Jewish organizations are rallying to help support the tens of thousands of displaced residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., who have been forced to evacuate the area due to a ravaging wildfire.
The Alberta government declared a state of emergency May 4 as a result of the catastrophic fires sweeping through Fort McMurray and the surrounding area, and 90,000 people have been evacuated.
On May 4, the Jewish Federation of Edmonton set up a PayPal account to collect donations for evacuees staying in and around Edmonton.
Community relations director Tal Toubiana said the federation has been publicizing the campaign through its website and on Facebook, in the hope of reaching the city’s Jewish community of roughly 5,000 people and the wider Edmonton community.
He said it hasn’t been decided where federation will donate the money it raises, though it will likely go to an organization such as the Canadian Red Cross.
Ve’ahavta, a Toronto-based social service organization whose programs include international crisis response, also launched a Fort McMurray relief fund May 4, and Ve’ahavta CEO Avrum Rosensweig said it was able to raise more than $6,000 overnight.
He said Ve’ahavta is in discussions with other organizations to determine how best to allocate the funds, which were mostly donated by people in Toronto.
“There’s no map telling you how to give money in a crisis, so we need to figure out who to work with. We’ve put the word out to the Jewish community in Edmonton and people from Fort McMurray to figure out how best to distribute the money… We’re mandated to give it to a larger organization like the Red Cross or United Way,” Rosensweig said.
He stressed the Jewish community’s responsibility to help those affected by the fire, which may be the worst in Western Canadian history.
“The needs are tremendous in terms of immediate crisis [supplies] like blankets, food and shelter, not all of which are being taken care of by the government and certainly not by insurance companies. It seemed pretty clear to us that there should be a Jewish communal response to this crisis,” he said.
IsraAid, an Israel-based non-profit that provides life-saving disaster relief and long-term support in crisis areas all over the world, has also rushed to help, making it the first time the organization will be deploying a team in Canada.
Shachar Zahavi, IsraAid’s founding director, told The CJN by phone from Tel Aviv that his group already has a volunteer on the ground in Alberta assessing the situation in evacuation areas set up near Fort McMurray.
“The minute we have a better sense of what’s happening, we’ll decide how to act,” he said, emphasizing that IsraAid will definitely be sending more volunteers over the next few days.
Their aim is to focus first on “psycho-social interventions” to deal with the needs and responses of the evacuees staying in temporary shelters, something he stressed Israel is a leader in. Once the fire stops burning, they’ll send a team to help clean up the debris.
“We’re usually working in developing countries, although we’ve been to the United States about 10 times to help with things like hurricanes and tornadoes… We help fill in the gaps [of existing relief work]… Often, in disaster areas, many volunteers will come help for a week or so but then need to go back to work. But we come specially and we stay for two or three weeks, so that’s an advantage other groups don’t have,” he said.
Zahavi added that IsraAid often partners with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and other Canadian Jewish federations.
Some synagogues in Edmonton are also pitching in.
Temple Beth Ora Synagogue, for example, a Reform shul, is holding a Shabbaton for congregants this coming weekend, and rather than have them pay the Shabbaton fee, they’ve asked participants to donate money to the Canadian Red Cross and bring goods such as water bottles or diapers that the shul can donate.
Dan Horowitz, director of communications for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said a number of Canadian federations, including Edmonton’s, will speak by phone May 6 to assess the needs on the ground and figure out how to best provide support.
“Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be a long-term situation rather than a quick fix,” Horowitz said.