HAIFA (Dec. 27)
For thousands of young Israelis, the sun-drenched archipelagos of Southeast Asia were the perfect destination for long treks in which to forget the rigors of military service. But this week that post-Zionist nirvana became a nightmare.
The tsunamis that swept India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands on Sunday plunged hundreds of Israeli families into a frenzy of worry over relatives feared lost while touring.
For thousands of families living in or visiting the Indian Ocean region, Sunday’s catastrophe confirmed their worst fears. At least 23,000 people were killed by the devastating earthquake and tsunami, mostly in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.
Details were not immediately known, but it was believed that members of the South African, Australian and New Zealand Jewish communities were missing as well.
Immediately after the tragedy, Israel and Jewish groups swung into action.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry set aside $100,000 in aid for each of the countries hit by the tsunami. A delegation of Israeli doctors was to take off for Thailand on Monday night, and medical supplies were being sent to Sri Lanka.
The Defense Ministry said it was putting together a military search-and-rescue team that would be on standby, ready to respond to any request.
The efforts were appreciated by at least one Israeli located bruised but otherwise safe on the Thai resort of Phuket.
“Everyone has been great. I have been visited by Israeli diplomatic representatives, as well as Chabad,” Yaron Weiss told Channel Two television from his hospital bed. “I have a feeling that the other tourists here are a bit jealous that their countries are not as attentive.”
North American Jewish groups also were paying attention.
The American Jewish World Service was expecting to send its first shipment of medicine Tuesday to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It has been coordinating with 23 partner organizations in the region to assess needs on the ground.
Ronnie Strongin, the AJWS’ director of public relations, said one of the largest immediate needs is expected to be water because corpses have contaminated the water supply.
The group is hoping to receive donations to cover the cost of emergency supplies.
“The phones keep ringing off the hook,” Strongin said. “It looks like people are truly responding.”
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is working with its office in Bombay and elsewhere to coordinate relief efforts. The organization is hoping to provide food, water, clothing and shelter to countries affected by the earthquake and tsunamis.
For families of potential victims, meanwhile, the waiting was excruciating.
At the home of Erez Katran in Haifa, a 24-hour vigil was set up next to the telephone in hopes that he would call. His family hoped Katran’s silence was due to the fact that he was incommunicado while sailing in the Bay of Bengal.
“We are definitely feeling the pressure,” said Katran’s older brother, Micha. “If we don’t hear something by Wednesday night, my father and I will head out to India, to try to locate him somehow.”
Katran was among some 540 Israelis who remained unaccounted for Monday, despite urgent Foreign Ministry efforts to track them down. Israeli officials put their best face on what was emerging as a crisis of global proportion.
“Telephone communication in this region is very hard. Most of the infrastructure has collapsed,” said Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general. “We are working around the clock, with a small team, to cover a huge area, trying to locate Israelis and bring them to safe shores.”
But hearts across the Jewish state sank as reports surfaced from the hardest-hit coastal resorts.
More than a dozen Israeli tourists were known to be hospitalized in various conditions. According to an account in Ha’aretz, there was at least one likely fatality — a Tel Aviv woman swept out to sea while vacationing with her husband in southern Thailand.
In addition to delivering bad news, the Israeli communications industry pitched in with the search efforts.
Every major Web site set up a page where pictures of missing tourists could be posted in hope that someone would report their location, and one cell-phone company offered its Israeli customers in Southeast Asia 10 minutes of free airtime to call home.
(JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.)
(Donations to the American Jewish World Service’s relief efforts are being accepted at www.ajws.org, and by phone at 1-800-889-7146. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is accepting credit card donations at www.jdc.org, or by phone at 212-687-6200, ext. 889.)