Soon after Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, Jewish Federation of St. Louis opened a relief fund to support its victims. As we have described in our appeals, every dollar sent to us will be distributed to organizations that have been identified by Jewish Federations of North America as serving those most in need.
Given the general scope of the disaster, and given the other avenues for giving (including to the American Red Cross), some have asked me why Jewish Federation is providing yet another way to support the relief effort? In what way is this part of our mission?
The question is a good one and I want to take this opportunity to explain.
The mission of Jewish Federation of St. Louis is to support the needs of the Jewish community here in St. Louis and wherever Jews are in need. Much of our annual campaign stays local, but almost 30% of it goes to social services and community building in Israel and around the world through our international partners — American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Our annual campaign provides needed services in a planned and deliberative way, but emergent crises like Sandy are hard to plan adequately for and require additional support.
Sandy was a disaster that disproportionately affects our own community. The storm hit the densest part of the American Jewish Community, threatening the welfare of millions of Jews, and our community’s religious and cultural institutions as well. Though humanitarian needs must come first, there are and will continue to be institutional needs as well. Some of the images coming to us now are harrowing indeed: one from the Mazel Day School and Synagogue in Brighton Beach depicts a Torah Scroll drying out on synagogue benches. Giving through Federation ensures that the needs of our community—both of individuals and institutions—are not forgotten as part of the overall relief effort.
The power of our community to care for its own has long been noted as a model for other communities and maximizes the support that all receive. Yet this view may strike some as partisan and partial, tribalism in the face of shared suffering. Even as I am committed to the support and security of the Jewish people I appreciate those concerns.
While our relief dollars target the needs of our community, in many cases they extend beyond to all who are in need. This is how most of our social service provision operates, targeting members of our community, but not limited to them. And our emergency campaigns have historically supported broad humanitarian needs even when Jewish interests were not primarily at stake. Our recent efforts to support the community of Joplin last year and of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are two good examples.
For these reasons, when we contribute through Federation (or any other Jewish relief effort), the humanitarian support that we provide has a further purpose: it provides a way for us to publicly give as Jews to all who are affected by this tragedy. Giving through Federation (or again, any other Jewish relief effort) allows us to publicly embrace the social justice teaching of our tradition in a manner that communicates to all that our vision as Jews is not in fact limited to our own. When we give through Federation, we are giving as Jews to all.
For me, I do not see an “either-or” here. Our family has given both to the Federation and to the American Red Cross, recognizing the needs of all as well as the needs of our own, to do so in a manner that publicly embraces our Jewish tradition of tzedakah, and recognizing the suffering of all directly.
One last thing: giving locally to those affected by these storms allows us to publicly express our support for those a thousand miles away. Acts of solidarity have been critical to maintaining our own continuity as a people, and have historically been important to the spirits of all oppressed whether by natural or human causes. We will continue to show such solidarity as we provide material assistance to those in need.
Jewish Federation of St. Louis works in times of crisis and we will continue to work long after this crisis passes. We work in partnership with our local agencies, synagogues and cultural institutions to build a strong Jewish community, enhancing the lives of our members and providing a model to others in our region and around the world. We follow the motto, “To Jews as Jews, and as Jews to all,” and I encourage you to do the same. With all of our support we will help those affected by Superstorm Sandy to rebuild their lives and community as quickly as possible.
Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of St. Louis