First on the scene

First on the scene

IsraAID helps people throughout the world

Yotam Polizer, second from right, stands with a family of Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece. (ISRAAID)
Yotam Polizer, second from right, stands with a family of Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece. (ISRAAID)

We all know it’s true. But it doesn’t hurt to hear it again — if only so we can derive vicarious pride from it. Israeli organizations provide assistance to countries all over the world — and not only do they rush in to help with emergencies, but some groups, like IsraAID, remain there, sometimes for years, to ensure that the communities they assist will function successfully.

“In short, our mission is to help people,” said Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of the Israeli group, a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2001. (The other co-CEO is Voni Glick.) “We provide support during crises and emergencies around the world and work with communities as they move from crisis to sustainable community development.” In other words, he said, “You don’t just give a community fish, or even teach residents how to fish, but you teach them how to build fishing nets.”

Polizer will speak about his organization at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on October 26. (See box.)

Mr. Polizer, who was born and raised in a small village in northern Israel, has worked with juvenile delinquents in a rehabilitation center, launched a program pairing Israeli army volunteers with special-needs children, set up a youth leadership and community development project in Bedouin villages in the Negev, and for more than three years worked in Nepal as project coordinator with Tevel B’Tzedek’s development project there. He joined IsraAID after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and now he oversees all of the organization’s fundraising and strategic partnerships around the world.

IsraAID has ongoing projects in Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Philippines, Japan, Haiti, Kenya, Jordan, Germany, Liberia, Nepal, Uganda, Greece, and even the United States, where it is based in Palo Alto, California. As the group says proudly on its website, “For over a decade, our teams of professional medics, search and rescue squads, post-trauma experts, and community mobilizers have been first on the front lines of nearly every major humanitarian response in the 21st century.”

“We sent a mission to Japan after the tsunami, one to Sierra Leone after the Ebola outbreak, to Nepal after the earthquake, and to Greece and Germany to deal with the refugee crisis,” Mr. Polizer said. “In many cases, we’re asked to come, or we may ask the local Jewish community or a local NGO, or a UN agency. They know how to analyze a situation in its early stages.” Generally, governments don’t appeal for help, “but they know they have needs, and that we have the expertise that fits well with those needs.”

The group never has been turned away, but at times it has been asked to refocus. “We have been asked to provide support in a specific area,” Mr. Polizer said. On a few occasions, where other organizations were “not so open” to working with his group, “when they saw the work on the ground,” they shifted their position. “We always clarify that we’re not governmental or spreading propaganda, but rather engaged in long-term professional humanitarian support. It may take a while to understand that’s what we’re doing — some times longer than usual.”

Mr. Polizer said that his workers have occasionally faced some safety concerns, “not because of our Israeli identity” but because they are working in unsafe areas. For example, in some places in Africa they have relied on helicopters to evacuate staff when necessary. “We always have very strict security protocols and good resources in the security world to help us,” he said.

Actress and social activist Susan Sarandon joined IsraAID on Lesbos and in Berlin to offer help to incoming families. She later wrote about her experience, and posted photos, on her Facebook page. (ISRAAID)
Actress and social activist Susan Sarandon joined IsraAID on Lesbos and in Berlin to offer help to incoming families. She later wrote about her experience, and posted photos, on her Facebook page. (ISRAAID)

According to Mr. Polizer, IsraAID, which is based in Tel Aviv, has 270 paid staff members. “Most are local in the countries where we operate,” he said. The organization also calls upon some 1,100 volunteers, “people with their own day jobs, like doctors and nurses, who we send on short-term missions.” Sixty percent of the group’s funding comes from private donors, and money comes also from institutions, the UN, the World Bank, the Japanese and German governments, and “a little from the Israeli government.”

Mr. Polizer said there is a vast difference between the services IsraAID offers during emergencies and those needed for long-term development. “In an emergency, we offer direct support — medical and psychological support, access to clean water — we bring filters — food and supplies, cleaning and construction materials, and we may do search and rescue.”

In the United States, he continued, his organization is working with Team Rubicon, “doing disaster relief and removing debris so people can go back to their houses. We’ve got a big presence in Puerto Rico. It’s pretty terrible, and there aren’t too many organizations there.”

For long-term recovery and community development, IsrAID offers not only leadership training but also assistance in managing water, sanitation, and psychological counseling. How long its teams remain varies, but a typical stay is two years. But IsrAID has been working in Haiti for eight years. “We are really appreciated,” Mr. Polizer said of the communities it serves there. “There are so many stories, situations where people are in tears just to be able to meet Israelis and interact.”

Mr. Polizer is especially proud of IsraAID’s professionalism and its ability to attract highly qualified people, “from leading therapists to top agronomists.” He also is a strong champion of partnership. “We have built strong connections with all significant parties operating in each region, such as government, international and national organizations, and the local communities themselves,” he said.

While the sites of all recent disasters need help, Mr. Polizer called Puerto Rico and Dominica “completely devastated — the neediest places.” But, he added, “needs are everywhere,” like in Uganda, which, he said, has received a million refugees from Sudan since the beginning of 2017. The needs of Syrian refugees also are critical, he said.

Mr. Polizer said that people who work with IsrAID “want to help. It’s in a lot of people’s DNA. Many do volunteering. And in the younger generation, people are interested in global issues.” His own “eye-opener” occurred during his work with Bedouin teens in the south of Israel. “It was a great learning experience, not just altruistic work with people who are underserved,” he said. Instead, it showed him a way to combine his social work and service experience with “the possibility to work with other cultures and provide support and build bridges.

“I call it active anthropology. And the best way to learn is during work.”

He hopes that his audience on October 26 will “get involved and spread the word. Not enough people know about us, and not just in the Jewish world. We’re open to people who want to get involved.”

The organization recently created a summer internship program, the IsraAID Humanitarian Fellowship. Its participants will get to take part in one of the group’s projects around the world. Once they are back on campus, they will be expected to do programs highlighting IsraAID’s work.

Who: IsrAID co-CEO Yotam Polizer

What: Will speak about the nonprofit Israeli organization

When: On October 26 at 8:15 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

The program is free and open to the public.

For more information about IsraAID, go to

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