A major disaster strikes—hurricane, flooding, wildfires, war. You want to help somehow but feel overwhelmed. Or something closer to home, say, a relative living alone needs mental healthcare or food assistance. Where do you turn?
Most of us know the Jewish Federation best through its wide range of education and cultural programs and social activities that bring our communities together: Camp Gan Shalom, the Jewish Book Festival, PJ Library, Every Person Has a Name, the Jewish Food Festival, and more.
Just as vital to the mission of building Jewish community are two key Federation efforts that tend to fly under the radar. Both enable our widespread community to help others in need. Although our Federation is relatively small in staff and funding power, these programs achieve more than they should logically be capable of.
First is the Jewish Community and Referral Network, which helps anyone in need find and navigate local social services from rental and food assistance to counseling and healthcare. Jewish Federation’s Program and Community Outreach Coordinator Kim Banaji notes that this service is modest in scope but vital for those who seek it out.
“We get maybe 10 callers every two months,” Banaji says. “Usually we are literally their last hope after they’ve exhausted every other option. Often, it’s someone out of state looking for help with a relative here who may need care or at risk of homelessness, but is resisting help.”
Because the Federation office is too small for a Jewish Family Services-style center that could provide direct care or financial aid, Banaji works to connect callers to available social and health services and then personally follows up with them and the service providers, sometimes several times per case, to make sure they are being taken care of.
In addition to standard municipal and state resources, she also maintains a list of local Jewish community health, legal and other professionals who volunteer to provide pro bono services to those in need. “The most important thing is that when people are in distress, they can call us and know that someone cares and they are not alone.”
The other service initiative you might have seen, even contributed to, but not realized was an ongoing program is the Federation’s series of fundraising campaigns for disaster relief, now in its 11th year.
“We started this as a way to help our community respond to specific crises and help others in need,” explains Executive Director Jason Moss. “People often want to help in a crisis but aren’t sure how and feel overwhelmed by the size of the emergency.” The amounts people give aren’t usually a lot, but they add up, he says.
“As a community, we typically raise $2,500-$5,000 over a couple of weeks, and 100% of that money goes directly to help the people who need it most.”
March 2010 saw the first of these emergency fundraisers in the wake of the earthquakes that devastated much of Haiti.
“I decided to try it because I thought it was the right thing to do,” Moss says, adding that initially there had been some concern when he set it up that the Federation was splitting itself too many ways and couldn’t benefit. However, the community response to the campaign was heartening, and after a few weeks, Moss was able to send a check for $2291 to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for on-the-ground aid in Haiti.
Since then, the Federation’s disaster relief campaigns have raised much-needed aid to help around the world, from hurricanes to earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, and fires in places as distant as the Jerusalem Forest and as close as last September’s Bobcat Fire. Moss says the Federation’s first several campaigns went through larger national efforts run by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), but recently he and the Federation staff have directed our community’s contributions to local aid organizations where the crisis victims are.
The Federation’s disaster relief campaigns don’t just help victims in other regions or countries. During the Bobcat Fire last September, some of our own community members in the foothill communities stood in the path of danger. Because this disaster was local, Moss and the Federation staff looked for ways to help victims more directly. “We put out a call for money but also to see if anyone had rooms available for members of our community who had to evacuate.”
The Federation decided to send all monetary donations from the Bobcat Fire campaign to the California Firefighters’ Foundation’s CARE program, which provides $250 gift cards to help displaced victims meet their most basic needs immediately. Luckily, the fire did not do major damage in heavily populated areas but if it had, Moss says, “Some of those funds raised for victims of the Bobcat Fire would have been given to our community members. And if it had gotten even worse, JFNA would have reached out to me to ask what was needed locally.”
Part of the program is the Federation’s ability to vet these aid organizations, to make sure our community’s contributions are going to be effective.
“In the case of this spring’s snowstorms and power outages in Texas, a community member here needed to help a family member in Houston, and Jewish Family Services of Greater Houston was able to reach them,” Moss says. “We were determined to have the funds we raised for this situation to go directly to help those affected,” he says, and Houston’s Jewish Family Services had shown it could do that, so he cut them a check for the full amount our Federation collected.
Linda Burger, JFS-Greater Houston’s CEO, sent back a letter that detailed the impact our Federation community made in their efforts.
“We were all so touched by the outreach you did to your community to support our community after yet another difficult disaster. … As of last Friday, we had 329 requests for assistance after the storm. Our first steps are to replace food and water for families [lost] due to a lack of electricity. We are now helping people … fix up their homes, deal with insurance or FEMA. … Please extend our thanks to your generous community. In Houston, after five floods and COVID, the winter storm just added to our community’s stresses, and to know that our ‘family’ was thinking of us and taking action that would help our clients is beyond comforting. When we are all there for each other, we are stronger.”
Moss says that Federation-coordinated efforts to help those in need benefit our community as well.
“I think there’s a psychological benefit to both the people affected by disasters and the communities that contribute. Victims know that people care about them. Those that give know they’re having an impact.”
“I think contributing to a cause like disaster relief through the Jewish Federation gives people the sense that they are connected and part of something greater,” says Moss. “They think, ‘If others are doing it, my little bit of contribution will go a long way.’’”
Surprisingly, the stresses of the pandemic this past year have actually not dampened contributions to the Federation’s disaster relief funds. “This year people are giving more because it’s something they can do. They’re giving more frequently. Community does not have to be just local.”
Still, Moss and Banaji say they would like to build the community’s capacity to care locally for those in need, as larger Federations do.
“My dream would be to have an established emergency fund where we could help people locally,” says Moss. “I hate the fact that we cannot give people direct support when they need it most. I’d like us to be able not only to respond to crises, but to be prepared for them.”
For more information about the Jewish Community and Referral Network or to find out about upcoming disaster relief campaigns, visit the Jewish Federation web site at https://www.jewishsgpv.org.