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On Anniversary of L.a. Earthquake, Jews Recall Coming Together in Crisis

One year after the devastating earthquake that hit this area, a seminar planned to evaluate its impact had to be canceled because the current floods blocked access to the meeting site.

At the southern regional office of the Jewish Federation Council, relentless rains seeped through hitherto undiscovered cracks apparently caused by last year’s earthquake.

The quake, which struck at 4:31 a.m. on Jan 17, 1994, hit particularly har at Jewish population centers in Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley communities of North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and Northridge.

Not all the bills are in yet, but damage to Jewish institutions has added up to about $25 million. The Jewish federation alone suffered $10 million in damages to its main building and four satellite facilities, with the Milken campus in the West San Fernando Valley taking the biggest hit of $6 million. That campus will not be ready for full occupancy until February.

Other multimillion dollar losses were sustained by the Jewish Home for the Aging, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and the University of Judaism.

Some losses cannot be healed by money, foremost the death of 12 Jews, ranging in age from 5 to 89, who were among the 57 victims of the earthquake. Hundreds of Jewish families lost their homes and many more their businesses or jobs, when the hospitals, offices and shopping centers where they worked were destroyed.

For others, though not physically hurt, the trauma lingers on. A psychologist observed that a new loss reactivates memories of previous losses, an effect noted especially among resident Holocaust survivors.

On balance, though, the most expensive natural disaster in American history (at $20 billion and counting) has reaffirmed the old lesson that human beings are a great deal more resilient than buildings, according to Carol Koransky and Sandra King.

Koransky, the Jewish federation director of planning and allocations, and King, executive director of the Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles, have closely coordinated and observed the tremor’s impact on the Jewish community.

In an anniversary review, they discussed some of the effects, a few of them surprisingly positive.

The Jews of Los Angeles, geographically scattered, largely unaffiliated and never as cohesive as in older East Coast and Midwest communities, came together as at no time since the Yom Kippur and Six-Day wars in Israel, according to Koransky and King.

“We developed a real sense of community, which gave people some feeling of control, ” said Koransky.

The Jewish Federation Council regained much of its status as the central address of the organized Jewish community. Frequently criticized as out of touch and fossilized by bureaucracy and aging leadership, the federation and its social agencies came through in the crisis as an example. The quake hit shortly before the kickoff for the federation’s annual fund drive. The banks of telephones for solicitation calls were immediately converted to emergency hotlines, and families anticipating the usual requests for contributions were instead asked if they needed any help.

In an odd way, the quake’s equal opportunity impact on rich and poor served as a leveler of social distinctions. “For the first time, people who always saw themselves as donors had to stand in line to ask for assistance,” noted Koransky.

King expressed admiration for social and mental health workers and legal counselors, who put aside their own losses and family concerns to assist others. “They were victims and helpers at the same time,” she said.

By force of the emergency, Jewish organizations established an effective network that included relief agencies in the general community and government offices. That network is now in place to cope with floods or future natural disasters.

Jewish agencies went out of their way to offer services to all Angelenos, while private foundations, government agencies and Jewish communities throughout the country gave millions of dollars to the Los Angeles federation.

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