IsraAID: Bridge building with Israel through global humanitarian volunteerism

U.S.-Israel Bridge Building

IsraAID: Bridge building with Israel through global humanitarian volunteerism

U.S.-Israel Bridge Building

Ensuring a bright future for Israel is one of the Koret Foundation’s original priorities. Equally important to us has been, and continues to be, inspiring members of the Bay Area Jewish community to pursue a Jewish identity that resonates for them. Over the years, we have funded many organizations whose work advances both goals simultaneously. These “engagement experiences” often take place in Israel, but recently we have begun to explore additional ways to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship through volunteerism and bridge building experiences.

In 2016, we partnered with IsraAID, an Israeli aid organization that responds to crises everywhere in the world except Israel, to help the organization expand its operations in the U.S.  Since its founding in 2001, IsraAID has provided emergency relief services and implemented sustainable development programs in 41 countries, including Jordan and northern Iraq. IsraAID staff provides leadership on missions and in field offices, but the organization depends on volunteers for many key team positions, including doctors, nurses, therapists and social-service professionals. IsraAID had identified the Bay Area as a potential U.S. base of operations in the because of its concentration of educational institutions and its diverse pool of potential volunteers, including tech-sector trainers and systems analysts. To date, IsraAID has over 90 professional volunteers on its roster, ready to assist when necessary.

IsraAID makes deep and long-lasting connections

IsraAID’s approach is holistic and optimistic, consistently working to achieve long-term sustainability for populations affected by crisis and leave the community better positioned to thrive economically. IsraAID’s program expertise includes coordinating search-and-rescue teams, setting up emergency medical services, distributing food and drinking water, providing trauma counseling, and re-establishing a sense of daily life in a community. IsraAID does this through professional staff and volunteers. In 2010, IsraAID arrived in Haiti four days after the devastating earthquake. Seven years later, IsraAID is still there, coordinating agricultural development, setting up schools and livelihood programs, and training Haitian social services providers to deal with gender-based violence.

The autumn of 2017 brought “an unbelievable wave of disasters,” says Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAID . IsraAID sent teams to Texas, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominica (an independent country in the Caribbean), and Bangladesh. And when wildfires broke out in Napa and Sonoma, Polizer himself was coordinating volunteers in Santa Rosa.

Prior to 2017, IsraAID had sent teams to the U.S. to help communities struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina (2005), Superstorm Sandy (2012), and the tornadoes in Oklahoma (2013), to name a few. In Europe, IsraAID has worked in Greece continuously since September 2015, helping the seemingly endless stream of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to cope with all aspects of their interrupted lives.

Navonel (Voni) Glick, co-CEO of IsraAID, mentions two aspects of the organization’s work that are not highly visible but are deeply felt: “It’s moving to hear people’s reaction when they realize that we are an Israeli organization. For many of them, this is their first personal interaction with Israelis, and it occurs at a very confusing and vulnerable time for them, having fled violence and atrocities at home. And because most of our Israeli team speak fluent Arabic, we can communicate with the refugees in Greece in a meaningful way—not just providing medical and psychological support, but also building lasting bonds of trust. This is an added ‘reward’ for us, to learn more about their lives, their situation—and their hopes for the future.”

Bay Area rabbis and Muslim leaders experience IsraAID in action

In April 2017, IsraAID coordinated an interfaith mission to Lesbos, Greece. A dozen leaders from the Bay Area witnessed the magnitude of the crisis, meeting with refugees and observing the key roles that IsraAID volunteers fill.

  • Speaking out

    Bay Area participants on the interfaith mission to Greece were moved to share their experience with their communities. Senior Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco returned eager to preach about “the holiness of IsraAID’s work with Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghani and other refugees.” She reflected, “The work that IsraAID is doing in Greece and other countries makes me so proud that this is fundamentally a Jewish organization. They are doing this work on behalf of all of us and deserve our support.” Rabbi Singer has spoken from the pulpit about “this complex, tragic conflict for six years now. I have read about it, I have supported relief organizations … and I have truly felt I was standing idly by.”

  • Mobilizing quickly

    Initial Koret support for IsraAID is two-fold: to help establish operations and programs in the Bay Area, and to seed the organization’s global humanitarian relief emergency fund. IsraAID’s major funders, among them UN agencies like UNICEF, can only release funds on a crisis-by-crisis basis, and, as a result, issuing funding for emergency response often takes a day or two. For IsraAID, this constraint has proven critical.

    To ensure IsraAID’s presence and expertise on the front lines of future humanitarian crises, Koret funded a reserve that will allow IsraAID to mobilize response teams immediately. As Yotam Polizer puts it, “IsraAID is known for moving quickly, and we have been able to save many lives. But we will save many more lives now that we do not need to wait for funding.” IsraAID will still need funding in order to respond to emergencies, but teams will not experience delays in deployment waiting for funds to arrive.

  • Looking ahead

    IsraAID’s Bay Area staff continues to conduct outreach for volunteers to support its missions in the field. The staff also educates students in high schools and on college campuses about global humanitarian issues and Israel’s role in supporting affected communities.

    IsraAID was able to offer fellowships to 14 college students in the summer of 2017. The fellows were sent to seven different countries: 3 in the Bay Area; 3 in Israel; the others in Greece, Germany Nepal, Ecuador, and the Philippines. In the field, the fellows served as assistants to the heads of missions. Those studying journalism or communications helped with documentation, reporting, and social media. Polizer confirms, “The experience was empowering for the fellows, and it was also very meaningful for the staff.” He adds that most of the fellows are engaged in follow-up activities on their campuses.

    IsraAID’s upcoming outreach will target Silicon Valley professionals to participate in the organization’s “livelihood training” programs, a key component of sustaining communities in transition. IsraAID has had success setting up computer learning centers adjacent to refugee camps and is eager to collaborate with tech entrepreneurs to expand this work. IsraAID will also look at other professional sectors for special-focus missions to its global field projects. Most importantly, IsraAID teams will continue to serve as ambassadors of Israel all over the world.

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