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When tragedy hit the Gulf Coast, U.S. Jews were quick to contribute
JTA / January 5, 2006

By Larry Luxner

NEW ORLEANS Major Jewish organizations have over $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of Lousiana and Mississippi victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The biggest chunk of money so far has come from the United Jewish Communities, which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC says it's collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million has already been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The largest single beneficiary of UJC's generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, with $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds have also gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston as well as groups such as Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger to aid 13 food banks and other bgroups along the storm-ravaged Gulf coast. Smaller amounts have been allocated to such groups as the Dallas Mayor's Housng Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federaton of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900) and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee has also been active. In mid-December, AJC's executive director, David A. Harris, visited New Orleans to present to four institutions a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds. Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 went each to t. Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues: Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue located next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

"Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead," Harris said. "Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts."

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism which represents over 900 Reform congregations has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that have suffered damage as a result of three recent hurricanes: Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

"Whenever there's a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won't be able to cover all thoses losses," Hirsch said. "Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund."

The URJ has also raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services.

The four are Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, out of the more than 2,000 families who belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina, some 500 to 600 may not return. This puts an added burden on synagogues' fundraising efforts at a time when money is needed more desperately than ever.

"Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for whom knows how long a time," said Robert M. Heller, Chairman of the Union Board of Trustees. "Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily."

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

"We're tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they've stepped forward and provided financial support," Stillman said. "I don't know where we'd be otherwise."

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