“I’d like to give you a hug. Let me tell you why.”
These were the first words the CEO of ZAKA said when we met in my office on Tuesday.
The hug, I gladly accepted. The why, I’ll explain…
ZAKA is an Israeli search and rescue organization with more than 3,000 volunteers who do the extraordinarily difficult and sacred work of collecting human remains from disaster, accident, or terror sites. Identifiable by their neon yellow vests, the volunteers painstakingly collect every trace of blood and bone to ensure a proper Jewish burial.
The Hebrew words “chesed shel emet” — true virtue — are emblazoned on each ZAKA vest because the recipients of their kindness are unable to express gratitude.
Beginning on October 7, ZAKA volunteers worked literally around the clock to give back a measure of dignity to those who perished under the most horrific of circumstances. The sheer number of dead put enormous strain on ZAKA’s resources and the emotional state of their volunteers. And so on October 10, we made a significant contribution to support their work. According to their CEO, this was the first major funding from abroad, which they believe motivated many others from the United States to follow suit.
The hug was a simple thank you — for being a force multiplier, helping them to carry forward their holy mission during an incredibly trying time.
This is my tenth year at UJA. And I typically write an end-of-year message. But it’s frankly hard to write one now when there’s no sense of finality to 2023. The war in Israel is still raging, many of the hostages are still being held captive, much of the world continues to deny or remain silent about the atrocities of October 7, and the rising tide of antisemitism in America feels like a tsunami of hate and misinformation.
If there’s something we can hold on to, it’s this: our work, your contributions, are making a dramatic difference in the lives of millions of people in Israel, in New York, and around the world.
Just yesterday, we approved nearly $19 million in new Israel-related emergency grants, raising our total emergency allocations in Israel since October 7 to more than $64 million.
These latest grants include significant funds to support:
- The eight communities most devastated by the massacre on October 7: Beeri, Nir Oz, Kfar Aza, Netiv Ha'asara, Nirim, Kissufim, Nahal Oz, and Holit
- An educational facility run by the leading hospitals in Israel to teach and train therapists and caregivers across the spectrum of healthcare disciplines: psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, medical students, therapists, nurses, and teachers in the public school system
- Rape crisis centers and the Deborah Institute for Gender and Sustainability Studies, which is collecting evidence and testimonies to document and investigate war crimes against women and children committed by Hamas on October 7
- A new mental health trauma center to serve evacuees, soldiers, survivors of the music festival, and other victims of the war
- Two major youth resilience centers in Eilat and the Dead Sea (home now to over 60,000 displaced Israelis), providing educational programming, sports, and psychological support.
Dark times illuminate what truly matters, and being a community of strength and purpose has never mattered more.
As we approach the end of 2023, on behalf of the entire leadership of UJA-Federation, let me express our enormous gratitude for all those whose lives are being made immeasurably better by your generosity.
There’s still tremendous uncertainty ahead, and much more will be demanded of us all. But future generations will remember how our community came together, finding resilience and hope — holding one another close.
May 2024 be a brighter year for all.