I have spoken to many olim (immigrants to Israel) and we all agree that one of the hardest parts of living here is being so far away from our family and friends. The power of email, Skype, and social media really does help bridge the physical gap between us, but it’s hard to not feel helpless when tragedy strikes.

When my family and many of my friends were recently caught up in Hurricane Sandy, I wasn’t sure what to do, especially when all we heard about were “warnings”. I couldn’t really help out being 7,000 miles away. It may even sound a bit insensitive, but I wasn’t too worried because nothing ever really happens in Wilmington, Delaware and I figured my folks would call if they really needed anything or something “really” happened. There was once an ice storm that took us out of school for five days back when I was in junior high school, but that’s really the last “big” storm I remember.

I was terribly wrong. Things DO happen in Delaware. When I called before the storm, it turns out that they were “locked down”. A $115 fine was imposed on anyone caught on the roads that day without proper authorization from the government. In the end, my parents never lost power, but the reports from family and friends in New York and New Jersey were not as positive. Many didn’t just lose power for several days, but they also lost their cars, their homes, and their sense of security.

A few days after Sandy hit, I once again felt that sense of “now what?” My in-laws took quite a few days to contact us due to a lack of power (they live in northern New Jersey) and while my sister who lives in Queens was fine, her boyfriend’s parents on Long Island lost their cars and part of their house was flooded.

A week passed and the reports came in one by one. It was time to take action, even if it was from abroad.  I asked friends through Facebook what we could do to help, even if we were far away. Many suggested just donating money, while others had more creative suggestions.

I wanted to focus on just a few of the more creative responses I received from friends and relatives around the world. The damage has been done and people in the area struck hardest will need our help for many days to come. We have seen numerous organizations and publications (including the Times of Israel) post lists of how we can help.

However, none of these has focused on how expats can contribute from afar (with the exception of monetary donations). You have to be a bit more creative when distance is the issue.

Here are just a few ways that those of us in the expat communities have helped at the grassroots level:

  • Ariel Davidson of Montreal tried to organize a Hanukkah toy drive for children who lost everything due to Hurricane Sandy. It didn’t exactly work out, but a local school, Hebrew Academy, helped collect blankets and other supplies as well.
  • For about a week, all of the sales of Isha Candles (London, UK) went to Hurricane Sandy relief.
  • If you are a social media nut like me, you can use your connections to help others. A great example of this was the work of Tracey Goldstein, the creative woman behind Hatunot Blog, who recently helped a bride who lost her dress to Sandy.
  • With the help of friends in the greater New York area, fellow Times of Israel blogger Marni Mandell sold pies (benefitting another incredible charitable organization called Sharsheret) to those organizations that will be preparing communal Thanksgiving meals for those displaced by Hurricane Sandy.
  • Blogger Liz Cohen wrote a blog post about feeling disconnected from friends and family in her hometown of State Island. Her story was picked up by the New York Times and she has helped create awareness that way.
  •  Rabbi Avraham and Dina Hendel are having a “Soup for the Soul” event this week in their Jerusalem neighborhood with all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Wherever we are, and no matter how far away we are, the world is too small for us not to reach out and make a difference, even in our own tiny corner of the world. We never know what impact our actions will have and distance is not something that should play into it.  I learned from this experience that helplessness is not the feeling that American expats should feel living abroad- the feeling of empowerment should ring true, especially today, and especially in light of Hurricane Sandy.

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