Sandy Underscores Need For Connected Community


Seven hundred newly homeless people from the Rockaways found shelter on the campus of Queens College with help from the Jewish Community Relations Council. As the Kings Bay Y has been struggling to deliver food to homebound seniors in their adult daycare program, many volunteers from Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope answered their call for help.

And in other hard-hit segments of the community, the staff at the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst have been working closely with the New York Legal Assistance Group connecting families to legal resources and advice on insurance claims for all that they’ve lost.

These are just a few examples of how a strong network of nonprofits, in this case UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agencies as well as synagogues, can be crucial to responding quickly in a crisis. In fact, as we respond together with our network of agencies and synagogues to the enormous toll of Hurricane Sandy, it has underscored the critical importance of maintaining such a system of tightly coordinated organizations and volunteers in Jewish communal work, which ensures that these organizations can serve our community in times of urgent need. 

Unfortunately, in the case of Hurricane Sandy, many of our network agencies are suffering from lack of electricity, crippled IT systems and severe water damage, not to mention staff that have lost power, possessions, and even their homes. But despite these challenges, they have remained committed to serving the community, and we have done whatever we can to help, including providing temporary office space in our building to agency workers.

In my role at UJA-Federation, helping to oversee our support of a network of almost 100 nonprofit agencies, I have heard for days now both the harrowing experiences of those who have lost so much, and the humbling examples of unflagging relief efforts underway in every corner of the community.

The importance of coordination in this process among synagogues, Jewish community centers and councils, day schools, Hillels, human service agencies and volunteers is immense. We work to weave together the resources and strengths of each of these organizations. The situation is undoubtedly similar for other networks of groups in both the public and private sector, many of whom we’re working with in responding to this crisis.

A network gives us a big picture of the hardest hit geographic areas and highlights opportunities for our network agencies to collaborate to deliver badly needed food and services. A network allows us to get groups across the denominational spectrum on a conference call to plan how synagogues can best participate in the volunteer effort. And a network helps our voice get heard when we work with government officials to make sure that, when the city distributes disaster relief information, it goes out in the native tongue of many of Brooklyn’s 120,000 Russian Jews.

Having a caring, well-coordinated community is certainly not just important when a natural disaster strikes. Whether we’re talking about after 9/11 or the 2008 economic recession, or crises like an intifada in Israel, this network of agencies positions us to be able to respond quickly in times of greatest need. As a further step on the road to stability after Hurricane Sandy, we are making available $10 million for emergency food, temporary housing, financial counseling, emergency cash assistance and more to help repair our world one piece at a time.

What our network agencies are doing in these difficult days —helping those who are most vulnerable, often by climbing many stairs in apartment buildings to say “Are you OK?’ “How might we help you?”— speaks to our tradition as a Jewish people of being present for those who are suffering. We strive to care for people in a way that makes them feel the warm embrace of a caring community. Like when teens at the JCC in Manhattan baked hundreds of chocolate chip cookies to accompany the meals for evacuees, or when we organized a drive that collected nearly 1,000 challahs on less than a day’s notice so Jews could find solace and stability on Shabbat. This is what a connected community makes possible.

We will come out of this crisis, though we know it will be a long road. As we work towards recovery, we should also increase our resolve to build even more effective networks in the Jewish world and new connections. Our community depends on it.

Click here to learn more about Hurricane Sandy volunteer opportunities.

Roberta Marcus Leiner is UJA-Federation of New York’s senior vice president of Agency Relations.