As the government of Israel began assessing the deaths and damages wrought by the worst fire in the nation’s history, Jewish organizations in New Jersey began responding to aid the devastated areas.
The Jewish National Fund and United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ announced special emergency funds, urging support for bolstering Israel’s firefighting capability, replenishing its devastated forests, and providing emergency shelter for evacuees (see sidebar).
Local representatives of national organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, American Friends of Magen David Adom, and Zaka, the body part recovery and identification organization, also announced emergency campaigns.
“This is really bad,” said Joel Leibowitz, northeast zone director of the Jewish National Fund of America, as he reeled off statistics from his office in Florham Park.
“At least 42 people have died, 25,000 were evacuated, homes were lost, and more than 12,500 acres of forests were destroyed,” he said. “JNF foresters estimate over five million trees were burned, and initial estimates put the total cost of damage to the region at about $75 million.”
Best known for afforestation in Israel, JNF is raising money to purchase firefighting equipment (it is also the U.S. fund-raising arm of the Friends of the Israel Firefighters), and, of course, replacing the burned trees.
“We are obviously raising funds for planting trees,” Leibowitz told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 6 phone interview. “We have been designated as the tree-planter people.”
On Monday, JNF transferred $500,000 to Israel. Some $250,000 went to Friends of the Israel Firefighters and $250,000 was transferred to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, JNF’S organization in Israel, for needs related to the immediate fire fighting in the Carmel Forest.
Within 24 hours of the fire, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ launched its Israel Fire Disaster Relief fund.
Working through its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, UJC MetroWest said donations to the fund would assist 15,000 evacuees with emergency shelter and support, provide trauma relief for families who have lost loved ones and homes in the fire, and help Israeli youth movements to open day camps for children and students evacuated from the scorched area.
Max Kleinman, UJC MetroWest executive vice president, said he had “no concern at all” that the federation and JNF would be duplicating efforts.
“JNF’s major role is to work with Israeli firefighters and to replenish the forests. Our concern is meeting the most pressing and immediate needs of the victims, their families, and the people who were evacuated,” Kleinman said on Dec. 7.
“I am actively consulting with JNF as to what the most pressing needs are,” he added. “We have not yet finished our discussions, and we have not yet reached a definitive conclusion about how our dollars will be allocated. I am hopeful that by the end of the week we will have a better idea of what the needs are.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel said its strategy is to address mid- to long-term needs. According to Arthur Sandman, who heads JAFI’s international development department in New York, Israel’s National Emergency Authority, known as RACHEL, is tallying families who will not be able to return to their homes in the near future.
“In addition, the Jewish Agency is prepared to offer direct financial assistance to the families of those who were killed during the fire,” wrote Sandman in a report to Jewish federations.
Leibowitz said JNF estimates that Israel has $11.7 million in immediate needs for firefighting gear, plus another $24.7 million in long-term purchases of fire trucks and rescue vehicles.
“There are also big needs for the forests,” said Jodi Bodner, director of communications at JNF’s national headquarters in New York. “It will take 50 or 60 years to regenerate them. It is not the most immediate priority, but an area like that is a huge greenbelt. It provides for a lot of livelihoods in forest and recreation areas. The tourist industry there is huge. A lot of money is generated in terms of recreational opportunities, so it is very important that forests get back in shape.”
An official of the U.S. Agency for International Development assured Jewish leaders in a Dec. 6 conference call that the U.S. government will provide assistance based on needs identified by the Israeli government.
By the next day, the American Jewish Committee said that the countries responding to Israel’s request for assistance also include Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Netherland, Norway, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
Responding to the crisis, Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12) extended “deepest condolences to all those who lost loved ones to the fires in northern Israel.”
In a Dec. 6 press release, Holt said he was “pleased that the United States government swiftly responded to our ally’s call for firefighting assistance and grateful that so many of Israel’s neighbors contributed resources and personnel to help extinguish the fires.”
In another gesture, Israel’s Eldan Rent A Car company announced it was donating the use of up to 1,000 rental cars to families who have lost their houses or their cars as a result of the fire.
“We have decided to contribute this unprecedented amount of vehicles in the hope that it will help alleviate, even slightly, the pain and anguish these families are going through,” said company CEO Shay Dahan in a press release.