Jewish community mulling response to Chile quake

NEW YORK (JTA) — As U.S. Jewish organizations ponder how to respond to the massive quake that rocked Chile, they report that the infrastructure of the country’s Jewish community suffered little damage, though one synagogue in Concepcion was destroyed.

Chile and its capital, Santiago, while badly damaged, experienced less structural damage and significantly fewer deaths in Saturday’s earthquake than did Haiti and its capital, Port-au-Prince, in January, even though the quake in Chile was much more powerful. The death toll in Chile reportedly stands at more than 700, with some coastal towns having been wiped out by the earthquake and a subsequent tsunami.

According to the Masorti Movement, the Masorti synagogue in Concepcion was destroyed.

The head of the Masorti Movement, Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, has been circulating an email stating that the walls were cracked, the roof caved in.

“’In Concepcion, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, Rabbi Angel Kreiman told us that he went to the Synagogue, and ‘it was like the hurban habayit (destruction of the temple), the walls were all cracked and the roof had fallen down. I couldn’t stay there, so I got the sifrei Torah and left,’” Graetz wrote.

Initial reports from international Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT indicated little damage to the Jewish infrastructure in Chile. But then news of the Concepcion synagogue’s destruction emerged.

Unlike Haiti, Chile has a recognizable Jewish community of about 16,000, centered mostly in Santiago.

Chabad-Lubavitch, which has an outpost in Santiago, saw some structural damage to its building, but the organization wrote on its Web site that the Jewish “communities bordering the Pacific Ocean emerged largely unscathed after one of the largest earthquakes on record sent buildings and bridges crashing down to their foundations throughout the South American country of Chile.”

Likewise, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on Monday said it had no reports of significant damage to the Jewish communal infrastructure in Chile.

The JDC has opened a mailbox to collect money for the relief effort, and says it will work with the Chilean community to direct the assistance.

“We are waiting,” a JDC spokesman said. “In terms of Santiago, there was minimal structural damage to institutions. It is a very strong, self-sufficient community.”

Similarly World ORT, which runs two vocational schools in Chile, reported that damage to the Jewish community appeared to be minimal.

“Lights are still off in 60 percent of the city, public transportation is suspended, and the government has requested everyone to remain at home if possible,” Marcelo Lewkow, the national director of ORT Chile, wrote in a report the organization circulated through its newsletter.

Lewkow added, however, that the Chilean Jewish community “to my knowledge [has] not suffered any losses or casualties. Synagogues and schools are OK, pending a deeper evaluation by professionals, but there is no visible damage to the buildings or hydraulic systems.”

The American Jewish World Service, which has played a prominent role in the relief effort in Haiti, is not planning on setting up operations in Chile. AJWS is directing its supporters to www.alertnet.org and to MercyCorps.

Unlike in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries — the AJWS had been working there with a dozen development organizations on the ground prior to the quake — AJWS was not involved in any work in Chile, which is wealthier and much better developed.

“Of the groups we know that are working on the ground, the one we know that has network of connections was Mercy Corps,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger told JTA. 

On Monday, it was unclear if the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief was going to set up a mailbox, but it was set to convene soon to discuss the earthquake, a JDC official said. The JDC operates the relief organization.

The world also seems to have been a bit slower to react in Chile, as the South American nation has the public infrastructure to carry out much of its own rescue effort.

Israel is in contact with its ambassador in Chile, Ynet reported, and the government sent its condolences in a statement. Israel was among the first countries to help in Haiti.

There were no Israelis among the dead in Chile, according to the Israeli government.

"Israel stands by the Chilean government and people and wishes to send its condolences to the victims’ families and offer its support to the residents at this trying time," the Israeli statement read, according to Ynet.

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