Tools in Hand, Volunteers Are Truly Repairing the World, and New Orleans

On a chilly winter afternoon, with only hard hats to protect them from the constant drizzle, members of the JCC Association board were gutting a YWCA that had been flooded by four feet of water in Hurricane Katrina a year and a half ago.

After several hours of dirty, muscle-straining work, these past or current presidents of their local Jewish community centers — men and women who work in law or real estate or business offices — had created a hulking pile of water-soaked debris that stretched nearly half a block.

Several board members were in their 70s; most had passed 50. Many had expressed concern that their bad backs and allergies might prevent them from pitching in, but they all participated enthusiastically.

Their effort earlier this month was part of an ongoing commitment by JCCA to rebuild New Orleans since Katrina hit in August 2005, said the organization’s president, Allan Finkelstein. Part of that commitment was donating $350,000 to the New Orleans JCC, he said.

“Now we are showing our support by having the board meeting here,” Finkelstein said. “And we knew from the outset that we would take time from our program to do a service project. It is so fitting that we are helping a fellow agency get back on its feet.”

The JCCA’s enthusiasm has been shared by thousands of Jewish volunteers of all ages who have helped rebuild New Orleans over the past year and will continue to do so in coming months.

Hillel, the national organization for Jewish campus life, has brought nearly 2,000 Jewish college students from universities across the United States and Canada. Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster, a Minneapolis-based group, brought 200 volunteers during the winter holiday season after bringing hundreds last summer. And many families have come on their own.

Echoing the slogan of the Zionist pioneers who created the State of Israel — “Livnot v’lehibanot,” to build and to be built — these volunteers are not just helping transform New Orleans, but say they’ve been transformed themselves.

The experience of the 35 members of the Union of Reform Judaism’s Adult Mitzvah Corps is typical.

Ranging in age from the late teens to the 50s, and including several parents with their children, the participants paid $500 apiece plus travel expenses to engage in a week of social action, study and worship in late December.

Under the leadership of Joel Soffin, a congregational Reform rabbi in New Jersey, the corps is in its sixth year. Members are “not just fixing houses but bringing hope to people,” Soffin said.

Before spending each day applying sheetrock, installing windows and doors and spackling and painting the home of Brenda Williams, who worked alongside them, the volunteers attended services at a local Reform synagogue. Each night they engaged in text study relating to tikkun olam, repair of the world.

“At the beginning of the week, not many of the volunteers would have said that they were doing sheetrocking because that was God’s command,” Soffin said. “But after attending services and doing Torah study, many have the feeling that they are now doing God’s work.”

Williams certainly believes that. With no flood insurance to pay for home repairs, she has been living for many months in a trailer in her daughter’s yard. Williams is eager to get back in her home near the church where she teaches Sunday school and which is the focus of her life.

She called the volunteers’ work “a blessing.”

For the Krivitzky family of New Jersey — Jerry and Trudi and their children, Stephanie and Aaron — the experience was quite different from their usual family vacation in Florida.

“There are only so many beaches and pina coladas you can take,” said Jerry, who described himself as a “recovering lawyer.”

Turning serious, he explained why the family chose to spend its vacation fixing up Williams’ home: “Because we can. And because we can, we should.”

Stuart and Shirley Bauer, also of New Jersey, have participated in each of the six “builds” done by the Adult Mitzvah Corps.

“When you do one of these builds, it keeps you going all year,” Stuart Bauer said. “Once you have done one, it’s in your blood, and there is nothing like the feeling you have after the week is done.”

Many of the corps members share the Bauers’ enthusiasm and return year after year.

The volunteer work also has had a positive effect on interfaith relations. One illustration is in the experience of Nechama.

In its home-gutting efforts, Nechama has partnered with Operation Blessing, a relief group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, the evangelical Christian leader. Nechama volunteers stay at the Operation Blessing camp outside New Orleans and were able to kasher its kitchen. When they arrived for their December deployment, they found Chanukah decorations hung around the dining hall — even on the big Christmas tree there.

Now that home-gutting needs in the Jewish community have mostly been met, Nechama is primarily helping non-Jews, many of whom had very little contact with Jewish people before.

“We are making many friends for the Jewish community with our efforts,” said Jon Weiss, Nechama’s executive director.

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