Israeli Army Volunteers Struck by Devastation and Lack of Gov’t Help

Volunteers and former army members from Israel, Oriya Barkai, Snani Mymon, and Elya Tzur, stand among the damage left by Sandy in Sea Gate, Brooklyn. A volunteer group of 12 Israelis were jarred at the lack of government assistance on the ground in parts of Brooklyn where they helped in relief efforts. (Photo from Ein Prat, via The Jewish Daily Forward)

A group of 12 Israeli army veterans, ages 22 to 31, came to New York to help with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. However, upon their arrival, they were stunned at the lack of guidance and presence on the part of government rescue agencies, reported Seth Berkman of The Jewish Daily Forward. The volunteers are alumni of Mechina Ein Prat, a Jewish identity program that prepares high school grads for elite army service in Israel.

Finding little evidence of the presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross in certain neighborhoods, the Ein Prat members have helped organize volunteers in Far Rockaway in Queens, Coney Island and Sea Gate in Brooklyn and hard hit communities in Staten Island. Their efforts have included cleaning out wrecked homes and stores, bringing in emergency supplies, including food and water, and monitoring elderly residents who refused to be evacuated.

The communities they helped were among the hardest hit, and were in many cases home to large concentrations of Jews — a fact that was not incidental for members of the delegation. Back in Israel, Ein Prat’s mission is to strengthen young people’s Jewish and Zionist identity and sense of service to Israeli Jewish society.

“If this situation was in Israel, it’d be obvious for us to help,” said Tamar Steinberg, a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, where she led basic training and taught Zionist education programs for immigrant soldiers. “But here, it’s also our people, our community.”

In the neighborhoods the group visited, members did not see any FEMA or Red Cross workers. Residents themselves reported little attention or help from the agencies.

Within hours of their arrival, the Israeli volunteers headed for Far Rockaway to help the many elderly Polish and Russian Jews in high-rise buildings. Despite their experiences with working in war situations and relief efforts, Ein Prat members were struck by the devastation they saw in New York.

In areas where the Red Cross was not present, unaffiliated volunteers began to look toward Ein Prat volunteers for guidance. Delegation member Elyz Tzur, who is the founding CEO of Lev Echad (“One Heart”), a volunteer organization, and has led that group’s civil relief operations during several Israeli conflicts, said he and his colleagues were trained to operate under duress. “Emergencies are when things don’t operate, when people can’t take care of things themselves,” he said. “People need to know when, why and someone to coordinate it.” The Ein Prat members did not place direct blame on FEMA or the Red Cross, but were taken aback at the scale of the devastation.

Shani Lachmish, whose post-army work has focused on serving injured soldiers and bereaved families, recalled an encounter with one of the first victims she met in New York. “I knocked on one door of an elderly woman, an Israeli who came here a few years ago. She was crying. She was on the 11th floor of her building. She couldn’t walk. She only eats kosher. I had nothing to give her. And so we just cried together.”

Mann said that, of all the places where he has provided aid, “this has been a situation that has been the most severe.”

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