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U.S. Jews aid Lebanon refugees

NEW YORK, June 20 (JTA) — More than 800 boxes of clothing, toys and toiletries were sent to Israel this week to help Lebanese Christian refugees living there after they fled Hezbollah’s takeover of their towns.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent cartons of goods to Israel as part of its “Bundles of Hope” initiative.

Jewish federations across the United States participated in the project, as well as the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, met last week with Col. Sharbel Barakat, former deputy commander of the South Lebanon Army, which helped Israel patrol its security zone until the Jewish state withdrew from Lebanon last month.

“He said how much it touched the Lebanese Christian community when they heard about this campaign and the immediate response from the Jewish community,” Hoenlein said. “We want to send a message that we stand by our friends.”

Around 6,000 former SLA members and their families have been living in northern Israel since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Many left their homes in Lebanon with only the clothes on their backs.

Though the presidents conference is no longer accepting goods, it will accept monetary donations for another week. Hoenlein estimates that the group has already raised more than $100,000.

Chief among the contributors was the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

“When Malcolm called me and said that the Jewish community was engaged in this project, and would we be willing to help, I said immediately yes,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ’s founder and president, “as a demonstration of Christian support of Israel and Christian support for the situation of the SLA.”

The Presidents Conference expressed appreciation for contributors to “Bundles of Hope” during a news conference Monday morning. The initial packages were loaded on trucks provided by New York Gov. George Pataki’s office and shipped to Israel on planes supplied by El Al, Israel’s national airline.

The Israel Defense Force will distribute the packages, said Hoenlein.

New York Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue represented the governor’s office at the news conference Monday.

“When the Conference of Presidents began coordinating this effort three weeks ago, I don’t think they ever could have imagined the enormous success this effort would bring,” Donohue said.

“Once again, the Jewish community has proven that when they send a distress call, there will be thousands of organizations, clergy and individuals there to help. The effort this morning serves as an incredible lesson of what it means to assist those who cannot help themselves.”

Eckstein recently visited the Lebanese refugees in Israel. “I was looking into the children’s eyes who are displaced and scared, and this prompted me to say we need to do something.”

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