OpinionWorld News

Faced with a Jewish world in crisis, know that we’re made for this moment

When at-risk populations are empowered, they can become engines for strengthening families, communities and societies.

Hundreds of people in the post-Oct. 7 battered Israeli city of Ofakim attended a ceremony on Jan. 22, 2024, honoring community members who fought terrorists and local volunteers who are part of JDC’s new initiative building community resilience, healing and recovery in frontlines cities. Photo by Hanani Horovitz.
Hundreds of people in the post-Oct. 7 battered Israeli city of Ofakim attended a ceremony on Jan. 22, 2024, honoring community members who fought terrorists and local volunteers who are part of JDC’s new initiative building community resilience, healing and recovery in frontlines cities. Photo by Hanani Horovitz.
Ariel Zwang. Credit: Courtesy.
Ariel Zwang
Ariel Zwang is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

I just returned from the frontlines of a Jewish world in crisis, having spent time in Israel, Ukraine and Poland. I visited with vulnerable Jews and Jewish communities, and the hardest-hit Israelis, as they brave challenges that are unfathomable to many of us.

Each person I met revealed a mix of grief, trauma and fear, and the loss of stability and normalcy. This experience is multiplied on a grand scale among hundreds of thousands of people impacted by two conflicts, resulting in a humanitarian emergency facing the Jewish world that has not been seen since the postwar period.

The statistics speak for themselves: Tens of thousands of Israeli evacuees from the south and north of the country remain displaced, with the majority expressing doubts about returning home to communities devastated on Oct. 7. Some 84% percent of Israeli children are suffering emotional distress, and an additional 100,000 Israelis are seeking work because of the war.

Antisemitism and anti-Israel efforts are spiking globally, intensifying security concerns, mental-health needs and further instability for Jewish communities worldwide. Ukraine’s Jewish population is living in such dire conditions that more than 25% are receiving aid from my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), as that crisis continues into its third year. Today, 70% of my colleagues are living in places impacted by these conflicts.

The Jewish community is charged with addressing these and other critically important needs. To date, the philanthropic sector has responded with impressive speed and levels of giving.

But there is a long road of support and recovery ahead—and we need to continue to meet emerging needs and serve populations who did not need our help before. In the face of these challenges, I am often asked: How can we do it all?

My response is simple: The Jewish community is made for this moment. We must leverage our decades of vast experience responding to multiple crises at once to ensure that we continue to serve as an anchor of strength and long-term care. As the Jewish community determines how to address these priorities, three concepts should be at the forefront of decision-making:

First, suffering on this scale requires big solutions healing millions of lives. The challenges in Israel, for example, are massive and demand coalitions of NGOs, the business sector, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and the government to come together to respond.

Since Oct. 7, my organization has aided more than 100,000 of the most-impacted Israelis. During this time, I have spent a lot of time in Ofakim, one of southern Israel’s battered front-line cities just outside the Gaza envelope. One neighborhood alone lost 52 people in the massacre, and countless others would have been victims had its residents not fought back with extraordinary bravery.

Ofakim had challenges before the war. It is home to numerous vulnerable populations. Today, it has thousands more who are reliant for the first time on social services to survive, including people who’ve lost jobs or businesses, traumatized terror attack survivors, elderly terrified to leave their homes and the newly disabled. In order for the city to address the immediate and long-term challenges it faces, it needs a holistic solution to reach all in need.

So we partnered with Ofakim’s municipal leaders—the Natan Association—and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ to deploy our new Mashiv Haruach program. It builds community resilience and sustainable recovery by deploying innovative emergency response practices, upgraded social services and economic aid to lift all community members.

In Ofakim, this will include creating safe, vibrant public spaces; training legions of social-service volunteers and emergency responders for each neighborhood; and deploying cultural and lifestyle programming that promote healing, build morale, emphasize the heroism shown by the people of Ofakim and make certain that people’s social needs are being met.

It is a model we are now replicating with other partners in Ashkelon along the Mediterranean, in Rahat (a Bedouin city in southern Israel) and expanding to Nahariya, a city in northern Israel that has already been severely impacted. The services we’re creating through Mashiv Haruach will be replicable and can be tailored to locations around Israel, reaching millions of people when brought to scale. That’s how we’ve worked in Israel for decades, and it will be key to restoring this nation and its people for years to come.

Second, we can leave no vulnerable person or community behind. One thing I’ve learned in all my years working with at-risk populations is that when empowered, they can become engines for strengthening families, communities and societies. This is especially important for the Jewish community to keep in mind. After all, the very vulnerable people we are currently supporting as a result of these crises have also become integral parts of our response efforts and will be invested in Jewish life because of the comfort, care and meaning they found at their darkest hour.

When I was in Lviv, which has become a hub for internally displaced Ukrainians, I visited one of the eight trauma centers we built for local Jews across the country. This is part of our wider effort reaching more than 41,000 Ukrainian Jews with uninterrupted humanitarian support since February 2022.

I met a mother who had fled her hometown in the east to come a safer place. She said that months ago, her two daughters were always crying—between classes at school, while with their friends, at any and every moment.

They are receiving psychological treatment at our trauma center, which is led by a therapist who also displaced. She came to Lviv with very little but wanted to give back in a way that utilized her skills to help people who were suffering as she had. The results speak for themselves; today, both girls have improved and have become part of the local Jewish community.

Their mother, whose plight I felt deeply as a fellow parent, said: “Thanks to you, I see my children smile again.”

Further west in Warsaw, I saw the miraculous result of decades of investing in a Jewish community that was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust and under Communist rule. The Polish Jewish community has not only been revived but is at the forefront of our efforts to care for Ukrainian Jewish refugees. Polish Jews’ ongoing care and integration of refugees into their local Jewish schools and JCC activities speaks volumes about what can happen when a sense of mutual Jewish responsibility is put into action when it’s needed most.

Third, Jewish unity must continue to guide our efforts. Coming together in solidarity at the start of an emergency and responding in force has been a hallmark of Jewish life since World War I, when JDC was founded. We have weathered many storms and fulfilled many more dreams, from building the State of Israel to reviving Jewish life in places where the Nazis and Soviets attempted to blot it out.

But as crises drag on and become more complicated, divisions that existed before can re-emerge, and disagreements on social and political issues—elections, domestic and foreign policy, and even our approach to Israel and antisemitism—could divide us further. And yet there is one issue we can all agree on, and that is caring for our fellow Jews and Israelis in need. The impact of that shared work lasts for generations.

How do I know?

Perach, a 76-year-old woman from Kibbutz Be’eri, hid in her safe room for days and was eventually evacuated to the David Hotel at the Dead Sea. After settling in, she needed to file for the benefits and services she was due as an older adult and evacuee.

She approached the stand at her hotel set up for this purpose, part of the fleet of mobile social-service units my organization created in the wake of the war to help displaced people all over Israel access their benefits.

When Perach spoke to the representative at the booth, she asked: “Where are you from?” The staff person responded: “From JDC.” The woman covered her face and began to cry.

When my colleague asked her what was wrong, she replied: “You helped me in 1956 when my family fled Hungary to make our way to Israel. Now you are here for me, again, today.”

This unbreakable bond is not just our legacy, but the foundation for all we will do in the time ahead to strengthen the Jewish people and Israel. Only together can we build a future far brighter than today.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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