The British are coming

U.K.-based World Jewish Relief launches U.S. branch to expand operations

Just before the coronation of King Charles III, WJR's royal patron, some 100 people gathered at the British consul general's home in L.A. to mark the opening of its new American offshoot

Just a few days before Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III, about 60 guests made their way to British Consul General Emily Cloke’s private residence in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park neighborhood on Wednesday evening, stepping inside and then — passing under a photograph of Charles’ mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II — out to the back garden to mark the launch of World Jewish Relief USA, a U.S. branch of the U.K.’s main Jewish overseas aid organization, World Jewish Relief.

Over hors d’oeuvres, wines and cocktails, the attendees learned the organization’s plans for its American expansion, its current humanitarian efforts around the world, particularly in Ukraine, and its origins helping Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust.

The organization is now building out a board and a staff in the United States and drumming up support from the community. “All of us want to respond to the devastating human suffering caused by war and catastrophe,” Board of Trustees Chair Maurice Helfgott said at the launch. “World Jewish Relief is the vehicle that we built to translate our collective desire into timely, practical impact.”

Among the hires for the American branch was Rabbi Dina Brawer, who will serve as the inaugural executive director for World Jewish Relief-USA.

Cultivating partnership in the U.S., and having WJR-USA registered as a 501(c)(3) is part of the organization’s 90th anniversary strategy to expand its capabilities, Brawer said at the event, and to “inspire new models and forge partnerships that change lives.”

King Charles’s upcoming coronation is particularly relevant for the organization as he has served as World Jewish Relief’s “royal patron” since 2015, raising the group’s profile and highlighting its activities. The launch event also preceded this coming Monday’s The Big Help Out event, a service day for a select number of U.K. charities, including World Jewish Relief.

Founded in 1933 as The Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, the organization played a major role in orchestrating the Kindertransport, which rescued about 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis. After World War II, World Jewish Relief rescued 732 orphaned child survivors of the Holocaust — including Helfgott’s father — and brought them to Britain. “I am extremely lucky to be here, because he was offered not just a hand out, but a help up,” Helfgott said. “And that is fundamental to every single program and every single philosophy that we approach today.”

The organization is now the U.K.’s main Jewish overseas aid organization, providing vulnerable communities with what they need, including sustainable livelihoods and disaster response.

“Ever since those days [of the Kindertransport], we’ve been driven by the same Jewish imperative to save lives and change lives,” said Helfgott, adding that the organization has “responded immediately and very effectively to cataclysmic emergencies around the world,” including bringing life-saving supplies to displaced women and children in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Kenya; working with vulnerable communities in Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar; and welcoming Syrian, Afghan and now Ukrainian refugees in 20 cities in the U.K., helping them learn English and get jobs. 

But providing aid to Ukraine has been the organization’s single biggest effort over the past 14 months, since the launch fot he Russian invasion. World Jewish Relief doubled its budget in order to respond to the war in Ukraine, Brawer said, which was “diverting attention from other crises around the world.” 

World Jewish Relief has sent nearly $13 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, assisting over 180,000 individuals affected by the war, evacuating 9,438 people and delivering 330 metric tons of food to 168,000 people, an organizational representative told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“We have applied 30 years of on-the-ground experience, plus specific expertise in disaster management, to provide medical aid, food packages, psychological and employment support to 200,000 people there in 215 towns and cities across Ukraine,” said Helfgott, who visited Kyiv earlier this year to see the organization’s efforts on the ground firsthand.

“The need to raise unrestricted funds to address famine, flooding and human displacement remains frustratingly urgent,” said Brawer.

Brawer, who founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance U.K., was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and is the first Orthodox woman rabbi to serve in the U.K., likened Wednesday night’s reception to one of her favorite Jewish rituals, the Passover seder. 

“I love the warmth generated by the curiosity and conversation in a room filled with friends and friends of friends,” Brawer told the attendees. “That’s the warmth I feel this evening,” she said.

“We are at a point in time when the world feels incredibly fragile, politically, economically and ecologically,” Brawer continued. “The world said ‘never again,’ yet prejudice and persecution have continued, with wars displacing millions, and leaving their scars on survivors,” she said.

“Some people don’t always get that the word ‘Jewish’ in ‘World Jewish Relief’ defines not who we are for, but what we stand for. It defines our values,” Helfgott said, adding that the late U.K. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said that “everything World Jewish Relief does is Jewish.” Helfgott said the organization’s philosophy is taken directly from the rabbinic sage Hillel: “If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us, if we are only for ourselves, what are we? And if not, now, of course, when,” he said.