NEW YORK (Aug. 25)
David Kaplan of Stamford, Conn., said his many weeks of work this summer spent plastering, hammering and stripping paint from the side of Margaret Butler’s home in Des Moines, Iowa, gave him “a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.” Abby Landau of New Brunswick, N. J., who acted as a counsellor for a group which did similar work on homes in McAllen, Texas, said: “I thought it was neat.”
Both Kaplan and Landau were part of a group of more than 20 students from the New York metropolitan area who participated in a seven-week summer program of repairing and rebuilding homes of retired senior citizens and economically disadvantaged residents for nothing more than a hand shake or a cold soft drink.
The program is sponsored by the American Jewish Society for Service (AJSS)which for the 33rd consecutive year gathered a group of students, supervised by two counsellors and a couple of directors, who paid a small fee to spend their summer doing manual labor on homes in selected communities. This summer, two groups were sent, one to Des Moines and the other to McAllen, located in southwestern Texas, some 10 miles from the Mexican border.
Speaking at a news conference here at the Roosevelt Hotel, the 17-year-old Kaplan assessed the program on behalf of the 10 students who worked on three separate projects in Des Moines. They were invited to the area by the Neighborhood Housing Assistance of Des Moines, Inc., an independent organization made up of local businessmen and other residents.
EXPERIENCES OF THE DES MOINES GROUP
The Des Moines group contributed an estimated $14,000 worth of free labor– plastering, painting and patching homes of three low income Des Moines residents. Five weeks alone were spent working on Butler’s home, which she vacated for the duration of the renovation period. The home, originally condemned by local authorities, was restored after the group’s work was completed, to a “house you would be proud to call your own,” Kaplan said.
The group of 10 co-eds, ranging in age from 16 to 18, were provided residence in a complex called Hawthorne Hill, a Methodist Church operated shelter for battered wives, and other homeless and indigent persons. The group contributed to the Hill by painting the lobby of the complex, which housed perhaps 50 persons besides the AJSS group.
THE ACTIVITIES OF THE TEXAS GROUP
Meanwhile, the group of II youth in Texas worked on nearly 19 projects. One home was owned by a family of an unemployed oil field worker which had sold their car to buy lumber, but were unable to pay carpenters to make the badly needed repairs on their home.
Under the supervision of local residents proficient in the skills involved, AJSS workers constructed a 26-by-24 foot floor, leveled and braced the leaning structures, and nailed up siding on the outside of the house. In discussions with the AJSS group at the press conference, all acknowledged that they had little or no experience in the particular tasks they performed.
The AJSS group in McAllen was hosted by the Hidalgo County Economic Development Agency, a local county agency which distributes funding for housing assistance programs. The group provided labor assistance for the economically disadvantaged who managed to buy building materials but could not afford the labor.
Denise Brenner of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the majority of homes worked on in McAllen needed weatherizing, including roofing and siding. While she acknowledged that there was not much immediate recognition from the community, she said that at the conclusion of the summer, their efforts were noted by a party thrown by co-workers and other office workers. The group’s efforts were also acknowledged by Governor Mark White who presented them with a certificate of honorary citizenship of the state of Texas.
The house that the McAllen group stayed in was owned by a local Jewish builder. There was little if any furniture and no air conditioning. Many days were hot. Temperatures on roofs when work was in progress was said to be over 100 degrees.
The work project directors for the Texas group were Julliane and Jules Hirsh of Brooklyn, who have spent their last 22 summers supervising, guiding and teaching the students the needed skills to perform some tasks. Jules Hirsh said, “If every teenager would spend a summer like this, it would benefit them greatly.
“These kids are broadening their scope by learning to live and work as a closely knit group, and at the same time they are giving of themselves to help others. And I believe a human being gets a great deal of satisfaction from helping another human being,” said Hirsh in a statement released at the press conference. He and his wife are travelling back from Texas and could not attend the conference.
NO SIGNS OF ANTI-SEMITISM
There appeared to be a consensus among many of the AJSS students that they encountered no hostility from local residents nor signs of anti-Semitism. In fact, when questioned specifically on the local residents’ concerns, the response appeared unanimous that the events in the Middle East with regard to Israel were overshadowed by a greater concern for local developments. In McAllen, it was noted, the dominant concerns were of developments in Central America.
The AJSS is a non-profit charitable organization designed to provide Jewish youths and other individuals the opportunity to perform humanitarian services as a fulfillment of their religious beliefs. Young people are recruited each year to work on one of the two or three projects in areas of the U.S. where lack of money and labor creates a demand for services of groups like the AJSS. The AJSS has had 77 previous work projects in 39 different states and Israel.