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L.a. Jewish Community Mobilizes in Face of Earthquake’s Devastation

In the wake of last week’s earthquake here, leaders of the Jewish community are scrambling to re-establish communications and assess the toll on life and property.

Based on the list of the earthquake’s 57 victims, and reports by rabbis and others, it is believed that at least 12 Jews lost their lives. The oldest was 89, and the youngest a 5-year-old girl.

Cost of property damage to Jewish communal institutions is estimated at between $15 million and $20 million, according to John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Fishel also believes that about 150,000 Jewish residents of the metropolitan Los Angeles area, or one out of every four, suffered some personal or property loss.

Among the hardest hit institutions have been the University of Judaism, which estimates it is looking at a repair bill of $1 million to $2 million; the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which lost its historic main building; and the Bernard Milken Community Campus, housing the main Jewish agencies for the western San Fernando Valley.

Conservative Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino sustained up to $400,000 in damages. The temple’s rabbi, Harold Schulweis, likened the quake to “a dybbuk (or demonic spirit), full of sound and fury.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and its newly opened Museum of Tolerance, built according to the latest earthquake specifications, suffered $75,000 in damages.

Because of the erratic force and path of the quake, three institutions that were closest to the epicenter in Northridge suffered only minor damage: Hillel House on the California State University campus, Chabad Center and the Abraham Heschel Day School.

Throughout the often fractious City of the Angels, hit by one disaster after another, people are coming together as never before.

“The people here are responding remarkably and hanging together. It’s an amazing feeling,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who doubles as president of the L.A. Police Commission and as Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

The Jewish Community Building on Wilshire Boulevard has converted a bank of telephone lines that was installed for the United Jewish Fund’s Feb. 6 Super Sunday drive to an emergency hotline, which also accepts offers of housing, food, transportation and other assistance.

Federation staff members and volunteers working the 12 rotary telephone lines were trained to quickly analyze the callers’ problems and assign them to the appropriate agencies, whether Jewish, general (such as the Red Cross) or governmental (primarily the Federal Emergency Management Agency), said Terry Bell, the Jewish Federation Council’s president.

In an interview, Bell and Fishel outlined some of the immediate steps and future plans of the federation, its agencies, synagogues, community centers and other bodies of the organized Jewish community to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.

In rough order of priority, the community is responding to these urgent needs: a place to stay for those whose homes have been destroyed or made unsafe; cash loans to buy food and other necessities; transportation to relief centers and agencies; and personal counseling.

To help meet immediate housing needs, the JFC and its Real Estate Division have compiled a data base to match landlords with the newly homeless.

The front-line Jewish agencies dealing most directly with those in need are the Jewish Family Service offices in mid-city, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley; Board of Rabbis; Bet Tzedak legal services; Jewish Big Brothers; Hillel Council; Sova Kosher Food Pantries; and the Jewish Vocational Service, which is assisting those who have lost their jobs or businesses due to earthquake damage.

Coordinating much of the federation’s outreach to the community and outside agencies is Steven Windmueller, director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.

The federations’ outreach program is by no means limited to Jews, as evidenced by their full page ad in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, under the heading of “Tikkun L.A.” (or Repair Los Angeles). It listed the JFC’s hotline number and services.

Since the quake, most Angelenos have been inundated with anecdotes, rumors and impressions, but they lack hard, practical information.

To supply this much-needed information, the JFC has held four disaster relief forums at which experts answered questions ranging from getting emergency food to the tax impact of losing a home.

Fishel and Terry said they been heartened by a string of phone calls from federation officials in other cities – especially from Oakland, San Francisco, Miami and Des Moines – offering expertise garnered the hard way as a result of natural disasters that have struck those communities during the past two years.

Last weekend, a delegation from the Council of Jewish Federations toured disaster sites and offered not only moral support but concrete financial assistance.

The council has established an earthquake relief fund, as have B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish World Service, and the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Though at the moment all other considerations have been pushed aside to focus on urgent relief efforts, the problem of finances is sure to confront all local Jewish institutions in the very near future.

The federation, which went through massive layoffs in the last couple of years and was strapped for money in a recession – plagued economy even before the earthquake, faces the most daunting of fund – raising problems.

“Judging from the experiences of their cities, after a major disaster, campaign contributions go down by 25 percent,” acknowledged Bell.

The reasons are obvious. Potential contributors have lost jobs or businesses, and many need every available dollar for home repairs and other property losses.

Moreover, just about every Jewish school and university, every synagogue and community center will appeal to its congregants and supporters for reconstruction funds. Indeed, a few institutions a wash in red ink for years, may hope that the emotional appeal for earthquake relief may help reduce long- standing debts.

Still, the JFC and all other Jewish institutions must continue to function and meet their payrolls. What is the solution?

The federation and its United Jewish Fund, for one, re-evaluating their entire campaign strategy.

Another approach, considering the huge sums involved, is reflected in Fishel’s remark that “we will discuss with our national and international partners the implications of the disaster.”

This appears to be a diplomatic way of saying that a larger portion of the more than $40 million the United Jewish Fund here had expected to collect before the quake will go toward local needs, and less to national organizations and Israel.

Aware of the large population of Israelis in Los Angeles, a television crew from Israel spent three days here last week, interviewing Israelis who were as hard hit by the temblor as everyone else.

Two days after the quake, Prime Minister Rabin offered to dispatch the Israel Defense Force’s Disaster Reaction Unit, which had given significant help during the 1988 Armenian earthquake. The unit was not needed, but the offer was appreciated.

Rabin also sent a letter of solidarity to the Los Angeles Jewish community on Tuesday, which was addressed to Bell of the JFC.

“We know that you have suffered severe damage to your synagogues, community centers and other Jewish public service agencies,” he wrote. “This has caused us much concern in Israel.”

“Be assured that we stand with you and we are ready to assist you in the spirit of Jewish solidarity,” he added.

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