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2005-09-21—Katrina: San Diego response
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2005 blog


Katrina: The Local Jewish Response

                                                            San Diego Jewish Times, September 21, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

After watching the horrendous images on television of the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, Jeff Davis, principal of the Maimonides Upper School at the 700-student San Diego Jewish Academy decided it was time for action.  At religious services Sept. 2--the Friday before Labor Day weekend--he figuratively blew the shofar: he told students that "when you see suffering it is not just enough to think, 'oh how terrible, that is, because  Judaism is about your deeds."  He urged the students to "dig deep" and try to collect food, toiletries, and clothes, adding that if they would accept his challenge, he and Parent Teacher Organization President Scott  Brown would load the donations into a U-haul truck and drive them to an evacuee center in Houston, Texas.

The following week, Davis apologized to his students--for grossly underestimating their ability to mobilize the community.  It would have taken far more than a single U-haul truck to carry all the goods that the students, and other contributors from the Jewish and general communities, brought to the grounds of the San Diego Jewish Academy  on the Sunday  and Monday of Labor Day weekend.  Cars lined up outside the campus in Carmel Valley, bringing so many donations it became clear an 18-wheel truck and trailer might be necessary.  Then it was realized even that was unrealistic; they would need two--no three, er four--make, it five, 18-wheelers to transport all the heartfelt donations.  Alan Goldstein, a pilot and  husband of Meg Goldstein--SDJA's development director--was one of hundreds of parent and student volunteers who accepted the donated goods, sorted them, and boxed them for shipment to the evacuees.  Realizing just how much material needed to be transported to Houston, he telephoned his bosses at UPS, and asked them use of a 757 cargo plane for the effort.  He volunteered to fly the plane without pay, and got another Jewish pilot, Dean Birnbaum, to volunteer for co-pilot duties.  And still the cargo plane was not big enough for all the goods collected by San Diego Jewish Academy.  UPS had to send the overflow material by truck.

Andrew Miller, the newly elected student president of SDJA's Maimonides Upper School, perhaps personified the spirit of the students.  Besides packing and loading boxes over the holiday weekend, he went out and solicited contributions, receiving $25,000 in items from one grocery store on the condition that the donation be anonymous.

Marsha Berkson, one of three co-chairs of the school's Tikkun Olam committee, described the response of the students as an outgrowth of "the values that we teach at the school about deeds of loving kindness, tzedakah and tikkun olam."  She said when last December's tsunami swamped large portions of Southern Asia, killing more than a hundred thousand people with nearly as many listed as "missing," students surrounded her as she walked into the parking lot one day and asked what could they do.   When Hurricane Katrina came, even closer to home, there was a school-wide desire to respond.  Even the little kids did everything they could to help.

On Labor Day, Berkson said, "we had a ton of shoes, so what we did was to have the little kids match them all up--the 4 to 7-year-olds--and it was great--they were actually productive sorting these shoes.  Davis said that on Tuesday, along with parents and administrators, approximately 100 older students were allowed to leave class to help pack boxes. Having that many kids working on a project, "ordinarily would be like trying to herd cats," Davis said, but this project was different. "Every kid was focused, they grabbed their boxes, they weren't horsing around, and at one point they were packing about 250 boxes an hour-- which was the rate necessary to get 5,000 boxes packed in such a short period of time."  The principal added that it wasn't to get out of classes that the students volunteered. "They were doing it because it was the right thing to do, and they felt it."

Miller, Berkson, Davis and others--there were many volunteers who all deserve credit for this project--flew on an anonymously donated chartered jet to Houston in order to be on hand when the UPS cargo plane arrived on Friday, Sept. 9. Ceremonies were particularly moving in Houston where, Berkson recalled, people started crying when they heard that what had started as one school's project swelled into an outpouring of love and concern from San Diego's entire Jewish community.  One of those moved to tears was an African-American UPS driver, who also was a minister of his Southern Baptist Church.  Afterwards he confided in Berkson that he never had been all that friendly toward the Jewish people, but after seeing what the San Diego Jewish Community had done, he had a change of heart.  Berkson told him that Jews are taught the doctrine of "tikkun olam," repair of the world, and the man's eyes brightened.  "Tikkun olam," he repeated several times, having Berkson write down the words for him.  "I'm going to tell about that in my sermons."

 Some of the goods were distributed by the Houston Jewish Federation in cooperation with the Star of Hope Mission, helping not only to repair the world, but to repair what had been some past tension between Houston's Christian and Jewish communities, according to Berkson.  Miller and other students visited the mission to watch the goods being distributed.  They remembered, in particular, one youngster their age who, with some embarrassment,  was wearing fuzzy slippers--no real shoes that could fit him being available until the SDJA shipment arrived.

 Miller also recalled meeting some students from New Orleans who had been accepted on an emergency basis into the Emery/ Weiner Academy, Houston's counterpart to the San Diego Jewish Academy.  SDJA's student president added that one of the evacuees from New Orleans told him that while watching television after her evacuation "she could see her neighborhood from the chopper cam, and she got pretty emotional about how her house was under water.  She was so thankful that we were there to provide some relief."

As important and as large as the San Diego Jewish Academy's effort was in behalf of the Katrina victims, no one in San Diego's Jewish community was saying "dayenu" or "it is enough."   There were other projects going on throughout the community--from the individual effort of David Perez, the CEO of Surge Global Energy, whose decision to charter private planes and fly refugees to San Diego was well publicized by the general media--to those of a variety of other Jewish agencies and schools, which directed

A fund for people to make monetary contributions for the relief of hurricane victims was opened by the United Jewish Federation on its website,   Jewish Family Service was designated as the Jewish community's coordinator for rendering aid to evacuees who came to San Diego, seeking jobs and temporary homes for them.  JFS can be reached in this regard via the email, 

At Jacob Health Care Center,  Sylvia Lerner, 87, started a fund by having the nurses at the center put in $1 and according to her, everyone who came started putting in money also.  Various synagogues sent out newsletters and emails to their congregants urging monetary contributions to the UJF fund, and some turned themselves into satellite pick up points for the San Diego Jewish Academy's drive.

Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School reported that its middle school students "gained particular insight into the human side of the tragic events unfolding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through their discussions with Rabbi (Chaim) Hollander, who lived and taught in New Orleans from 1977-81, and lived through the last major storm to hit the city."   The school on Monday, Sept. 12,  held a "special Tefilah assembly involving the entire shool in prayer on behalf of the victims and all who are suffering due to Katrina," according to a spokesman.  "Our students are learning the classic Jewish responses to such tragedies: tefilah --to sincerely pray for compassion for the victim-- and chessed, to make significant efforts to alleviate suffering and show concern and kindness."