Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz is the Founder and Pres­i­dent of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rab­bi at Kehi­lath Israel, and is the author of Jew­ish Ethics & Social Jus­tice: A Guide for the 21st Cen­tu­ry. Newsweek named Rav Shmu­ly one of the top 50 rab­bis in Amer­i­ca. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The Rab­bis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that At a time when the com­mu­ni­ty is suf­fer­ing, no one should say, I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’” To effec­tive­ly aid those who are suf­fer­ing, we need the coop­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion of each and every indi­vid­ual. We need strong indi­vid­u­als, effec­tive non-prof­its, and com­mit­ted states. How­ev­er, we also need to rec­og­nize the most pow­er­ful col­lec­tive body avail­able to address the suf­fer­ing. In our soci­ety, the mech­a­nism that rep­re­sents the peo­ple is the gov­ern­ment, and it must be effec­tive. Gov­ern­ment does not always have to be big to be effec­tive, but often­times it does, espe­cial­ly when respond­ing to dis­as­ters on a large scale. 

Hur­ri­cane Sandy, which struck the east coast in Octo­ber 2012, was the largest Atlantic hur­ri­cane on record and the sec­ond-costli­est, behind only Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na. At least 253 peo­ple were killed and an esti­mat­ed $65.6 bil­lion was lost due to dam­age and busi­ness inter­rup­tion. For weeks, many in this, the wealth­i­est coun­try in the world, were sud­den­ly lack­ing the basic neces­si­ties of life, such as shel­ter, heat, pow­er, and water. The most dra­mat­ic dam­age occurred in south­ern New Jer­sey and the New York City met­ro­pol­i­tan area. In New Jer­sey, the his­toric Sea­side Heights roller coast­er was car­ried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tan­gled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jer­sey shore area revealed miles of destroyed board­walks and beach­es that had vir­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared, along with hun­dreds of demol­ished hous­es and boats. To the north, near­ly 100 peo­ple died with­in a 65-mile radius of New York City as a result of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. Man­hat­tan had nev­er before flood­ed, but Hur­ri­cane Sandy’s waters were near­ly 4 feet high­er than the city’s 10-foot walls. Scores were killed in their homes on the coasts of Stat­en Island and Queens. Some ignored manda­to­ry orders to evac­u­ate, oth­ers were elder­ly and infirm, but all were vic­tim­ized by a flood surge that filled hous­es with water with­in min­utes, allow­ing no escape. Oth­ers were killed by falling branch­es and trees. Mil­lions of peo­ple were with­out pow­er, and received lit­tle-to-no infor­ma­tion from their util­i­ty com­pa­nies about when pow­er might be restored. The cat­a­stro­phe was rem­i­nis­cent of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na in 2005, and many feared a repeat of the government’s fee­ble response to that storm might occur again.

This time, the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) was ready to act. With­in three days, FEMA had deployed about 2,300 dis­as­ter-relief per­son­nel across sev­er­al states; pro­vid­ed shel­ter to more than 10,000 peo­ple; res­cued some 700 peo­ple; and deliv­ered around 700,000 gal­lons of water and 1.5 mil­lion meals to oth­ers in need. Per­verse­ly, many in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives now pro­pose that we slash the agency’s fund­ing by up to 40 per­cent, argu­ing that dis­as­ter relief should be han­dled by the states and pri­vate sec­tor, not the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The argu­ment typ­i­cal­ly goes that the Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is over­ly bureau­crat­ic and slow to act while states can be nim­ble, under­stand the needs of the local­i­ties and their con­stituents bet­ter, and thus should be charged with more responsibility. 

The Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment must have the capac­i­ty to swift­ly respond when it comes to dis­as­ter relief. Of course, as past mis­takes reveal, a big­ger FEMA does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean a bet­ter FEMA, nor enhanced relief abil­i­ty. The agency spent near­ly $900 mil­lion on pre­fab­ri­cat­ed homes in New Orleans after Kat­ri­na, but then was pre­vent­ed by its own reg­u­la­tions being able to put them to use. Peo­ple were get­ting sick because the con­trac­tors used too much formalde­hyde in the con­struc­tion of the hous­es and the fumes were intox­i­cat­ing. Rather than pro­vid­ing hous­ings for thou­sands who had lost their homes, they rot­ted in stor­age lots. In spite of this, FEMA can only be effec­tive if it is allowed to be a large agency. When the nation­al gov­ern­ment can address dis­as­ters effec­tive­ly, it saves every­one mon­ey, includ­ing the states and the pri­vate sec­tor, which lim­its the dam­age caused when roads and pow­er lines are not repaired quick­ly and peo­ple can­not return home and rebuild. As Matthew Ygle­sias wrote in Slate​.com: But that requires financ­ing by an enti­ty capa­ble of rapid­ly financ­ing expen­sive projects – i.e., the fed­er­al government…and (slash­ing fed­er­al dis­as­ter aid) is the height of pen­ny-wise, pound-fool­ish thinking.” 

When Hur­ri­cane Sandy hit, New Jer­sey Gov­er­nor Chris Christie, who had pre­vi­ous­ly expressed his con­tempt for gov­ern­ment and whose poli­cies led to the dis­missal of tens of thou­sands of gov­ern­ment work­ers, met with Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and with FEMA. Gov­er­nor Christie said: The fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight…with the pres­i­dent, per­son­al­ly; he has expe­dit­ed the des­ig­na­tion of New Jer­sey as a major dis­as­ter area.” He lat­er added: The folks at FEMA…have been excel­lent.” On Decem­ber 7, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma asked Con­gress for $60.4 bil­lion in aid for the states most affect­ed by Hur­ri­cane Sandy. This will not cov­er all the esti­mat­ed loss­es, as New York Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuo­mo and New Jer­sey Gov­er­nor Christie alone esti­mat­ed the loss­es of just their 2 states at near­ly $78 bil­lion. The May­or of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, a for­mer Repub­li­can turned Inde­pen­dent, added: We need a full recov­ery pack­age to be vot­ed on in this ses­sion of Con­gress. Any delay will impede our recov­ery.” The cur­rent ses­sion of Con­gress ends on Jan. 3, 2013, when the next House, with large­ly the same Repub­lic major­i­ty, will take office. Cal­i­for­nia rep­re­sen­ta­tive Don­na Edwards not­ed that, with glob­al warm­ing loom­ing, the chal­lenge is great, and the need for response greater: “…the impor­tance of invest­ing in this infra­struc­ture now so that we don’t make it more vul­ner­a­ble lat­er on needs to be high on the pri­or­i­ty list, because the dam­age to us in terms of our long-term econ­o­my and com­pet­i­tive­ness is real­ly huge.”

Our nation has con­front­ed emer­gen­cies before, and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has often been the ulti­mate solu­tion when the pri­vate sec­tor failed. Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the stock mar­ket failed, thou­sands of pri­vate banks failed, pri­vate char­i­ties failed, and when Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt took office in March 1933, the nation was on the precipice of total fail­ure. Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt closed all the banks for 4 days, and then announced that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would guar­an­tee bank deposits through the Fed­er­al Deposit Insur­ance Cor­po­ra­tion. The result was that the bank­ing sys­tem (and cur­ren­cy) was saved, giv­ing the econ­o­my had a chance to recov­er, as the Amer­i­can peo­ple had a renewed con­fi­dence in their gov­ern­ment and its roles and abil­i­ties in help­ing peo­ple. The pri­vate sec­tor had no plan; gov­ern­ment was the solution.

A pro­found midrash (Bava Batra 10a) teach­es about how humans are not in con­trol over nature.

He [Rab­bi Yehu­da] used to say: Ten strong things were cre­at­ed in the world — A moun­tain is strong, but iron cuts through it. Iron is strong, but fire can make it bub­ble. Fire is strong, but water puts it out. Water is strong, but clouds con­tain it. Clouds are strong, but the wind can scat­ter them. Breath is strong, but the body holds it in. The body is strong, but fear breaks it. Fear is strong, but wine dis­si­pates it effects. Wine is strong, but sleep over­comes its pow­er. Death is stronger than all of them. But Tzedakah saves from death, as it is writ­ten, And Tzedakah saves from death.’ ” (Proverbs 10:2)

When nature, death, or oth­er forces over­come us, the best thing we can do is fight back with tzedakah (with love, kind­ness, and char­i­ta­ble giv­ing). We must all do our part as indi­vid­u­als and we need strong non-prof­its and state-lev­el respons­es, but we must also unite to sup­port a stronger fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that is best equipped to address crises wher­ev­er and when­ev­er they strike. This is the essence of Amer­i­ca: to be unit­ed in both our times of need and times of hopes, our trau­mas and our triumphs. 

Find out more about Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz here.