The Collective is Alive

In the 35-ish years I have been working for Jewish Federations, I have witnessed, first hand, what we can accomplish together as a system. Communities acting alone could not have clandestinely flown planes into Addis Ababa to rescue the remnant of our people who had been residing in Ethiopia for centuries. But the collective resolve of Jewish Federations flew more than 24,000 from Addis to Tel Aviv fueled by successful national fundraising campaigns.

 And the rescue and resettlement of more than 1.5 million Jews from the former Soviet Union might have been enough to bankrupt Israel and larger U.S. Jewish communities were it not for an ingenious financial plan leveraging the guarantee by Jewish Federations of $1 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) in loans to provide the resettlement services, coupled with a $925 million multi-year fundraising campaign. Each Federation guaranteed its fair share of the $1 billion in loans. It was, in many ways, the “full faith and credit” of the Jewish people that brought over 1.1 million Jews to Israel and most of the balance to the U.S.

There are other examples as well. Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Hurricanes Andrew, Sandy and Katrina; the emergency needs of war-torn Sarajevo and Ukraine, and extensive social services and relief efforts in Israel in response to attacks from Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South.

In February, I spent a few days in Houston and came away with great respect for what we can do when we act as a collective and bring to life the old UJA slogan, “We are one.”

They called it a once-in-a-thousand-years flood. Rain of biblical proportions, nearly 60 inches amounting to 1 trillion gallons of water, fell on the greater Houston area over four days. Houston’s Jewish community was hit especially hard. Nearly three quarters of the city’s Jewish population live in areas that received extensive flooding, devastating over 2,500 Jewish homes and much of the Jewish community’s infrastructure. For many this is the third time in as many years that they have had to rebuild after a hurricane or flooding.

We met a woman who regularly checked how things were going outside. At first she thought the worst of the storm had passed. She tracked the rising water, but rather than receding, the water level kept rising. When water first started to leak into the house, she and her husband moved their three young children and key supplies to the second floor. Luckily they were rescued before their first floor became impassable and they became trapped on the second floor. Volunteers carried her and her two young twins through the fast-moving water into a Toyota Tundra truck. Her husband and their oldest child found refuge in a boat attached to the truck. Sensing the anxiety of the kids, one of the volunteers began singing “The wheels on the bus go round and round …” and a sense of calmness was a momentary godsend.

Jewish organizations, most located in the flooded neighborhoods of high Jewish concentration, were not spared. We toured the JCC and witnessed the devastation of the first floor. It was basically stripped down to the metal studs and concrete blocks. The water line, clearly visible on the concrete blocks, was 4-5 feet above my head. The entire early childhood center was destroyed. We heard about how the community, needing to provide childcare as quickly as possible so parents could begin rebuilding their lives, repurposed the JCC’s indoor tennis courts, magically turning each court into its own classroom. 

As we were driving to the JCC down a main street of one of Houston’s most popular residential neighborhoods, an eerie quiet overtook our bus. We could see the remnants of the flooding. Homes were severely damaged or destroyed. Looking down the side streets, we could see the damaged homes. From modest homes to mansions, the damage was indiscriminate. The piles of furniture, drywall, bags of mildewed clothes – most removed by the time of our trip – were not called “debris” by the residents. It was peoples’ lives.

Almost overnight, Houston’s Jewish Family Service added 1,400 new clients. Synagogues and the Jewish nursing home were also hard hit. Thousands of prayer books and bibles were ritually buried. One synagogue must demolish its sanctuary as it is beyond repair.

Our Jewish Federation collective – including the Lehigh Valley – raised more than $22 million. But new estimates point to an additional $10 million needed, beyond the limited insurance settlements, to rebuild the Houston Jewish community. Please, please consider the Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund (jewishlehighvalley.org/hurricanerelief), even if you previously contributed. The needs are beyond those of the Houston Jewish community and require the power of our Jewish collective.

For some time I have heard a similar refrain: the Jewish collective is dead. It is a relic of a bygone era. It does not speak to the “me-ism” of emerging generations. I can decide what and how to spend my philanthropy. 

I get it, but I don’t believe it must be exclusive of being part of a Jewish collective. A colleague of mine wrote: “no matter how ‘tailor-made’ the experience of Jewish philanthropy becomes, the importance of fostering a strong sense of collective identity will forever remain a hallmark of the Jewish people and the Jewish Federation system.”

Whether it is the pooling of our donations through our Annual Campaign to strengthen our community, or partnering with other Jewish Federations to measure the multiplying effect of our collective action in Eastern Europe, in Israel or in disasters abroad and at home, the collective is alive. It not only defines our Jewish Federation, it defines the Jewish people. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh B’zeh. All of the Jewish people are responsible for each other. The collective is alive.