When homeowners in Louisiana began the cleanup after the country’s most devastating natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy this August, they got help from an unexpected quarter – Israel.

Eight aid workers from Israeli nonprofit organization IsraAID flew out to the flood-stricken state to help local residents start clearing debris and rehabilitating their lives.

It’s not the first time Israel has flown to help the United States. Israeli aid organizations have rushed to provide assistance time and again, helping the country through some of its most traumatic experiences in recent years, from floods to hurricanes, wild fires, tornados and terror attacks.

In October last year, nine humanitarian relief experts from IsraAID flew to the Carolinas in the wake of catastrophic flooding. Huge swaths of the two states were damaged in the flash floods, and 25 people died.

With the coordination of local Jewish Federations, IsraAID volunteers helped clear debris from the ruins of homes.

Similar recovery missions happened after flooding in Texas in May 2015, after a tornado packing winds of 160mph in Coal City, and after a wildfire in Pateros, Washington State, in August 2014, which destroyed some 300 homes.

IsraAid workers clearing up after the wildfire in Washington State. Photo by Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAid
IsraAid workers clearing up after the wildfire in Washington State. Photo by Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAid

Aid workers from Israel flew to Pateros for the cleanup effort even though Israel was in the middle of a deadly conflict with Gaza, which saw hundreds of missiles falling throughout Israeli cities.

When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the US east coast in October 2012, affecting 24 states, and causing damages of $71.4 billion, aid teams from across Israel pitched in to help. IsraAID, Israeli Flying Aid and Latet all arrived on the scene to help with search-and-rescue and clearing projects.

Many of the volunteers were Israelis living in the US, or just visiting, and financing came from young Israelis and from Israeli companies who provided food, water, generators, gasoline, sheets, blankets, clothes and even storage facilities for people who had to be evacuated from their homes.

A member of IsraAid offers a supportive hug to a victim of Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAid
A member of IsraAid offers a supportive hug to a victim of Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAid

Israeli Flying Aid brought in a vital delivery of fuel and generators for county hospitals left without power. Israeli teams mobilized local restaurants to deliver food.

“Israelis are great in terms of being prepared and able to function in emergencies and disasters,” Israeli relief volunteer Joel Leyden told ISRAEL21c from the scene in New Jersey. “Unfortunately, that’s the environment we’ve had to adapt to and what makes us excel in places like Haiti, Japan, Turkey and even New York.”

Another area in which Israel offers significant aid to the US is in trauma counseling. Out of necessity, Israel has become one of the leading experts in this field worldwide, and it will often send experts to disaster areas to train leaders in affected communities how to help residents pick up the pieces of their lives.

After the terror attack in Boston in April 2013, the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) took a six-person team of experts to Massachusetts and held 17 workshops for clergy, school and hospital personnel.

“In their greatest hour of despair, people do have their own strengths and you need to strengthen them. We are there temporarily, lending our resources,” says ITC director Talia Levanon, a clinical social worker who has traveled to many disaster sites around the world. “We have the practice. We have the knowledge and we feel the pain because we’ve been there and know what it is about.”

The ITC often hosts guests from places like Harvard University and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who want to learn about ITC’s community-based approach to healing and creating resilience.

CAP: Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans leaving 80% of the area under water. Israeli trauma professionals arrived in the city to offer help. Photo by www.shutterstock.com

Israel was also on hand in the wake of the deadly Hurricane Katrina, a category 3 storm that hit in August 2005, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans under water and killing nearly 1,500 people.

The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, led frequent missions to the devastated city in the months afterwards, adapting pyschotrauma programs developed in the wake of terrorism in Israel to the survivors of Katrina.

The center trained teachers, social workers, school nurses and counselors across the affected areas. In 2006, Dr. Naomi Baum, then director of the Israeli center’s resilience unit, initiated the Building Resilience in Schools project in collaboration with United Jewish Communities, The Mental Health Association of Mississippi and the Israel Trauma Coalition.

Help from Israel comes not just in the wake of disasters, however. Israel’s United Hatzalah, a voluntary emergency response organization founded to get medical aid to people faster than the ambulance system, has now been adapted to the US where it has operations in Jersey City and Detroit.

United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer with the first graduating class of volunteer first-responders in Jersey City. Photo by Yadin Goldman
United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer with the first graduating class of volunteer first-responders in Jersey City. Photo by Yadin Goldman

In Jersey City, United Rescue – the international arm of United Hatzalah – this year graduated its second class of 50 volunteer EMTs, and is starting to train another 50 in tandem with local emergency service professionals. The first training class in Detroit also began this year.

“There is nothing similar to our model of working on a daily basis on this scale, of so many people willing to be on call 24/7 to do good for others,” says Dov Maisel, UH director of international operations.

In Los Angeles, the nonprofit animal rescue charity Hope for Paws is run by Israeli Eldad Hagar. Hagar specializes in extreme animal rescues, going into situations where no other organization is able or prepared to take the risk.

 Miley was subsisting in a trash heap before Eldad Hagar rescued him. Photo by David Miller Studios
Miley was subsisting in a trash heap before Eldad Hagar rescued him. Photo by David Miller Studios

In Harlem, you can find another Israeli in action, this time in a new project, Seed Street, which brings urban gardening to Harlem kids. Leigh Ofer, whose family founded the Ofer Brothers shipping company, has set up a hydroponic vegetable garden inside repurposed shipping containers in the impoverished inner city area, bringing empowerment and knowledge to local children.

This is just one of the stories in our aid exhibition, My Name is Israel. If you would like to read more, please click here.