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When Disaster Strikes

June 11, 2012 | by Binyamin Rose

Will Recant, son of Holocaust survivors, is one of the world’s top experts in emergency relief and disaster assistance programs.

It was one of the most devastating days in the history of mankind. The final death toll will never be precisely known, but more people perished in the massive 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami than in the combined atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Will Recant was on holiday with his family when the devastation struck.

Recant, the senior executive in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, or Joint) responsible for nonsectarian programming, raced back to his New York desk and labored through field representatives and other local partners to set up a relief system and distribute food to survivors.

He traveled to the hardest-hit area in Indonesia, slammed by 30-foot-high waves.

After three weeks, he traveled to perhaps the hardest-hit area, Banda Aceh, in northwest Indonesia, which had been slammed by 30-foot-high seismic sea waves.

“It was uncanny,” Recant envisions the scene. “You turn to the left and you see total destruction. You see boats sitting five miles inland mixed with cars, rubble, and seashells. Then you turn to the right and you see roads and banks and businesses and life as usual. It was surreal to have this view of how far the ocean came and receded, and how life on one side of it was just fine and life on the other side of it was totally destroyed.”

Credit: Mishpacha Magazine/Adam Hunger

The details of widespread devastation, along with many others from Will Recant’s 30-year career in disaster relief, are well-etched into his memory bank. He has spent more than half of every one of those 30 years on road trips, organizing relief efforts on behalf of victims of natural disasters, wars, and poverty.

Recant is chiefly responsible for helping to assess the overall picture, determine the most pressing needs, coordinate rescue and relief efforts with local partners and international relief agencies, and ensure that reconstruction and redevelopment aid is utilized as intended.

The JDC’s main mission, which sometimes dovetails with Recant’s work, is to help Israel and Jews in need around the globe. The nonsectarian programs Recant pilots are funded by special, external campaigns.

$3,000 per Jew

Where is Recant headed to next? The answer to that question may well be dictated by the next 8.0 earth tremor on the Richter scale, but this particular morning is a placid one at JDC headquarters on Third Avenue in Manhattan.

Will is making his final preparations for a trip to Ethiopia to review humanitarian programs that have run the gamut from building schools, digging wells, helping children in need of spinal surgery, and de-worming rural villages. After that, he will head to Rwanda for a dedication ceremony at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, built with JDC assistance five years ago for orphan teenagers of the Rwandan genocide — the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis over a bloody, 100-day period in 1994.

Recant’s self-assured manner befits the major accomplishments under his belt, yet he refuses to accept credit. It’s a lesson he says he learned at his previous position as executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. The AAEJ was a major player in Operation Solomon — the dramatic 1991 emergency airlift of nearly all of Ethiopia’s 14,500 Jews in less than 36 hours.

“I learned very quickly from the president of that organization, Nate Shapiro, that there was no Will Recant and there was no Nate Shapiro. There’s only the American Association for Ethiopian Jews and the mission at hand,” says Recant, who began his humanitarian career while working on his doctoral dissertation at George Washington University. “The Ethiopian famine was the great famine of the 20th century,” Recant explains. “It was difficult to see the images while knowing that we’re living at a time where there’s an ability to provide assistance, tomorrow, anywhere in the world.”

Recant’s role in Operation Solomon included advocacy in Washington, DC’s, halls of power to increase attention to the plight of Ethiopian Jews, and helping raise the estimated $3,000 required to transport each Jew to safety.

It's a privilege, as the child of Holocaust survivors, to help bring Jews to Israel.

Some of that money was used to produce false documentation inviting Jews to come and work or visit the US under family reunification plans, or even to smuggle them physically out of Ethiopia, via Sudan or Kenya, to Israel. Sometimes the smuggling was done by car, at other times by means that Recant still does not feel at liberty to discuss. “There were myriad ways of rescuing Jews. For me, it was really a privilege, as the child of Holocaust survivors, to help bring these Jews to Eretz Yisrael, to the land of their dreams,” says Recant.

Recant’s father hailed from Vengrov, a small shtetl in Poland, east of Warsaw. He fled eastward during World War II, but the Russians arrested him as a German spy and sent him packing to frigid Siberia. As the war dragged on, the Russians decided Mr. Recant would be of greater value to them as a soldier, so they released him to the Polish army under Russian command.

Will’s mother was also a Polish native. She hid for more than three years during World War II in the neck of Belarusian woods made famous by the movie Defiance, which celebrated the Bielsky brothers’ partisan operation.

After World War II, the Recants ended up in America, met, and married.

“I’m very fortunate that my parents survived. I often think about those who didn’t, because my father always liked to say that he was the ‘worst of his seven brothers and sisters.’ Everyone else perished in Treblinka. He used to say they were all smarter than him and were better human beings than him. He had survivor guilt to the day of his death. He had the book Treblinka on his nightstand for 20 years. He read and reread it.

“Having seen part of our legacy taken from us, and thinking about those who didn’t make it, has perhaps been the motivation to do what I do.”

Happy to Be Wrong

Will Recant grew up in peacetime in midtown Manhattan, eons away from his parents’ tumultuous wartime experiences. During his yeshivah years at Ramaz, his principal, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, would comment that he didn’t have much zitzfleisch. Or, as Recant puts it, “I was one of the more adventurous kids.”

His parents owned a mom-and-pop grocery store and Will would see all walks of life walk through the door. “You learn to see past the façade of the people,” he says. “It was wonderful for me.”

He was the first yeshivah graduate to receive a Division I athletic scholarship.

Baseball was also a big draw for Will. He was the first yeshivah graduate to receive a Division I athletic scholarship and played third base at the University of Louisville. Although Kentucky’s southern gentility clashed with his New York sophistication, Will says he appreciated those years as an opportunity to be up front about his Judaism.

Eventually, he earned a PhD in political science at George Washington University, which fueled his interest in international affairs.

The contacts he built in Washington during his Operation Solomon years came in handy in the early 1990s after the fall of Communism, when Cuba began its shift from an official policy of atheism to allow a measure of religious tolerance. Will made his first trip to Cuba in 1992, shortly after joining the JDC.

Credit: Mishpacha Magazine/Adam Hunger

Before Cuba formally amended its constitution, if a Jew attended synagogue services, he was precluded from becoming a communist party member. After the constitutional change allowing practicing Jews to participate in the political process, Dr. Jose Miller z”l, president of Cuba’s Jewish community, called the JDC for help.

The community was in shambles. It had had no functioning rabbi since the 1960s, when Fidel Castro seized the reins of power.

“We want your assistance in being a community again,” Dr. Miller told Recant.

Recant heeded the cry for help, and traveled to Cuba. There, he and leaders of the local Jewish community literally knocked on the doors of all the Jewish families listed in the 1950s censuses. They explained the new law and invited the people to Shabbos services, which were to be held in the basement of the Patronato (Havana’s JCC), which had fallen into neglect.

When Shabbos arrived, Recant sat in the basement with a small group of other men, including Dr. Miller, waiting for a minyan. At age 72, Dr. Miller was the youngest member of the Cuban contingent.

“None of the light bulbs worked,” said Recant. “Every window was broken. Birds were nesting over the aron kodesh and they would fly around during davening. The walls hadn’t been painted in 40 years. People were coming for Kabbalat Shabbat and there was a sign on the wall that said ‘Am Yisrael b’Cuba chai.’ I leaned over to Dr. Miller and I pointed to the sign and said, ‘Emes (Truth)!’ And he said, ‘No, we are dying and there will not be another generation of Jews in Cuba.’”

Fifteen years later, Recant found himself in the newly renovated Patronato, face-to-face with Dr. Miller — as it turns out — two months before the elderly activist passed away.

“That sign wasn’t there anymore. I asked, Dr. Miller, ‘Do you remember when we first met?’

“And he said, ‘Absolutely and thank God, thanks to my community, and thanks to the Joint, I was wrong. We are thriving and we are doing better than ever.’”

Recant’s daughter Jennifer accompanied Will on one of his trips to Cuba shortly before her bas mitzvah. Since she knows some Spanish, she was able to converse with the Cuban youth. During the course of the conversation, she learned that six of them were also her age, none had undergone a bar or bas mitzvah, and in fact there hadn’t been a bar or bas mitzvah in Cuba since the 1960s.

It costs about $600 per youth to provide them with bar or bas mitzvah training, as well as pairs of tefillin, talleisim, a Tanach, and candlesticks. Jennifer herself donated the money for the first six bar and bas mitzvahs, which were held at a gala gathering for more than 600 Cuban Jews.

The sign “Am Yisrael b’Cuba chai” may not have been hanging anymore, but it was no longer needed. The results were speaking for themselves.

War Duty

Until 1991, the south European nation of Yugoslavia was comprised of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Serbia was further divided into two autonomous regions: Kosovo and Vojvodina.

By 1991, the Yugoslav republics began clamoring for independence. A Serbian minority in Croatia declared their own state and embarked on an ethnic-cleansing campaign, killing more than 10,000 civilians. Serb units even emptied a hospital of Croatian patients and executed them in a nearby field.

After a negotiated cease-fire, Serb forces partially pulled out of Croatia, taking up new positions in neighboring Bosnia, home to a sizable Serb minority.

In 1992, Bosnian Serbs launched their own ethnic cleansing campaign, killing more than 200,000 civilians. Half of Bosnia’s four million people fled the country. As they fled, Will Recant entered.

The JDC had already been working with the Jewish community in Sarajevo, Bosnia, through La Benevolencija, a Jewish humanitarian association formed 100 years ago to promote the general welfare of the population irrespective of religion or nationality. Now, as the region deteriorated into a genocidal bloodbath, aid programs were increased.

In 1999, after years of dithering, NATO forces finally launched an aerial bombardment against Serb military targets. Serbia responded with an all-out genocide campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian population, driving hundreds of thousands across the border into refugee camps in Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro.

Skopje, Macedonia’s small but well-organized 180-member Jewish community was among the first responders when Kosovo refugees streamed into Macedonia, but soon it was time to flee again. “When the refugees saw the NATO bombing and the Serbs leaving, they just started to flock back in themselves in a disorganized, unplanned manner, just as they had come out,” says Recant.

Even in chaotic situations such as these, Recant has learned to make coolheaded evaluations. Experienced international relief organizations and their field partners prepare situation reports. The United Nations, through its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), assists governments in mobilizing international assistance when the scale of the disaster exceeds the national capacity.

“The UN has what’s called the cluster system, which is broken down into different sectors, such as sanitation, health, education, food distribution, and shelter,” says Recant. “I will go to the UN cluster meeting where you get assessments from the government of the affected nation, members of the international community, the military, as well as from other NGOs and field representatives. There’s a constant open communication between the field and headquarters as to what the needs and costs are and to try to match them with legitimate partners.”

Underground Survivors

At times, finding open lines of communication is itself the issue.

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was a natural disaster of a scale equivalent to the 2004 tsunami, in terms of loss of life and destruction.

Rescue efforts were hampered because telephone service on the island nation was knocked out, although some cellular phone systems were operating.

Recant’s first order of business was to secure the names and addresses of the ten known Jewish families in Haiti.

“We were able to connect with one of the leading families in Haiti who connected us with everyone else,” says Recant. “Within an hour, literally, we had everyone’s names and were able to contact or call them.”

Once again, local Jewish help was indispensable. “A Jewish family who owned the soccer stadium donated it for use when the IDF set up its initial field hospital,” says Recant.

Recant says that from his experience, survivors can normally be found for the first four or five days after natural disaster strikes, especially if there are eyewitnesses who can convey accurate information as to people’s whereabouts.

“Sometimes, people know that others were in a certain apartment, or in a certain location of a building. On the basis of that information, you can bring in listening devices and see if you can hear anything,” he said. “In Haiti, we found that several people were rescued because students told us that there was another group of students in another classroom and rescuers were able to train their equipment at a specific area.”

“A gift of the Jewish community of Morocco” was embroidered in Arabic on the back of every wheelchair.

One of the students, named Oscar, was one of three survivors from his 12th-grade class. His right leg had to be amputated after a building collapsed on him, killing 54 of his classmates. The Israeli medical team from the IDF, JDC field partner Magen David Adom, and Tel HaShomer Hospital fit Oscar for a state-of-the-art prosthesis. Oscar has since learned to walk again, without assistance.

Several years ago, Recant spearheaded an effort with a partner association in Morocco to deliver a container of wheelchairs to Morocco. The words “a gift of the Jewish community of Morocco” were embroidered in Arabic on the back of every wheelchair.

“Morocco’s king went on national television to say thanks to the fact that we have 4,500 loyal Jewish citizens who care not only about themselves but about others; our kingdom is enriched and we all benefit,” said Recant.

While his position clearly affords him the opportunity for humanitarian accomplishments on a daily basis, Recant says a couple of enduring goals keeps him motivated.

“First, no Jew should be going to bed hungry, anywhere in the world.

“And you know, it’s a big world. There are a lot of needs out there. I get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is great and the bad can be horrendous, especially what man does to man.

“There are so many challenges. We just have to turn a new page each day and see what comes next.”

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.

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