Picture a room, in which, gathered around a table, sit the leaders of some of the Jewish world’s most vital humanitarian organizations: JDC, of course, but also AJWS, HIAS, IsraAid, AJC, and World Jewish Relief, just to name a few. They are in this room as members of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR), and it’s clear why: They’re experts, the boots on the ground when disaster strikes, often within the first 24 hours.
Consider: COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in developed nations; now imagine being crammed into a refugee camp with no phones, little medical aid, and a looming monsoon season.
The JCDR brings together the experience, expertise, and resources of Jewish organizations across North America and the world that seek to assist victims of natural or man-made disasters all over the world.
This room is not a room at all, but a virtual space, because the inspiring group is gathered to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The question up for discussion: Is the Coalition the right group to respond to the pandemic? In a truly global disaster, what difference can we make? Will North American Jews be willing to support an international operation when so many at home have found themselves in dire straits?
Amidst these debating experts, you will find an incongruous figure: me, a rabbi.
The JCDR has gathered coalitions in response to many of recent history’s most urgent disasters: the Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises, food insecurity in East Africa, the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, to name just a handful. But it’s never faced anything quite like COVID-19. The scale is almost unimaginable, and it exacerbates every existing crisis the JCDR been working to address.
You might wonder how I’ve ended up in this “room where it happens” — I know I’ve been asking myself that question since I first joined the JCDR.
I’ve been the staff person for the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) for social justice programs for about five years. previously I was a congregational rabbi, but I was always involved in a social justice work; it’s always been important to me. So when the RA needed a representative on the JCDR I was glad to help. We became aware of the JCDR because of the Syrian refugees crisis, when there were terrible tragedies of bodies washing up, on the shores in Lesbos, in particular. I was so moved by the first meetings I attended, listening to representatives from so many amazing organizations talking about the work that they were doing and the enormity of the need. I was in.
Over the years, I’ve come to fully appreciate the value of this coalition JDC has convened. The JCDR brings together the experience, expertise, and resources of Jewish organizations across North America and the world that seek to assist victims of natural or man-made disasters all over the world. Because it is a coalition, JCDR empowers all its member agencies to coordinate our activities, use funds efficiently, better educate our constituencies and the general public about current disaster situations and the Jewish response.
One key element of the JCDR’s approach is how closely all of our members work with local communities, which is both strategic and a matter of principle. The JCDR is guided by the motto “nothing about us without us;” it makes a lot of sense because the people themselves best know the people they’re helping, the language, and the resources available. Through years of thoughtful partnership, our members have developed their contacts and built trusting relationships to really make the changes that they need. It’s exciting to watch.
I’m humbled to be in meetings with people who are doing the on-the-ground work. They look like normal flesh and blood human beings, but the things that they do are incredible, the way that they mobilize in a second. I can’t do what they do; still, I’ve come to believe that, as a rabbi, I also have a meaningful role to play as a member of the coalition.
First, it is a simple show of support. My being there shows that Conservative rabbis — and the Conservative Movement — stand in solidarity with those who’ve been laid low by natural or man-made disasters. Even if it’s not happening to Jews, Jews still care — it’s a Jewish value to help improve the lives of people in the world who are in need.
My second job is to ask questions.
One of the JCDR’s activities is deciding how to use the funds we’ve raised in response to a given disaster. I’m always honored to be able to be involved and I want to help, but, to be honest, what right do I have to be allocating money? There are a lot of people there who have a whole lot more experience than I do.
What I can bring to the table, paradoxically, is my lack of understanding. I can ask good, clarifying questions. Often, if I have a question about something, more often than not somebody else has the same question but hasn’t asked it.
Finally, I can share the JCDR’s stories with a wider audience. That means telling the story of the coalition’s efforts — because so many of my coalition partners are rightly focused more on doing good than promoting their work — and, even more vitally, the stories of the people the JCDR is supporting in their time of need.
So, here is the end of my story from “the room where it happens”: Ultimately, we knew we had to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. When there are people in desperate need, it’s got to be our responsibility to help. We don’t have to solve the problem — it’s too big, even for a coalition of organizations — but our Jewish values demand that we do what we can.
It’s this Jewish component that makes the JCDR so important. The JCDR is a voice for the Jewish community to express, in a tangible way, that we care about people in need regardless of their religion, race, nationality, or gender. And as long as I’m in the room, I plan to keep amplifying that voice.
Rabbi Lee S. Paskind is consultant to the Social Justice Commission of the Rabbinical Assembly. He is married to Judy. They have three adult children and two amazing granddaughters.