January 17, 2010

Eli Eliezri z"l

From Steve Schwager, CEO

JDC lost one of its authentic, colorful heroes last week; Eli Eliezri passed away in Israel on Monday morning, January 4, 2010.

A lyrical name for a larger than life personality… Eli officially joined the JDC family in the late 1980s, when he represented JDC while working on organizing and providing welfare to the Ethiopian Beta Israel community prior to the rescue mission called Operation Solomon. That was the first of many special projects that garnered Eli’s attention. Disaster response and crisis management became his raison d’etre—Sarajevo, Kosovo, Kenya, Indonesia, Thailand, Rwandan refugees in Goma, Zaire. When disaster struck, Eli was “the fixer,” our “man on the ground,” JDC’s heroic “cowboy” who, in the finest JDC tradition, never saw a problem he couldn’t fix and never faced a disaster where JDC couldn’t come and improve the lives of the victims. Anything was possible, and he loved nothing more than proving to diverse populations that JDC and the Jewish people were heroes in the finest sense of the word.

Between 1991 and 1994, Eli organized and oversaw 11 rescue operations of the elderly and women and children—Jews and non-Jews—from the city of Sarajevo. Only Eli could have secured permission from the different warring sides in Bosnia and Croatia that guaranteed freedom of movement and safe passage within their respective zones for JDC’s convoys. Eli attended one set of Board meetings, proudly carrying laminated copies of the official letters of permission, and justly boasted: “See, no one else has permission from all sides to work—only the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee!” Ambassador Richard Schifter, who was working on special White House assignment during the crisis in the Balkans, agreed. “Remarkable,” he told Will Recant. “JDC is the only organization in the world that could have achieved this.”

But Sarajevo was only a sampling. Because of Eli, JDC built sanitation facilities for tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees in the vast camps of Goma, Zaire. We flew into a refugee camp on the Somali/Kenyan/Ethiopian border where we supported 48,000 refugees by delivering mobile medical units that were developed in Israel. Eli established local partnerships in Kosovo where he oversaw a project that rebuilt not just one, but rather 36 schools. While there, Eli—as only Eli could—built a mosque in partnership with the Catholic Church and local Muslims, and with contributions from Jews. And he left fishing villages ravaged by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand in far better condition than before the wave hit.

Will Recant recalls a perfect Eli story: “Everyone knew Mr. Eli, whose larger than life persona comes out every time I think of walking into the hotel lobby with him in Nairobi where we had arrived to piece together the program for Somali refugees in 1994. As we entered the lobby, Eli announced in a very large voice: ‘Jambo, Jambo everyone; I am a diplomat and so is he (as he pointed to me); take us to the back room to register.’ And they did. They gave us the VIP treatment, never realizing that we did not have diplomatic passports and Eli, in fact, had only stayed in the hotel once before.”

If you ever met him, you would remember him. He was short, energetic, dark-skinned, a 10th generation Yerushalmi (someone born in Jerusalem)—a man with a sharp mind, a mischievous smile, a crooked kind of laugh, a good deal of chutzpah, a sense of adventure, and an almost childlike joy in “making things happen” when no one else could. He had the ability to move mountains in order to save lives—with little patience for formal niceties. He was straightforward and driven.

Sometimes his determination to help took on a softer tone, reflected in a story recalled by Manlio Dell’Ariccia, JDC’s Country Director for Ethiopia who lives in Rome. Manlio shared this brief vignette with me: “Eli was staying with us in Rome for Yom Kippur. During the meal before the fast, a thunderstorm triggered our house alarm, and there seemed absolutely no way to turn it off. But Eli, determined to give us peace and quiet over Yom Kippur, worked on it until he succeeded in getting it fixed.

Between 200 and 300 people attended Eli’s funeral—an appropriate farewell to a man who devoted his life to helping others. He wasn’t particularly old—in his early seventies—but the good he accomplished would certainly fill a lifetime “till 120”! This is a man I will never forget. And I hope that Eli’s widow, Tami; his two daughters, Hagit and Yifat; his five grandchildren; and his entire extended family are comforted in knowing that the JDC family is also diminished by his passing and ever grateful for Eli’s innumerable contributions to us. Irv and I believe it is truly the end of an era.

No comments: