Natural disasters, by their very nature, make us feel powerless. What impact can we have in the face of so much destruction? There’s a well-known saying from Pirkei Avot, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” And so we do not desist.

Almost exactly this time last year, I stood in Loíza, a low-income neighborhood in Puerto Rico. Joined by the local Jewish community, who had been spared the brunt of the hurricanes, our small UJA delegation handed out food, water, and toiletries to Loíza’s residents, grateful for everything we brought. An Israeli flag waved beside us, our way of communicating: What you see here is a Jewish response to humanitarian crisis.

All told, we sent 29 planes and a cargo ship filled with 100,000 pounds of supplies worth $4 million to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

About a month earlier, senior members of UJA’s planning staff traveled to Houston right after Hurricane Harvey to help the beleaguered local Jewish community, whose schools, synagogues, and homes had been flooded. We provided critical support to help meet both immediate and longer-term needs.

Now in the fall of 2018, we’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of multiple natural disasters, and once again, we’re demonstrating a Jewish response to humanitarian crisis. Following the deadly Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is providing emergency medical services, essential supplies, and psychosocial support. With a presence in Indonesia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, JDC has the expertise and local contacts to quickly assess needs and distribute aid.

More locally, we’ve been gathering supplies to help victims of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas. We partnered with the Afya Foundation (also our wonderful partner on the Puerto Rico relief efforts), who generated a list of needed supplies. Within 24 hours we identified 33 collection sites at synagogues and nonprofits across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and Westchester. A generous family, active leaders at UJA, offered their company’s trucks to pick up and deliver supplies from the collection sites to the Afya warehouse. And this past Sunday, we organized a volunteer day where 150 volunteers came to the Afya warehouse in Yonkers to sort and package 6,000 pounds of supplies that were sent down to the Carolinas Wednesday morning.

Most of UJA’s critical day-to-day work is relatively (and happily) predictable: We’re the backbone of the Jewish community, lifting up lives and strengthening Jewish life locally and globally. But at times our work is utterly unpredictable; it brings us to places we’ve never known, sometimes allowing us to meet people whose gratitude we’ll never forget. Let me extend this gratitude to all of you for making this possible, and to our partners on the ground, whose work is the definition of heroic.

Shabbat shalom