Illuminating Darkness- A Message from Arlene Miller, President & CEO of Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County

Hurricane Irma 2017 aftermathHANUKKAH IS THE Festival of Lights, a joyous celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over their oppressors. The candles represent the miracle of one small vessel of oil in the defiled Temple lasting for eight days. It is a story of hope and Jewish survival. It is a story of strength in the most trying times.

And trying times our world has seen in recent months, as a relentless onslaught of natural disasters hit the western hemisphere. Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston. Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean and Florida. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Fires in Orange County and Northern California destroyed thousands of homes and most of URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. The devastation was record-breaking, and heartbreaking. The world felt dark.

Yet the light of hope and comfort shone on people impacted by these disasters, and the strength of our people demonstrated, as the Jewish community came together to provide relief.

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization of 148 federations and 300 communities from across the continent, has long provided a lifeline for Jews and all people in distress at home, in Israel and around the globe. We hold out a safety net–and we never let it fall. Our network of local and international partners enables us to respond quickly and effectively. We fund basics like food and medicine and long-term needs like trauma counseling. We provide resources to emergency service providers so they can help where they’re most needed and expand support for vulnerable populations, whose needs escalate during emergencies. We shine a bright light of hope and comfort when it’s needed most.

In Houston, the scope of devastation facing the Jewish community is enormous: more than 2,000 homes flooded and 8 major institutional facilities sustained catastrophic damage. One woman who had lived in her home for 52 years lost letters her husband wrote to her during WWII and a lifetime of family photos.

But she was not alone. The Federation system raised nearly $18 million to support the Houston Jewish community. One of the most incredible gifts came from the Government of Israel who committed $1 million. Over $12 million has been allocated to provide direct relief to flood victims (trauma counseling and financial assistance), to help individuals and families stay connected to Jewish life, and to address institutional sustainability and repair issues. The Houston community will not lose a generation of youth because we weren’t there to make sure they had access to Jewish education, camping, youth groups and more when their families were stretched beyond imagination and barely making ends meet for basic sustenance. And the woman who thought she’d lost all her photos? Federation sent volunteers to help, salvaging many of the photos by hanging them from clothespins to dry.

The biggest impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria was felt where there is little communal infrastructure beyond synagogues: in the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Cuba. Our support there has primarily been directly to affected people through local congregations and other humanitarian aid groups. Through JFNA, we allocated over $500,000 to Florida and island communities.

More recently, we responded to the extensive wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California where over 7,000 homes and numerous structures were destroyed. The beloved URJ Camp Newman was devastated. The Jewish Federation of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay partnered together to lead relief efforts with IsraAid, Chabad, and community congregations. The coordination of resources and support has been astounding.

While there is no silver lining in seeing fellow men and women suffer, there is a certain beauty in seeing the Jewish community come together–and the power of a national system prepared for crises because we are there in strength before disasters even hit. The Orange County Jewish community gave over $55,000 to disaster relief efforts this fall. We will also join communities from across the country to continue to provide financial and volunteer resources, especially in Houston.

As we bring light into our homes this Hanukkah, so too can we bring light to others, especially those experiencing darkness. Reaching out to a lonely friend or neighbor. Being involved in a community organization. Treating strangers kindly. Each of us has the power to create a more illuminated world, at Hanukkah and year-round.

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