Natural Disasters Highlight Importance of Jewish Solidarity


American Jews have always responded swiftly with material and emotional support for the Israeli people in times of urgent need. As Texas recovers from Hurricane Harvey and Florida is assessing the damage done by Hurricane Irma, vibrant U.S. Jewish communities are facing unprecedented natural disasters in rapid succession.

Always, but especially in challenging times like these, it is imperative that we stand together as one, unified Jewish people and support those who need it most. These past weeks in Houston have shown us that Jewish solidarity is an incredible force.

An estimated 71 percent of Houston’s Jewish population of 63,700 live in flood-prone areas. Hurricane Harvey was by far the most devastating flooding event for a Jewish community that has now experienced three major floods since May 2015.

Admirably, various Jewish organizations and Israeli aid groups have been on the ground in Houston since Harvey struck, providing crucial relief such as cleanup efforts at homes of affected families.

Immediate relief, however, is only the first piece of the puzzle. For Houston, the recovery will take weeks, months and even years. Given both the pressing short-term needs as well as the long and arduous road ahead, The Jewish Agency for Israel is very ready and capable of assisting diaspora communities when crises occur like we’re doing in Houston­.

Through key programs and partnerships that are already in place, The Jewish Agency quickly mobilized during the initial stages of relief efforts. Our network of Israeli emissaries (shlichim) in North American communities are actively involved in strengthening Jewish identity and applying their experience and training to communities’ specific needs.

After Hurricane Harvey, we deployed shlichim to assist Houston’s Jewish community. One delegation of shlichim began its relief work as soon as the flooding started to subside, and a second Jewish Agency group just replaced them. Promoting solidarity between Jews around the world is one of our core objectives because it is crucial we stand together as one.

Family by family, our Israeli emissaries have witnessed the devastation in Houston and have come to lend a helping hand. “On our way to one of the flooded houses, the sights from the streets shocked us,” said Moshe Alfisher, the assistant director of one of the shlichim programs on the ground. Moshe witnessed piles and piles of home belongings along the curbs—furniture, clothes and carpets from inside people’s homes—all ruined by the flood. At the home of an elderly couple, Sarah and Uri, “we helped pack up recovered valuables and throw away whatever was destroyed. It was very sad to see the disarray of belongings of people who could have been my grandparents, and to decide what should be thrown away and what could be saved.”

At the same time, boosting morale and helping maintain a sense of normalcy are critically important. Given their vast experience in programming around community building, summer camp counseling and volunteer service, our shlichim are uniquely qualified to provide support to local communities and uplift the spirits of those who have suffered.

The Jewish Agency’s emissaries also served 300 children at the Houston Greene Family Camp. For parents—including those who are cleaning up their flooded homes, making arrangements for new housing and returning to their regular daily work—this camp freed them up to take care of essential tasks at a time when many damaged local schools remain unable to begin the academic year. Our shlichim helped run activities for the children, and listened to them as they spoke about the damage in their homes.

The longstanding, close relationships with the nearly 150 Jewish Federations throughout North America means that we are connected to local communities, and that we will be there every step of the way. As Hurricane Irma’s devastating impact is understood, we will be there for Florida’s recovery process, too.

Our mission is to inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage and homeland. Given the unbreakable bond between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, the future is stronger than any storm—even a Category 4 hurricane. The global Jewish people are one people, and we believe we must be there for each other in times of crisis as much as in times of celebration. American Jews have come through for Israel so many times, and The Jewish Agency for Israel will continue to do the same for Jewish communities around the world.

We are in this together.

Gal Ben Shimol is head of the North American Shlichim Delegation for The Jewish Agency for Israel.