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The Reward Comes in the Form of Accomplishing Work Itself

January 28, 2010 By:
Betsy R. Sheerr
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Betsy R. Sheerr

Millions of lives -- and the future of a tiny nation -- are still in jeopardy.

No, we're not talking about Israel, but Haiti -- that small, impoverished island nation.

Within hours of a catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti last week, Israel and the United States led the way in rescue and recovery. President Barack Obama spoke movingly: "In times of tragedy, the U.S. steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do."

The Israeli Defense Force was among the first on the ground, setting up a field hospital praised by CBS as "the Rolls Royce of emergency medical care," with medical and psychosocial support teams deployed as soon as there was safe passage. How fitting for Israel to help a small country that was among the first to recognize its existence in 1947!

The American Jewish response was also swift and generous. Within hours, money started pouring into a vast array of Jewish organizations, including those that comprise the 45-member Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. These donors wanted their gift to be part of the Jewish response to a non-Jewish population's suffering. This is a fitting tribute to what our tradition teaches us: to save a single life is to save an entire world.

In this first week, the Jewish Federations of North American reported raising more than $2 million for the relief efforts of its overseas humanitarian relief partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. An additional $2.2 million has been donated directly to JDC online, by mail, phone or text. The American Jewish World Service has raised more than $2 million as well.

In Haiti, these organizations have sought the most efficient ways to assist the victims: by coordinating efforts and finding the most knowledgeable, trustworthy foundations and local NGOs to deliver services. JDC is providing food, water and other material support for EcoWorks and the Afya Foundation, aiding the work of Paul Farmer's Partners in Health. It is also supporting medical services through Heart to Heart International and the IDF field hospital, which JDC furnished with infant incubators and orthopedic devices. AJWS is supporting micro-lending and similar initiatives.

Beleaguered though Jews may sometimes feel, we know we are neither isolated nor insulated. We respond to crises because it is simply the right thing to do: It's our mandate to help those in need, especially in times of catastrophe.

During the tsunami in South Asia, I served as chair of JDC's International Development Committee, aiding nonsectarian humanitarian relief. It was in this role that I learned firsthand what it means to find our common humanity -- to build bridges with our neighbors, regardless of differences. I recall with pride seeing the Magen David, the Jewish star, and JDC's lamp-like symbol on hospital blankets in Indonesia, on children's backpacks in Sri Lanka, and in newly rebuilt schools, mosques and fishing boats in Thailand.

What was the reward for Jews aiding tsunami victims?

It was just knowing we helped to restore lives and livelihoods for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and others. Knowing that Israeli expertise was utilized, that local Jewish communities in countries like Turkey and India were gratefully acknowledged by their countrymen, that nations formerly hostile to Israel thanked Israel and American Jews formally and publicly -- and that in some small way, Jews did and still do their part to make the world whole.

Long after the horrific images fade from our TV screens, Jewish organizations will still be empowering Haitians to become self-sustaining. It's an invaluable approach that we use to build up Jewish communities globally as well. It is also emblematic of our collective desire to repair the world, one life at a time.

Betsy R. Sheerr, a corporate public speaking coach, is an executive committee member of JDC, a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group and a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

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