Sally Oren

Going where the Ebola is

Through IsraAid's help to those suffering globally, Israel helps fulfill the Jewish mission to repair the world
Four days after the devastating tsunami in Japan, IsraeAid was providing assistance and comfort to schoolchildren outside of Tokyo. March 2011 (Photo: provided by IsraAid)
Four days after the devastating tsunami in Japan, IsraeAid was providing assistance and comfort to schoolchildren outside of Tokyo. March 2011 (Photo: provided by IsraAid)

Well ahead of the Israeli government’s recent decision to send mobile emergency clinics to West Africa, IsraAID was providing psychological assistance to the families of Ebola victims and educating local communities on prevention techniques. We are recruiting Israeli health care workers to join in our efforts. Wherever we are needed — even in the most perilous sites — IsraAID will be there.

Founded in 2001, IsraAID is committed to aiding the victims of natural and human-made disasters throughout the world. IsraAID workers — most of them volunteers — were the first on the ground in earthquake-shattered Haiti, in war-ravaged Africa, and in four hurricane and tornado-stricken areas in the United States. IsraAID has applied Israel’s expertise in emergency medical care, search-and-rescue, post-traumatic stress therapy, and the treatment of sexually abused women to more than a million people in twenty-two countries. And, unlike most relief organizations, IsraAID does not only deal with the disaster but remains to train local psychologists and aid professions to carry on its crucial work.

First in Washington and since returning to Israel, I have been privileged to serve as a goodwill ambassador for IsraAID. My first mission was to Tohoku, Japan, where the 2011 tsunami killed twenty thousand people.

A mere hour’s ride out of Tokyo, our express train crossed a landscape that was utterly devastated but — in the uniquely Japanese fashion — cleaned up. Apart from its barrenness, the countryside showed no sign of that disaster, but the same could not be said of the survivors. They bore the deep psychological scars and none more tragically than the children. IsraAID was there to help.

Arriving in Japan just four days after the tsunami, IsraAID participated in the massive clean-up and helped rebuild schools. But the long-term need, we realized, was psychological, specifically helping the survivors overcome the horrors they had witnessed. So we set up workshops for expressive art and dance therapy that were specifically adapted for the local cultural needs. Together with a music therapist, I worked in a school equipped with Geiger counters in each classroom — radiation remained a threat — and taught Israeli folkdances to children ages three to six. Dancing and art provides non-verbal venues for these children, many of them orphaned, to express their feelings of fear and loss. Though we did not share a common language, we bonded with these rural Japanese. As several of the children took my hand, I felt immensely proud and fulfilled to be an Israeli aiding my fellow human beings.

At a school near Tokyo shortly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 (photo: courtesy of IsraAid)

Since then, I have worked with IsraAID in Ormoc, in the Philippines, which was nearly destroyed by a typhoon, and in Jordan, aiding Syrian refugees. In Jordan, especially, the thought that Israelis could be dispensing food and hygienic supplies to those who are technically at war with us was deeply moving. The recipients knew who we were and openly showed their gratitude. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs work side-by-side in providing life-saving relief to our northern neighbors who, we immediately saw, were people just like us.

By every international standard, IsraAID is an amazing success. In Japan, which only reluctantly accepted international relief, a local board has been established to support the organization’s continuing activities. IsraAID remains in the Philippines as well and as in South Sudan, where we focus on gender-based violence. But now IsraAID is facing one of its most daunting challenges: the Ebola epidemic in Africa.

We Jews often stress our commitment to tikkun olam — the work of improving the world. Through a universalist notion that might place our devotion to humanity’s needs before those of Israel and the Jewish people, tikkun olam can be achieved through the goodwill of the Jewish State. IsraAID enables Jews to fulfill that global vision through Israel and its highly-skilled and dedicated volunteers. From post-tsunami Japan and now in Ebola-plagued Sierra Leone, IsraAID is making tikkun olam a reality.

About the Author
Sally Oren is IsraAID Goodwill Ambassador and the wife of Michael Oren, Israel's Former Ambassador to the US.