuable partners in disaster relief. After all, Jews have historic and practical experience preparing for crises and responding to the needs of vulnerable populations. So when their neighbors are impacted by disasters, Jewish communities are steadfast allies, who help to ensure that the most vulnerable receive care. For example, in Mexico, we’re supporting search and rescue, emergency medical support, psychological first aid, and shelter provision efforts of CADENA, the Mexican Jewish community’s humanitarian arm. In Cuba, we worked closely with our partner, the Jewish community in Havana, to check on the well-being of Jews in the provinces, and to provide food, repairs, and other basic assistance.

In this time of reflection, I am grateful for the good things I have been given, and for the opportunity to help those who need us.

As we ask each other for forgiveness, let’s resolve to find the strength together to rebuild what has been broken.

David Schizer is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

About the Author
David Schizer is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
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