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Jewish Groups Rush to Aid Victims of Hurricane Mitch

The American Jewish community has moved with a sense of urgency to aid Hurricane Mitch’s victims as the death toll and destruction mounts.

The American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are two of many organizations tapping the pool of Jewish resources nationwide to help Mitch’s victims.

The powerful hurricane killed at least 10,000 people and left more than I million others homeless in Honduras alone.

As of last week, $40,000 had poured in from Jewish groups and individuals, according to AJWS President Ruth Messinger.

“We’re hearing from people who want to contribute their expertise, money or supplies and we’re acting as a liaison between Honduran and Nicaraguan groups and Jewish organizations that want to donate canned food, clothing or supplies,” Messinger said. “One man walked into the office and wrote us a check for $1,000. Another called to see if shoes were needed — he owns a shoe factory.”

The country’s small Jewish community was not spared Mitch’s wrath.

In Tegulcigalpa, Honduras’ capital, the community of about 30 families lost the small synagogue they built from an old home a year ago and the two Torahs brought to Honduras by German Jewish immigrants before World War II.

“We are starting from zero,” Florencia Colindres, 39, said in a telephone interview from Honduras. “We found one Torah in the mud, but it is probably ruined.”

No Jews died in Honduras, the president of the Jewish community said but water supplies remain low and a possible cholera epidemic has everyone worried.

The AJWS relief has reached Central American soil before. For 10 years, the organization has contributed funds — and for the past five years, volunteers – – to education, farming and conflict resolution projects in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“The central office we work from in Honduras is OK, but they can’t assess the damages to the projects yet because the roads and bridges leading to the villages are destroyed,” Messinger said. “We’ve been told progress has gone back 30 years.”

Will Recant, director of special projects for the JDC, said his organization will concentrate on both the intermediate and long-term needs of those who survived Mitch. The destruction of crops and the inaccessibility of many regions leads observers to believe that the hardships have only just begun.

“This situation cannot be taken care of in an hour, a week or a month,” Recant said. “This will take months and years.”

After assessing the damages and determining what resources are needed, Recant said, “we’ll contact partners already active in the region to see if our medical volunteers or maybe small business developers can be of help.”

Colindres, who remained in New York when the hurricane hit, said she couldn’t believe the scenes she saw when she returned home.

“The people just didn’t believe it would be so bad,” she said. “We heard the police were in the streets yelling, `Get out, get out,’ but the people were confident. And now, how do you give hope” to people? “They have nothing.”

Messinger said the AJWS will work alongside the JDC, and will also provide medical supplies and food through Direct Relief International, an established source of medicine and tools to disadvantaged people around the world. She expected the first plane of medical supplies to depart for Central America this week.

Contributions for victims of Hurricane Mitch can be sent to:

American Jewish World Service; 989 Avenue of the Americas; New York, N.Y. 10018

Central American Relief; American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; 711 Third Ave.; New York, N.Y. 10017.

UJA Federations of North America; c/o Central American Relief; 111 Eighth Ave.; New York, N.Y. 10011.

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