On World Humanitarian Day, Jewish Lessons for Surviving a Pandemic


Every August for the past 10 years, I would begin to prepare for my annual fall trip to Manhattan for business meetings. This year, however, I won’t have the opportunity to enjoy the sights, sounds, and diversity of a city whose gritty, can-do spirit has always resonated with me. 

More than six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, New York City, like my hometown near Jerusalem, is a changed place. We’ve learned much in this time, about ourselves and our communities, and we’ll need those learnings as we prepare for an uncertain fall. 

It’s fitting then that today is World Humanitarian Day, which recognizes the accomplishments of those involved in international aid work. Jews, Jewish organizations, and Israel are key players among the important constellation of humanitarian actors who engage in global acts of tikkun olam. 

Similarly, the Jewish community and Israel have in many ways been at the forefront of efforts to respond to the impact of coronavirus and the interventions we have engaged in, both among ourselves and for others, hold three important takeaways for our collective future and the ongoing fight against this modern plague and its widespread devastation. 

First and foremost, it’s critical that our communities, NGOs, and governments take proactive disaster preparedness seriously. In doing so, we will not only be ready to take on the challenges that arise from future health crises or disasters, we can ensure that the most vulnerable – the poor, the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and women — are included in plans to save lives, protect property, and livelihoods. 

A holistic approach to preparedness that includes training and deploying emergency and psycho-social volunteers, deploying a mapping of the most vulnerable and needy, and making arrangements for their care (even in situations like lockdown or quarantine) are key to protecting them and recovering in the long term. 

Second, while disasters can often exacerbate pre-existing challenges to those most at risk – inadequate access to medical care, racial or gender discrimination, and food insecurity – they also foment new challenges not previously anticipated. Among those we have seen in the current pandemic are the need for basic medical supplies like PPE and sanitary practices among poor and rural populations; a surge in loneliness among the elderly, especially the homebound under lockdown; and widespread global unemployment.

To address these needs, creativity and flexibility is needed. In Africa and South Asia, we’ve deployed mobile hand-washing stations, hygiene kits, social media best practice campaigns around virus prevention to reach those groups on the margins of society, training rural doctors to handle severe Covid-19 cases, and helping low-income business owners adjust to the pandemic by engaging in new trades like making masks and hand sanitizer.

In the former Soviet Union, we have deployed call centers, in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, to maintain social connections and monitor the wellbeing of thousands of poor Jewish elderly who are homebound or suffering severe loneliness. In Israel, we are working with the government to train and retool the skills of scores of newly unemployed Israelis so they could re-enter the workforce stronger than before.

Finally, at a time when funding for such efforts are tight and organizations are seeking new ways to make an impact through partnerships, collaboration is critical. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR) – an umbrella initiative that brings together national, primarily North American Jewish organizations, to assist victims of natural or man-made disasters outside of North America – has convened a new coalition of over a dozen Jewish organizations to provide relief to the communities hit hardest by Covid-19.

We’re working together, pooling our collective experience, expertise, and resources to best aid those affected by the pandemic, including underlying issues and its after-effects. When we must do more with less, the Jewish community can have an outsized impact by coming together in this manner. JCDR’s response to the recent Syrian and wider global refugee crisis resulted in more than $2 million in humanitarian aid and services impacting thousands. 

Tackling the challenges of our near and long-term future can seem daunting in the face of all we have lost thus far to the pandemic. And yet as a people, Jews have developed an expertise in healing recent wounds while confronting new risks and shaping a better tomorrow.

We should be proud of that legacy and carry it forward in efforts to heal the entirety of humanity. Our collective recovery from this global crisis calls for such acts of hope and innovation, some good old-fashioned chutzpah, and a New York state of mind. 

Avital Sandler-Loeff is the director for disaster relief and international development at JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.