The Jewish Response to Disaster
Ram Tripathi gave a searing presentation about Nepal to JDC donors, giving circle members, JDC Entwine members, and friends who gathered at the beautiful carriage house studio of JDC Circle member Linda White in Greenwich Village on Wednesday, June 17. He spoke about growing up in poverty and how his parents insisted that he and his three brothers attend school. But there was only one pair of shoes, so the brother who was dressed and ready first in the morning would get to wear the shoes on that day.
Today Ram’s parents and siblings, whom he just visited after the earthquake in Nepal, are living outside under a tarp, along with hundreds of thousands of others. One of the schools that Ram built after his fortunes rose in the United States has been destroyed. Many children are orphaned and some people are preying upon the most vulnerable: Trafficking of women and girls is rising dangerously.
JDC’s Will Recant spoke about JDC’s response in Nepal and the Jewish response to disasters more broadly, most recently in the Philippines and Nepal. We are creating safe spaces for children, helping them deal with trauma, and providing immediate emergency aid and medium-term rebuilding support.
Most importantly, JDC looks for effective partners — whether the IDF, which landed its field hospital in Nepal within 72 hours, equipped with $100,000 of JDC-purchased supplies, or partners with local know-how and presence who can be empowered to act. Local partners are best able to assess their own needs and to design programs to address them effectively — with support and guidance as needed. Harnessing local energy also helps build local leadership and sustainability.
Jayne Lipman — a JDC Board member, vice-chair of JDC’s International Development Program, and co-chair of JDC Ambassadors (our major gifts program) — introduced the evening and spoke about the importance of getting involved. Members of JDC’s Impact Network, a giving circle focused on helping children, promised to raise funds for children in emergency situations.
Check out from the day.
To get more involved and learn more about JDC, there are an array of opportunities offered through our JDC Ambassadors and Entwine platforms:
JDC Ambassadors is the doorway to involvement through philanthropy, learning and travel – more information is ; travel destinations can be found . is JDC’s young leadership platform, which offers service experiences in Jewish communities around the world, and leadership development opportunities, including the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship – more information is .
QandA: On the Ground in Nepal, Finding Hope and Heartache
Gideon Herscher, JDC’s Director of International Partnerships, traveled to Nepal weeks after the country was struck by the worst earthquake in decades as part of JDC’s emergency response and assessment team.
There, he saw the devastation wrought by the natural disaster firsthand and took part in the rescue and relief efforts.
We recently spoke to him over the phone from Israel about his memorable experiences in the South Asian country.
Q: What were your impressions of the destruction when you arrived about two weeks after the earthquake?
A: As you fly into Kathmandu, past the peaks of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, I noticed colored spots on the earth. Those were tents for the hundreds of thousands of displaced/homeless Nepalis. The airport was eerily quiet, with mainly rescue workers gearing up and heading straight from the airport to the outskirts of Kathmandu where people were still trapped under the rubble from a second earthquake that had struck a few days before. Those that were in the airport, including myself, were focused on the many tasks that awaited us outside.
Q: Tell me about the work you were involved in on the ground: Where did you go? Whom did you meet?
A: As we surveyed different disaster zones, we observed newly homeless families. Disasters create confusion. Family roles and structure are often severely affected. It became apparent that women, and more specifically, women’s groups, would be key for family and livelihood rehabilitation. We engaged one women’s umbrella organization called HomeNet that recognizes that most women in Nepal work from home. Without a home, women are left to fend for themselves. Today, JDC is helping the women in these organizations bounce back as leaders in the rehabilitation of their country. Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring. They are indeed the pillars of their families and communities.
Q: How has JDC responded to the disaster? What help has it offered to victims?
A: The crux of the work my colleague Danny Pins and I were involved in was forging and strengthening relationships with local Nepali organizations whose mission and work resonated with JDC’s priorities.In almost every disaster, we see the great potential and resilience of children. Treating their trauma early and effectively can speed up the healing process and assuage chronic emotional problems. We spent significant time connecting a team of Israeli psychological experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition with teams of some of the most talented and dedicated teachers in Nepal. They would, in turn, be trained and impact 25,000 students in earthquake-affected areas. That reaches a wide catchment area, in a short period of time, with profound impact. In this case, Teach for Nepal was the ideal partner, and complemented JDC’s work here in Israel with Teach for Israel (Hotam).
Q: What were some of the most difficult moments?
A: We heard so many horrific stories of people being buried alive under tons of rubble. We came across mothers who simply refused to let their children out of their sight. We saw women struggling to breath calmly. Their emotional trauma (PTSD) had not yet been diagnosed, but it was clearly taking effect. There was not a lot of tear-shedding. There was a strong front presented by the survivors we met. And yet, when the Israeli team began working with them, we learned that every one of these women had been traumatized, and prior to the moment had not shared their experience with anyone.
Q: What was the most uplifting experience?
A: When one of the women leaders who was struggling with PTSD finally shared her story of surviving underneath the rubble. Within 10 minutes, her demeanor had changed. Her face had become hopeful.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Judafest Celebrates Hungarian Jewish Pride, Identity
For eight years, the JDC-sponsored Judafest festival has brought thousands of members of Hungary’s Jewish community to the streets to celebrate their culture and share their pride in their identity. The festival is especially remarkable in the face of Hungary’s unsettling rise of right wing, anti-Semitic political rhetoric.
Peter Berenyi, who coordinates Judafest as part of his deputy director post at Budapest’s Balint Haz Jewish Community Center, took a few minutes to speak to JDC about the value of the street festival and the importance of resilience in Jewish Europe.
Q: What’s new with Judafest this year? What programs or sessions are you most excited about?
A: The festival can’t grow bigger in a tangible physical way, because we already use the full street, but we always come up with new ideas. This year, for the first time, we have a guest of honor: Poland. The ambassador, the Polish Cultural Institute, and representatives of the Warsaw Jewish community will come and bring tons of programs – like five-minute Yiddish and Polish language lessons, a Polish klezmer band on the big stage, and Polish culinary goddess Malka Kafka cooking all day long. There are more than 100 programs, many of them under the creative direction of András Borgula of the Golem Theatre, so I’m really excited about the whole day!
Q: In Hungary’s tricky political climate, why is Judafest especially important right now?
A: In just eight years, Judafest has become one of the biggest community festivals. Today, when the extremist right is the second-largest party in Hungary, we need to make a statement that being Jewish in this country can be done this way, too: by not hiding, by being happy and proud. The Budapest event serves as a role model for other smaller Hungarian Jewish communities, so it’s not just fun anymore, but also a big responsibility! But it seems that others understand this, too – we have more partners and supporters this year than ever before.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in staging the festival? What are the biggest opportunities?
A: The biggest challenge is the weather! As much as we pray, it doesn’t always help! But seriously, the challenge is to bring the Jews out from their houses and “towers.” The community is big, but the members are largely not so active, and they often hide their Jewish identity, roots, and culture. We need to create an atmosphere where it is safe, fun, educational, and adventurous – all at the same time. It’s not easy. But this is our biggest opportunity, too: If we can get them to come out, even if only 10 percent of them will became active in any way, we won the day.
Q: Tell us about the festival’s growth over the years.
A: Eight years ago, we started with one event and a simple goal – to get 1,000 people to attend the festival. On that day, 3,500 came! So we knew that this spoke to people, to our people. We built a bigger and stronger event the following year and added another culinary festival, too. And it happened again. The crowd was way bigger then we expected. Today, Judafest is “the” brand in the Jewish community – and even in the city of Budapest as a whole – with a huge street festival, a family day, a picnic, and a film festival. We hope the excitement will continue through the next decade.
Q: What’s your favorite part of Judafest?
A: The community dinner! The last two years, we’ve closed the event with a huge table, 50 meters long, for 200 people, with the Jewish community hosting another community for dinner. Last year, it was the Hungarian National Association of Large Families, and this year, 50 families who are living with Down syndrome. We cook for them, we serve them – it’s a time for them to just enjoy life. This time, the Israeli and Polish ambassador and the head of the Hungarian Jewish community will serve the meals.
Q: What are your dreams for Judafest? How would you like to see it expand?
A: We wish to stay alive! It may sound strange, but in this country and in this economic situation, it is not guaranteed at all. I see the opportunity to expand to other cities here in Hungary. There are cities that have invited us, but we don’t have the resources to come to them. I hope that will change.
On the Ground: Delivering Relief in Manikhel, Nepal
Today’s visit to a very tight-knit community that lost a daughter was heart-wrenching. We brought our condolences, visited with each family to understand how they are surviving, and delivered critically needed aid.
The village of Manikhel, located south of Kathmandu, lost one person, a 16-year-old girl named Muna, crushed under a bed as she sought cover.
Manoj Pahari, a fellow with our partner organization Sarvodaya – Teach for Nepal (TFN) who was embedded in Manikhel for two years, told me he remembered Muna’s 16th birthday party, celebrated in her home — now a ruined, flattened pile of rubble.
The girl’s uncle told me he had high hopes for Muna, the eldest of three daughters.
“She showed great promise, and I always spoke to her about doing well in school,” he said. “My heart hurts.”
The village school in Manikhel, 8,500 feet above sea level, served hundreds of children walking two hours each way from across the hilly region. The school is closed for a month, serving as a relief distribution point for 1,500 people across ten villages. When I visited, 15 families were living in the school, with many others forming makeshift structures from tarp, tin, stones, and wood salvaged from the piles of the rubble.
I saw wide-scale destruction in some of the hardest-hit districts in Nepal. It is extremely encouraging to know our partners at Tevel B’Tzedek and TFN take the same community-based approach as all of us at JDC when providing relief and assistance. We all fully believe in long-term sustainable impact for those most in need.
We visited six villages where more than 90 percent of homes were affected, destroyed and uninhabitable. The need for shelter is great, especially given the monsoon season set to strike in five to six weeks.
Because of the difficult terrain and landslides caused by the earthquake, it is taking even longer to deliver critical aid to the periphery than what JDC has experienced in some previous disasters.
We are hard at work with our partners to identify the best solutions that will solve short- and long-term housing needs while still providing critical first-line aid, including food and medicine.
Sam Amiel is a senior member of JDC’s disaster response team.
JDC Responds: Team in Kathmandu, Packing Aid Supplies in NY
After a day on the ground in Nepal, JDC’s veteran disaster response expert and emergency field medic Mike Attinson said he’s struck by the devastation in the city.
“The damage in Kathmandu is visible – to temples, to the tourist areas. The cultural heritage has been destroyed. People are still sleeping outside, still afraid to go into their homes. They’re still apprehensive,” he said. “The poorer sections of the city were hit worse.”
Attinson flew into Nepal with fellow aid workers on what he described as “the airborne UN,” reflecting the dozens of relief workers, government emissaries, and NGO specialists aboard his flight.
Attinson said a visit to JDC’s partners at the IDF field hospital was particularly powerful. JDC helped facilitate the delivery of two critically needed neonatal incubators, and is concurrently working with the Afya Foundation in Yonkers, NY, to pack and ship humanitarian and medical supplies to a Kathmandu hospital. This shipment is being coordinated through the Nepalese Consulate in New York City.
“While the utter devastation and loss of life in Nepal is unimaginable, the needs of injured and displaced are growing and our shipment of supplies will be critical to their survival in the coming weeks,” said Danielle Butin, Director of Afya, which is readying the first shipment of 20 pallets (or 25,000-32,000 pounds) of supplies with help from JDC staff volunteers. “Together with JDC, we have addressed these needs in previous disasters and have been heartened by the public’s response to our call for donations for those hard-hit in Nepal.”
Eileen Donovan, who has been volunteering with Afya since Hurricane Sandy, said the packages, containing medical supplies like Tylenol and aspirin, will help victims of the earthquake recover.
“There’s people without homes. There’s people with a lot of injuries. They’re living out in tents, and they’re petrified,” said Donovan, a retired nurse. “I just hope the help gets to the people that need it.”
Later this week, Attinson and the JDC disaster response team will visit some of the remote towns and villages hardest-hit by the April 25 earthquake, which impacted eight million people and killed more than 5,000.
“What is certainly needed in the outlying villages is activities for their kids, temporary schools, temporary community centers,” he said. “These people lost everything. They lost their homes. They’re in a state of PTSD, a state of shock.”
For more information on JDC’s disaster response, and to donate to the relief effort in Nepal, visit
JDC Joins World Bank’s Faith2EndPoverty Initiative
JDC joins the World Bank and the faith community to end poverty by 2030.
The pledge, Ending Extreme Poverty: A Moral and Spiritual Imperative, is the result of a process led by the World Bank and announced at its spring meetings in April 2015. It outlines a common understanding that all faith leaders can agree to, and specifically recognises the role and responsibility of faith communities in ending poverty. More than 30 organizations have signed on.
“We have ample evidence from the World Bank Group and others showing that we can now end extreme poverty within fifteen years,” the Moral Imperative statement notes. “In 2015, our governments will be deciding upon a new global sustainable development agenda that has the potential to build on our shared values to finish the urgent task of ending extreme poverty.”
“We in the faith community embrace this moral imperative because we share the belief that the moral test of our society is how the weakest and most vulnerable are faring,” it continues. “Our sacred texts also call us to combat injustice and uplift the poorest in our midst.”
We at JDC are honored to answer the call and join this incredible collection of faith leaders. Together, we can end extreme poverty.
Celebrating Transformative Educational Seminars in Romania
They gathered together at the Great Synagogue of Bucharest, 350 Jews from 31 communities around Romania braving slush and rain to pay tribute to the 10th session of Bereshit, a JDC-sponsored weekend of Jewish learning and text study.
Though this year’s event was held in the capital city, years of staging the seminar in various communities around Romania created a strong and powerful Bereshit community – “Bereshit-branded friendships and inside jokes, full of heartwarming stories and history.”
The first plenary session was conducted by Rabbi Joseph Schonwald of the Rochlin Foundation, commanding an audience spilling out of the Choral Temple sanctuary. He spoke about Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, togetherness, and resilience. The first day’s program concluded with a dinner party in the synagogue, with Bucharest’s klezmer band playing popular Jewish tunes for an enthusiastic congregation.
But Bereshit isn’t just about the party – it’s about in-depth Jewish learning that is the foundation of Jewish tradition, and which for four decades was denied to Romania’s Jewish community. Bereshit educates local Jewish leaders and community members in the fundamentals of Judaism, including Torah and oral tradition. The initiative provides a pluralistic solution for Jewish adults seeking access to Jewish educational resources, values, and personalities, offering courses taught by renowned Jewish Studies professors from Israel and Europe.
On Friday, professors lectured on five different topics, discussing Moses, religion, science, kabbalah, and even Carlebach to an audience thirsty for knowledge. Though the lecturers are all volunteers, their performance is engrossing and professional. For the 10th anniversary celebration, the featured speakers were selected by a vote of attendees’ favorite lecturers from previous Bereshit learning fests.
Bereshit is coordinated by JDC, in collaboration with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania, the Bucharest JCC, and the Jewish community of Bucharest.
Bereshit celebrated its birthday with a bang, and as is the seminar’s tradition, save-the-date fliers for the next session were distributed before attendees left town. The 11th installment of this landmark learning experience for the Romanian Jewish community will take place in Constanta, September 17-20, bringing this meaningful program to the shores of the Black Sea.
Keeping Passover Spirit Alive in Ukraine
Against the backdrop of a crippling humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, JDC is ensuring that Passover continues uninterrupted for thousands of Jews at Hesed social welfare centers and JDC-supported Jewish Community Center on both sides of the ceasefire line throughout Ukraine.
Our volunteers and staff are holding a variety of Passover-related activities – from Seder feasts to matzah baking and Passover cooking workshops – and delivering nearly 48,000 free packages of matzah to needy Ukrainian Jews.
“As we engage in our annual Passover activities around Ukraine this year, we are reminded of the holiday’s timeless message of deliverance and our duty to ensure a small taste of hope and joy to those facing despair and an uncertain future,” said Michal Frank, Director of JDC’s Former Soviet Union operation.
In Donetsk and Lugansk, cities severely damaged during fighting and now under separatist control, JDC is holding matzah-baking classes for children, Seders (the traditional Passover feast) for the elderly, and workshops on Passover foods and customs.
In Mariupol, a rocket-stricken city just outside the rebel-held area, children will make matzah and a special women’s Seder will be conducted. Similar events will take place in Zaporozhie, Artyomovsk, Kramatorsk, and Krovoy Rog.
Away from the frontlines, thousands of Jews – including hundreds of displaced Jews making new homes away from the separatist-controlled east – will also attend Passover activities.
In Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa, Seders for the elderly will be held at “Warm Homes” – apartments or other facilities where groups of seniors gather together to socialize, engage in cultural activities, and celebrate holidays. Kiev’s Beiteinu Center will include families at risk and displaced Jews in a special Passover picnic.
In Dnepropetrovsk, a special “Pesach University” is being organized to teach young people how to conduct a Seder.
And in Odessa, Passover cooking classes with be part of Seder activities at the Beit Grand JCC while in other cities in the region – Nikolayev, Kherson, and Kirovograd – visits by young volunteers to isolated elderly and the displaced will be part of communitywide festivities.
Since the crisis in Ukraine began, JDC has deployed emergency services assisting thousands of Jews caught up in the conflict, including: extra food, medicine, and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends, and space heaters; and a full aid package and emergency housing for displaced Jews.
As the crisis has worsened, 2,700 people have been added to our aid rolls, many who never needed JDC assistance in the past. These include working or middle class Jewish families now struggling with conflict-related unemployment and general economic distress.
JDC has four major offices and operates and supports a network of 32 Hesed social welfare centers serving more than 70,000 Jews in need in more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine. Our long history of assisting Ukrainian Jews includes working with the American Relief Administration in 1921 to administer an aid program for Ukrainians impacted by war and famine, including the Jewish community. Additionally, Agro-Joint, established in 1924, created Jewish agricultural colonies and industrial schools in Ukraine and Crimea.
JDC’s work in Ukraine is undertaken in cooperation with the local Jewish community and groups like Chabad, and is made possible by our Board members; individual donors and foundations; and our partners, including Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.
Q&A: Masha Shumatskaya
When the daily shelling began to be too much to bear last June, 23-year-old Masha Shumatskaya packed up her belongings and left her hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine for the safety of Kharkov.
Since then, she’s become one of 2,500 internally displaced Jews aided by JDC after they fled fierce fighting between government and separatist forces. Today, JDC also continues to serve thousands of needy Jews in the separatist-controlled regions as well.
In response, JDC has deployed emergency services assisting Jews caught up in the conflict, including: extra food, medicine, and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends, and space heaters; and a full aid package, emergency housing, and post-trauma care for displaced Jews — including Masha.
To raise awareness to the situation in Ukraine, JDC invited Masha on a two-week speaking tour of North America this month addressing Jewish audiences in Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York.
Masha sat down with JDC at its headquarters in New York City for a QandA elaborating on her Jewish identity, hopes and fears for the future, and the current situation in Ukraine.
Can you tell me a bit about your Jewish background?
My ancestors were rabbis, but my grandparents weren’t connected at all. It was also impossible during Soviet times. Nonetheless, others around them never let them forget their Jewishness. My mother put me in the Number 99 Jewish School in Donetsk because it was convenient, had a school bus, free breakfast and lunch, and great teachers. There, I received a Jewish education, learned subjects in Hebrew, and got really involved in Jewish life – I even took part in the International Bible Contest in Israel representing Ukraine and I still keep kosher.
How did you become involved with JDC?
When I was 17 there was an annual program for young leaders from all over Ukraine organized by JDC called Metsuda. They said it might be a good fit for me, and they were right. I learned the value of teamwork and met some of my best friends there. Perhaps the best thing was the network of mentors and colleagues that I gained. We still gather about once a year and discuss ways we can help out our communities. Some even have successful businesses – despite the crisis – and can give back.
What was it like living in Donetsk during the conflict?
It started with demonstrations by unarmed people. When they took over the government building it didn’t seem unordinary or revolutionary. I saw that and told my boyfriend, ‘Maybe that’s what democracy is about.’ He said, ‘This is a bad thing.’ I only realized how severe the situation was when the barricades went up and some people started wearing masks and carrying guns. By the end of May they started shelling the airport and we had to leave. We lost our jobs and there was no reason for us to stay. We thought we would be back by September – nobody thought it would be more than a few months – so we moved to Kharkov. We stayed with friends until eventually we found an apartment.
How were you received on your tour of North America?
It was great because I came to people who realized I was a war refugee but didn’t realize the size of the catastrophe. I was treated as a member of the family, and showered with love. They were grateful I came, and I thanked those I met, those who supported us and my mother. Thanks to their donations to JDC we received food packages and financial help to rent our apartment for a few months. It was an honor to be an ambassador for all the Jews in need in Ukraine.
What does the future hold for you?
I have no idea – it depends on so many things. The thing that worries me the most is whether the war will come to Kharkov or not. If it does, I’ll be displaced a second time – not something I’d like to happen. In that case, I might have to think of other countries to live in. It might be Israel, or it might be another where I can find work as an English teacher or another specialist job. I had a lot of plans a year ago. Because of what happened, they changed completely.
In Donetsk Under Fire, Caring For Those Who Remain
On a recent morning, Sophia, one of JDC’s Hesed social welfare caretakers from Donetsk, was visiting a 97-year-old client of hers near the center of the eastern Ukrainian city when a massive explosion shook the building.
Running outside, Sophia saw a nearby trolley bus had sustained a direct hit from a mortar shell, killing 13 people and wounding 20 others. Body parts lay scattered across the street as the sounds of screams and sirens filled the air.
Shaken, she resumed her daily duties: cleaning her client, cooking breakfast, and after making sure she was OK, going to her next appointment.
“I understand I can be killed or injured, but I try not to think about it,” she said of her work, which takes her to some of the most dangerous parts of the war-torn city. “I just run and pray. So far it’s worked.”
Since violence erupted in Ukraine last year, many caretakers and volunteers working for JDC’s Hesed social welfare center network like Sophia have risked their lives treating thousands of homebound and frail elderly around Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine today, JDC and the staff of the Hesed network is caring for more than 4,500 Jews who remain. Some have ridden bicycles through active war zones. Others traversed their way past gunmen manning barricades and checkpoints. Though their work saves the lives of countless people, the heroism of these men and women goes largely unsung.
“The dangers facing many caretakers and volunteers working in eastern Ukraine are extreme,” said JDC’s Former Soviet Union Director Michal Frank. “They provide our clients with essential food, medicine, and other necessities. Without their visits, people would die. They are true heroes and deserve to be recognized for their courage.”
Sophia — who had previously been employed by the Tochmash factory — began her career as a caretaker 15 years ago when clients of the kiosk she was working for told her about JDC’s local Hesed. She successfully applied for a position and her life has never been the same.
“Caring for these people gives me strength and courage,” said the 66-year-old, who lives alone and has no children. “They need me, and that makes my life worthwhile.”
Her job is difficult and demanding during peaceful times: cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, carrying goods, taking care of elderly and needy individuals who have often been neglected or abandoned. Since fighting broke out, another, potentially deadly element of difficulty has been added.
Mark, an 83-year-old client of Sophia’s, lives in the neighborhood closest to the Donetsk airport.
Over the past few months, the once-shimmering facility that reopened in 2012 for a soccer tournament has been reduced to rubble as government and rebel forces have battled over it bitterly.
Reaching Mark’s home requires traveling to the least safe part of town where gunfire and shelling are a constant. He has no gas, water, or electricity. His phone is cut off and the only way to get there is by foot. Sophia carries all of Mark’s food and medicine herself. When incoming rounds are heard, as they so often are, Mark and Sophia take cover in his basement. Sophia has had to spend three nights there because of gunfire outside.
“If not for me, who will come and help?” she said. “When I remember his eyes and arms, I feel for him. It’s as though he were a child of mine, who needs caring for.”
Earlier this month, Sophia was the sole person to visit an 86-year-old client who lives in a dangerous part of town by the train station on her birthday. They had tea and spoke about happier times. Sophia has even allowed for a client whose apartment is not safe to move in with her.
“During the shelling we support each other so we aren’t as scared,” she said.
with our real-time crisis response in Ukraine.