After raising almost $10 million in response to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish organizations are facing the tricky question of how to divide the money among explicitly Jewish causes and general relief efforts.
The Reform movement has led the way among Jewish religious groups, raising more than $1.5 million by the middle of this week. In its first round of allocations, it gave $45,000 to Jewish communities in the affected areas, but much larger grants, totaling $500,000, to nonsectarian relief efforts. In contrast, the Orthodox Union, which set up a fund in conjunction with Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America, says it is concentrating on providing relief to displaced Orthodox Jews. So far, the Orthodox fund has sent $20,000 to an Orthodox congregation in Memphis that has enrolled evacuated Jewish children at its day school.
The issue of whether to direct funds to Jewish or nonsectarian causes long has stirred debate in Jewish philanthropic circles. Now, however, with thousands of Jews among the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the Gulf region, the question has taken on new urgency and moral complexity, some communal leaders say.
“We’ve noticed that there is a debate simmering in the community,” said Simon Greer, executive director of Jewish Fund for Justice, a liberal advocacy group, which has raised almost $600,000 so far in conjunction with The Shefa Fund, an organization that encourages ethical investment. “Should the Jewish community focus on the Jews whose lives were changed or should we give our concern to the range of people who were affected?”
The approximately $10 million raised by Jewish groups is part of the $788 million that the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports has been raised by all charities thus far. The Jewish Fund for Justice and the Shefa Fund are among the only Jewish groups that have decided not to allocate money specifically to Jewish institutions and evacuees. The executive director of The Shefa Fund, Jeffrey Dekro, said that their allocations would emphasize aid for low-income people, because they were the ones disproportionately affected by the hurricane.
“Our emphasis is on the people who were the most marginalized, which means poor people who are African American,” Dekro said. “That isn’t because we don’t care about Jews or white people. But there is already a vast safety net for our Jewish community.”
Even for Jewish charities that are giving money to Jewish institutions, there is a recognition that many of the Jews in the hurricane-ravaged area were in the best position to cope with the crisis and its aftermath, given the relative affluence of the Jewish community.
“As a group, our community members were more likely to have insurance, and less likely to live in high-risk, low-lying areas,” said Marla Feldman, the director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, which is overseeing the movement’s relief work.
The Reform movement has two separate committees considering allocations: one for requests from Reform congregations in the storm-battered areas and one for non-sectarian relief efforts.
One of the movement’s largest allocations so far was for $125,000 to a Reform movement project distributing relief supplies for all evacuees in Jackson, Miss.
But in the long run, Feldman said, more of the movement’s allocations will likely go to congregations trying to rebuild in New Orleans and the battered Gulf region.
“In other hurricanes we’ve had congregations with some damage,” Feldman said, “but in my personal experience there has not been a crisis of this sort that has impacted the Jewish community so directly.”
Before the hurricane, New Orleans had a Jewish population close to 10,000; there were also significant Jewish populations in other areas hit by the storm.
In the early stampede to start fundraising drives, many organizations failed to decide on the question of exactly how the money would be spent. Even now, many issues, including the proportion going to general relief and Jewish causes, have still not been worked out. The board of B’nai Brith is not meeting until September 20 to have its first discussion about how to divide the $425,000 that the organization has raised so far. The president of B’nai Brith, Joel Kaplan, said some of that money will go to restoring Torah scrolls and synagogues, but “the majority will be for general relief efforts.”
The issue still hasn’t been settled at the United Jewish Communities, the national coalition of local Jewish charitable federations. As of Tuesday the group was believed to have raised more than any other Jewish organization, $5.9 million.
“We have no idea what the proportions will be moving forward,” said Barry Swartz, UJC’s executive vice president. “We’re interested in helping people. That’s the principle.”
UJC made its first grant on September 9 — $1 million to a multi-faith effort to feed evacuees in the major shelters in Houston. Their second grant was for $50,000 to the Nashville Jewish Federation, which is planning to go to Jackson, Miss., and make individual cash grants to evacuated Jews there.
Swartz said the organization is waiting to see what the needs are before they decide how the donations will be allocated.
The UJC is also planning to give large grants to the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Jewish federations, according to Swartz. The Baton Rouge Jewish community has nearly tripled in size to 2,000, and UJC plans to help it establish some of the social-service agencies — such as vocational and family services — that larger Jewish communities typically have.
On the local level, the Baton Rouge federation has been making its own decisions in confronting the huge relief work in the city. The federation sent rescue operations into New Orleans, and the president of the federation, Erich Sternburg, says, “anyone we came across, we helped.” The Baton Rouge federation has raised some of its own funds, but so far the only allocation it has made was to the 4th District Baptist Relief Fund.
The non-sectarian approach of the Baton Rouge federation stood in stark contrast to another group on the ground, ZAKA USA, an Orthodox organization that specializes in recovering Jewish bodies from disaster scenes. The Orthodox group sent a team of three men from New York to New Orleans, who ended up recovering the bodies of two elderly Jews. On Tuesday, after recovering the bodies, ZAKA USA hired a helicopter and took in a team of 10 experts to recover seven Torah scrolls from the Beth Israel Synagogue.
In general, Orthodox organizations have been more eager to look after exclusively Jewish needs.
The executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said his organization would like to give to general relief, but for now, he said, “as an Orthodox institution our primary responsibility is to our Jewish constituency.”
The Orthodox Union has set up a fund with Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America. The group would not release the amount raised, but they did publicize their first grant of $20,000 to a Memphis Orthodox Day School that has taken in evacuated children from New Orleans.
The Orthodox institution with the widest reach in the Gulf area — the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — has taken a different tack in the weeks since Katrina hit. A head of the Chabad relief efforts said that Lubavitch representatives so far have helped whoever has asked for it. In San Antonio, where there are few Jewish evacuees, the local Chabad house held a carnival for evacuated children, most of whom were not Jewish.
“We’ve been responding rather than setting out a clear path,” said Rabbi Yochanan Riskin, a New Orleans rabbi who is on the Chabad committee coordinating the movement’s relief efforts. “There’s no question that Chabad is serving the Jewish community. But in this case our donors understand that we will help people in need irrespective of their religion.”