New Crises Test Jewish Community
04/23/99
Staff Writer
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Just as Jewish federations are being asked to provide $3 million to finance the rescue and resettlement in Israel of Jews fleeing Yugoslavia, the Jewish Agency has asked for another $12 million to handle similar operations for an unexpected number of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia. “We’re in discussions with the Jewish Agency about how to cover these expenses,” said Stephen Solender, acting president of the newly formed United Jewish Communities (born of a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal). “We’ll find a way to do it because the most important part of our work is saving Jewish lives.” Clive Lessem, the Jewish Agency’s liaison to the UJC, said there has been a 110 percent increase in the number of Jews making aliyah from the Russia this year. In the first quarter of last year, 2,737 Russian Jews emigrated, compared with 5,737 this year. “These numbers reflect a trend that kicked in towards the end of last year as the Russian economy worsened and anti-Semitism increased,” said Lessem. It is now projected that instead of 53,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union making aliyah this year, the number will be closer to 60,000, the first increase in the last several years. As a result, said Lessem, an additional $8 million to $10 million will be needed to handle their resettlement. On top of that, Lessem said the government of Israel has decided to speed up the number of Jews being flown this year from Quara, Ethiopia, to Israel. Instead of bringing out 1,500, 3,000 are to be resettled in Israel at a cost of an additional $1.5 million. He said the Jewish Agency’s budget of $350 million “is so tight” that the federations must be asked to make up the difference. The request for help comes at a time when more than $2.1 million has poured into Jewish organizations to help ethnic Albanians forced by Serbian police from Kosovo, Yugoslavia. As they flooded into neighboring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, Jewish organizations here swung into action, collecting money for humanitarian groups already working in the area and sending in officials to assess the need. According to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, there were believed to be 40 Jewish adults remaining in the Kosovo cities of Pristina and Prizren. But the Jewish communities of Yugoslavia and Macedonia recently lost touch with them because of the disruption of telephone service, apparently because of the month-long pounding Yugoslavia has sustained from NATO bombing runs. In addition, there are still 2,600 Jews in Yugoslavia. The president of the Belgrade Jewish community, Aleksandar Ajzinberg, and his wife have spent their nights in a shelter in Belgrade set up by the Jewish community. During the heavy bombing Sunday night of the oil refinery in Pancevo, just east of Belgrade, 20 Jews from Pancevo joined the Ajzinbergs and other Jews in the shelter. Meanwhile, about 300 Jews from Yugoslavia have found shelter in Budapest, Hungary, according to Yossi Croitoru, the aliyah emissary of the Jewish Agency in Hungary and Yugoslavia. He said 164 of them are living in a hotel, after most of them initially stayed in the dormitory of a Jewish school whose students were home for Passover. Another 60 were staying with relatives in Hungary. Croitoru said he had met most of the Jewish refugees — nearly all of them women and children because men 14 to 65 are of conscription age and cannot leave the country — when they arrived by bus. “They were shell-shocked,” he said. “After a few days, they relaxed a little. But they are very nervous and concerned. Most came thinking they would return to their homes in a few days. But as they realize that is not going to happen, they begin thinking of the long term.” The cost of their stay in Hungary is being paid for equally by the Hungarian Jewish community and the Jewish Agency. Last week, the Jewish Agency flew 80 displaced Yugoslav Jews from Budapest to Israel on a two-week orientation tour of the country. Croitoru said they each were given an open return ticket good for three months and that the Jewish Agency would pay all of their expenses until then. He said another 48 Jews planned to go to Israel this week and that the Jewish Agency was planning for a total of 500. If all stayed three months, the cost would be $3 million, he said. Judith Peck, chair of the board of UJA-Federation of New York, said she was confident the federation network would come up with the money “because of our collective commitment to take care of all Jews in the world. Our original purpose for being never goes away — that Israel was founded to be the homeland, a safe haven, for all Jews.” In Manhattan Monday, a group of 30 rabbis gathered at the offices of the American Jewish World Service to get an update on humanitarian efforts in behalf of more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees. The group’s president, Ruth Messinger, said her 14-year-old organization primarily raises money from Jews for international development work and natural disasters. “It seems to us that Kosovo is a crisis of a different order where a Jewish response is particularly needed,” she said, adding that her organization has raised $150,000 for the International Rescue Committee’s’ assistance to the refugees. Barbara Smith, the IRC’s vice president of overseas programs, described conditions on the ground and reports of atrocities in Kosovo. “I honestly thought that no one was going to get away with using overt Nazi techniques in my lifetime,” she said, adding that it is crucial to return the refugees to their homes in three months. “History has shown that if they don’t go back in three months, they won’t go back,” she said. As she left the 90-minute meeting, Rabbi Janise Poticha of Temple Sinai in Massapequa, L.I., said she felt a “sense of frustration in that, regardless what we do, there will always be trauma and tragedy in that part of the world. As Jews, we are commanded to respond to the tragedies.” Messinger said she had received calls from Jews who said they wished to help the IRC, but wanted to do it through her organization. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed that it is “important that the aid rendered visibly come from the Jewish community.” Also raising money was the Anti-Defamation League, which to date has received $327,000 — including $500 of a child’s bat mitzvah present and $50 a child received for finding the afikomen. And the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it had received a large contribution that it would use to equip a mobile clinic operated by the International Medical Corps. To gauge where to spend the $300,000 it has already raised, the American Jewish Committee sent a nine-member delegation to Macedonia Tuesday to visit refugee camps and meet with Jewish and government officials. They brought with them 100 pounds of medicine requested by the Macedonian ambassador to the United States, as well as children’s toys. “We cannot sit still in the face of such human crisis,” said David Harris, the group’s executive director. “With the money coming in, we felt it particularly important to visit the region to see what is going on on the ground before making decisions about where to distribute it.” Also arriving in the region to do a needs assessment was Dr. Rick Hodes and three associates from the JDC. Because all flights to Albania were cancelled, they arrived Saturday night by boat from Bari, Italy. “Most of the people I’ve seen are in acceptable physical condition, but the psychological shock and trauma these people are suffering is real and needs to be dealt with,” he said in Tirana, Albania, after examining several of the 300,000 refugees camped near the border with Kosovo. He said he found plenty of food, medicine, clothing and blankets in storage, but there was no organized way to distribute it to those in need. Meanwhile, the Israeli field hospital in Macedonia was dismantled this week after three weeks of operation treating 1,500 refugees with a staff of 65. One of the doctors manning the facility, Michael Alkan of the Soroka Medical Center of the Negev, said it was designed for medical emergencies but that there had been few. He said a German Red Cross field hospital had been set up to take its place. “Some people working with other relief organizations came up to us and whispered that they were proud of what we were doing because they too are Jewish,” said Alkan.

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09/09/2009 - 09:13

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