Well before a young humanitarian aid worker returned home to New York from Sierra Leone in July with what appeared to be Ebola symptoms Jewish organizations were worried about their own staff and volunteers in Africa.
The aid worker, revealed by The New York Daily News to be Eric Silverman, 27, a graduate student from Brooklyn, turned out not to suffer from the hemorrhagic fever that has so far sickened 2,127 and killed 1,145 in West Africa since the spring. However, the scare has reemphasized for groups that send Jewish Americans and Israelis to Africa just how risky it is to currently operate their usual programs.
“Nothing is going on as usual,” American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger told The Times of Israel.
AJWS has cancelled a donors’ trip to Liberia, one of the countries affected by the Ebola epidemic. Although the trip was scheduled for February 2015, the organization is not taking any chances, Messinger said.
“We don’t run volunteer programs in Liberia, but we do have a Liberian staff person on the ground in that country, and we have urged him to both gather accurate information on the situation, and to take precautions for himself and his family,” she said.
AJWS partners with a number of grassroots organizations in Liberia, which Messinger said are “trusted” and therefore well situated to help counter misinformation and educate against cultural practices that are contributing to the spread of the disease. Last week, AJWS launched an emergency fundraising campaign to support the efforts of these partner organizations.
AJWS also has partner organizations in Senegal, which borders Ebola-infected Guinea and where it is feared the disease might next spread.
That fear is not going to keep Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari, founder and president of Innovation: Africa from traveling to Senegal in September, however. Innovation Africa uses Israeli solar power technology to bring light, clean water, food, and medical care to African communities. In the last six years, the organization has helped 81 villages and 675,000 people in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Next month it will launch a new project in six villages in Senegal.
While Innovation: Africa does not bring volunteers to Africa, it does host American b’nai mitzvah and their families and members of teen philanthropy boards who want to see first-hand the fruits of their donations. So far, there has been no concerns expressed or cancellations of trips by families.
“However, one of our board members did express concern about our team’s travelling to Africa now,” said Borowich-Ya’ari. “Although there is currently no Ebola in the countries in which we operate, the board member was worried about our having to stop en route in Addis Ababa. A lot of planes traveling from West Africa go through there.”
For the most part, while there has been vigilance, there has no been widespread panic among Jewish organizations operating programs in Africa. This is mainly because almost none of the programs are in Libera, Guinea, Nigeria or Sierra Leone, the countries so far affected by the current Ebola outbreak.
“We discussed it a very little bit with our hosts. Truthfully, none of us is worried about it,” said Mickey Feinberg, who is currently in Zimbabwe with her husband Mordy with Kulanu, a New York-based organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.
“If one looks at a map it’s possible to see how far Zimbabwe is from the epidemic,” she said.
Jewish organizations are keeping an eye on what mainstream volunteer organizations are doing (the Peace Corps pulled all 340 of its volunteers out of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), and observing warnings by the American and Israeli governments.
“We only go according to the instructions of the Foreign Ministry and the World Health Organization,” said Moran Mekamel, project coordinator for the delegation of students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Africa Center who just left Israel for Rwanda and Ghana. The nine students, chosen from among the participants in the university’s semester-long Africa and Activism course, will work with youth and children during their three-month stay in Africa.
“We’ve run this program for eight years, and we are responsible and make adjustments as necessary,” Mekamel said. “For instance, one year we had to switch countries because of political unrest.”
It turned out that this summer more than Ebola, Operation Protective Edge got in the way of the delegation’s plans. The group’s departure was delayed because some members were called to the reserves in the conflict in Gaza.
In the absence of official warnings against travel to Ethiopia or Rwanda, JDC Entwine plans to continue its long-standing healthcare, development and education service volunteer opportunities in those countries.
“We are also going ahead with a pilot service placement set for Ghana this year,” said JDC spokesman Michael Geller.
However Dr. Leslie Lobel, an Israeli expert on Ebola, warns that travel to Africa can be risky in general when it comes to infection diseases, and that precautions must be taken.
‘At this point in time I would not travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea unless one has to’
“At this point in time I would not travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea unless one has to. Other parts of Africa are okay, but all travelers should be aware that there are many other diseases out there and travelers should receive all appropriate vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis when indicated,” he said.
Hila David, who volunteered with AJWS for six weeks in Uganda in the summer of 2010, hopes that Jewish volunteer programs in Africa will not be significantly impacted by the Ebola outbreak. The experience of living in an impoverished village was life-changing for her.
She also knows how important Jewish organizations’ work is to the Africans who benefit from it. She is certain the classrooms, market stall and church vestry her group built made a significant difference for the people of the community in which she stayed.
“There was no question about it, we left an impact on this community,” David said.
“Even four years later, I recall one of the community members saying, ‘You’ve shown us that as Jews, you care about people other than yourselves, you care about the entire world,’” said David.