Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding March 11, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.
In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like Zaka and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north.
In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts in Japan.
But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Itamar.
“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levene, a British-Israeli event planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook.
The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message March 11 calling on supporters to donate to its newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.
Earlier this week, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, said David Frankel, the OU’s chief operating officer.
“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would … be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need.”
By March 15, Israeli teams of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.
Several American Jewish organizations are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.
In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center, along with Hong Kong–based Chabad-Lubavitch of Asia, shipped bread, rice, noodles, soups, canned foods, flour, oil and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said, and Rabbi Binyomin Edery traveled to Sendai to try to locate Jews and participate in relief operations. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.
In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.
“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s emergency committee.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $400,000 by midday March 15.
Five days after the massive quake, Israel’s ambassador in Tokyo, Nissim Ben Shitrit, called for all Israelis in Japan to return home as soon as possible, even before their planned Passover break. According to assessments, nearly 350 Israelis were in Japan as of last week.
“I can’t say that Israelis here are in immediate danger [of being exposed to radiation], which is why we haven’t told people unequivocally to get up and leave,” Ben Shitrit said. “But anyone who has no reason to be in Japan, I think they should take Passover vacation early and get out of here.”
The families of Israeli diplomats serving in Tokyo were scheduled to return to Israel, a Foreign Ministry official said, adding that the decision was not related to fears of a nuclear meltdown.
As for the aid effort, the Japanese situation is a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations because of the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.
“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC. “We just worked with the local Jewish community.”
But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By March 15, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based relief organization.
The OU’s Frankel said the opportunity to help Japan honors the memory of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.
“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”
Ynetnews.com contributed to this report.
Ways to help victims
Several local Jewish organizations are taking donations to help fund relief efforts in Japan.
• S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, www.jewishfed.org, links to Jewish Federations of North America, www.jewishfederations.org/pacific-relief.aspx, or send checks to the Jewish Federations of North America, Wall Street Station, P.O. Box 148, New York, NY 10268
• Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, www.eastbayjews.org/campaign/japan/ecomm.html, or send checks to Attn: Japan/Pacific Emergency Relief, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, 300 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94610
• Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, www.jvalley.org/ways-to-give/make-a-donation
• American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, www.jdc.org/donation, or send checks to Attn: JDC, P.O. Box 530, 132 E. 43rd St., New York, NY 10017
• B’nai B’rith International, www.bnaibrith.org/support/disasterrelief.cfm, or send checks to B’nai B’rith International Disaster Relief Fund, Attn: Japan Earthquake, 2020 K St. NW, 7th Floor, Washington, DC 20006
• Chabad of Japan, www.chabadjapan.org, is taking donations to offset the cost of deliveries of food and supplies that are under way. Also, donors can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with their credit card number or request information on a direct bank transfer.
• Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, www.jdc.org, or send checks to JDC — Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 530, 132 E. 43rd St., New York, NY 10017
• Orthodox Union, www.ou.org/earthquake, or send checks to Orthodox Union, 11 Broadway, 14th floor, New York, NY 10004 with “OU Earthquake Emergency Fund” in the memo line.