NEW YORK (JTA) — It was five years ago, but I still remember how proud I was when I saw a picture of an El Al plane landing in Little Rock, Ark., full of supplies provided by the people of Israel and Jewish National Fund donors.
Crate after crate was unloaded — from baby wipes to milk formula — basic necessities being provided by Jews the world over to the people of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. The massive outpouring of donations and volunteerism came from all corners of the organized Jewish community. It was a proud moment to see us — always a giving people — open our hearts and our pocketbooks in a time of crisis.
Day schools and youth groups made special trips to New Orleans to assist with the cleanup. The same thing happened when fires raged across Montana, earthquakes hit California and even with the BP oil spill: Jewish organizations and congregations throughout America mobilized to assist those in need. That’s what we do.
In none of those situations did I see a rabbi refuse to give his money or time, or question the preparedness of the United States. I never heard of any professional from a Jewish organization question whether $100,000 was needed or $1 million. Not one of us spent our precious time asking who was at fault. We simply responded because that is the Jewish way.
Why then, when a catastrophe like the Carmel Mountain fire breaks out, did I receive e-mails from rabbis and read articles stating that Israel should have been better prepared or questioning whether Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael/JNF planted the right trees over the past 100 years? How are these their first thoughts when such a tragedy occurs?
Have we become so insecure with who we are as a Jewish people and our connection to the land and people of Israel that for catastrophes anywhere else in the world we say yes, but for Israel we question?
Perhaps a fire hose could have been found for $1.99 less at another company, and perhaps a non-indigenous tree was planted. There may even be another fire when something may go wrong because we overlooked a detail. But that’s how it goes the world over. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes and move on. You don’t stop caring.
Thankfully, etched more deeply into my memory, are the great heroes and spirit of the Israeli people that I encountered when I went to survey the region.
During the first three days of the fire, 38,000 Israelis signed up on Facebook looking to volunteer for a day during the week of Tu B’Shvat and help replant or clean up — whatever they can for the land of Israel.
Within 48 hours, thousands and thousands from throughout the United States made online gifts to the Jewish National Fund. Hundreds of synagogues and temples across America held Shabbat services and rallied their congregations for the land and people of Israel. That is the Jewish spirit I know.
Israel’s firemen drew a line in the sand and held the flames away to save a kibbutz, putting their own lives in peril. There were Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael foresters who drove a fire truck right into the forest to fight, and for four days they did not leave, battling the flames and treating every tree as if it were a life and needed to be saved. One forester took me to a dedication stone.
“This is for a family that planted trees in memory of their father,” he said to me. “I planted trees in memory of my parents. Every tree in Israel has a name and a connection, and it is my honor to work to save every one.”
Surely other emergencies or crises will take place in America, around the world or in Israel, and when they do I will be proud to tell the world that I am a Jew because I know that we will respond with the passion and commitment that has made us a great people. I am secure in that knowledge.
(Russell F. Robinson is the CEO of the Jewish National Fund.)