Little Houses On The Prairie


"Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since I first left home."- Grateful Dead, "Brokedown Palace"

Helena, Mont. – Next to a person’s love, a bard once wrote, the most precious gift he can give is his labor. And for nine New York-area high school students out here on the eastern front of the Rockies in Big Sky country – many worlds indeed from the concrete and cramped spaces of the one they left behind – hard, sweaty, blistered hands and sore shoulders labor is what this summer has been about.

For six weeks on Day Spring Loop in this picturesque capital city and in East Helena at a project in conjunction with Montana’s first lady, they put their hands to work and theirhearts to God doing some of the toughest tikkun olam any of them will ever experience. And when their construction work was done, three nearly completed houses – simple and sturdy – stood where none had before, and three needy families stood poised to transform them into homes.

"This is a much better feeling than some ridiculous teen tour," says Will Gallin, a thoughtful 17-year-old senior at the Ramaz Upper School. "It’s much more meaningful. You’re really doing something useful, not just traipsing around the country. We’re giving rather than taking."

Ruth Ginsburg, a 16-year-old senior at Stamford (Conn.) High School, agreed. "This is really a reality check," she says, her face caked in plaster after a day’s work touching up Sheetrock. "For many of us, our biggest concern is what college we’re going to go to, but this has made me realize that there are people that don’t have much. It made me realize how lucky we are."

Carried west by the New York-based American Jewish Society for Service, a little-known Peace Corps-like organization now in its 50th year, the students hoisted roof trusses, hung Sheetrock and laid shingles. And they did it with expertise from Habitat for Humanity, all under a Montana sky that seemed without end, despite the Western wildfires that cast a smoky haze over this jewel of a city. They could have been at the beach, or at Chelsea Piers, or at a run-of-the-mill summer camp caressed by the familiar, worn-down-by time Catskill hills.

But they had lit out for the territory the week of the Fourth of July, their own private Independence Day. And here they were midway between rugged Yellowstone and dizzying Glacier National Park, so far from home that the hottest ticket in town the last weekend of July was The Stampede, a celebration of all things western, complete with a bull-riding and calf-roping rodeo.

They camped four days in majestic Glacier, conducting Friday-night services in the shadow of snow-capped peaks. Some ate elk and deer at a wild game barbecue. They ran the whitewater rapids on the Clark Fork River near Missoula. They held a lift-every-voice-and-sing kumsitz at Yellowstone. And they toured Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s historic district, the name echoing a time in the century before last when gold fever hit the gulch.

(In Glacier, a woman camping in the park recognized the group as fellow Jewish travelers far from home and invited them into her trailer. It was Friday night and the makeshift family lit candles together hard by the Blackfoot Indian Reservation.)

But when their play was done – it was summer camp, after all – they returned to the two-family duplex on Day Spring Loop and the house in East Helena where their idealism was put to the test, and their Jewish values made concrete. They weren’t just learning about tikkun olam, they were living it, one smashed thumb at a time.

To repair the world, though, it helps to be able to wield a hammer and drive a nail. "When the kids got here, they didn’t know which end of a hammer to use; now they have blisters," says Mel McBeath, an official with Habitat in Helena, who supervised work on the First Lady Build project in East Helena, where much of the work by design is done by women.

"They’ve really done well, and their sense of helping others comes through quite clear," says McBeath, standing in what will be the living room of the four-bedroom, 1,150-square-foot bungalow-style house. Nearby are the tools of the construction trade: power screwdrivers, foam sealant, trowels for sanding Sheetrock, caulk and T-squares.

"They’ve learned some very new skills, and I think they’ve learned some life skills they’ll be able to use," he says.

For Habitat officials, the volunteer Jewish muscle from back East was a godsend since the group is building two Helena-area houses at once, a rarity. "It’s a perfect match," says Blair Lund, Habitat’s executive director in Helena. "They do construction projects, and that’s what we do. Having the outside help was crucial for us.

"The kids built these houses from the ground up, and they got better all the time at the construction work. For them this is a whole different culture out here," he says. "It’s been a real education and an eye opener for them about how other people live."

For Avra Leigh Keats, a 16-year-old junior at Lakewood (N.J.) High, the head of community service for her NCSY chapter, the Helena experience was an extension of her social justice work and of her Jewish values, but the physical work posed a severe challenge.

"Our first job was shingling the roof. When we finished I called my dad. It was the most rewarding day in my whole life. You never think you can do it, but step by step we did. It’s something you can apply to life," she says at the farewell dinner last week, digging the last bits of caulking glue out of her fingernails.

The price tag for the education – part of which was living luxury-free and sleeping in bunk beds at the East Helena Methodist Church – is $2,500 per student.

Six weeks ago, Will Gallin and Beth Franco were novice construction workers. But last Thursday morning on Day Spring Loop, the last day of the six-week project, the lanky 6-foot-6-inch Ramaz senior and the short, powerfully built Hewlett High School senior are on the roof of the single-level duplex working like seasoned pros. Both had done social justice work before – soup kitchens and the like. Franco had even been to Samoa helping out in a rural village. But this was different, more physical, more demanding.

In a careful choreography carried out 15 feet in the air, they are on their knees laying and cutting shingles, framed by Helena’s elegant, copper-domed Capitol in the foreground and the Big Belt and Elkhorn mountains in the distance. With hammers, special flat-top nails, box cutter, tape measure and chalk line, they lay the three-foot strips of shingles, making sure each one overlaps with the next to form a precise fit. It’s exacting work, under a blazing Montana sun, and not altogether without risk.

As they reach the roof’s edge, using the chalk line to keep them straight, Franco, in a sleeveless T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, spreads the shingle beyond the roof line and Gallin, wearing a Ramaz Hoops T-shirt and a well-worn baseball cap, leans over and makes a smooth cut. Then the two drive nails into the shingles, their sharp, rhythmic strikes echoing through the studs and trusses below that form the skeleton of the house-to-be.

During the 10:15 a.m. break – the students work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week – Franco, a nail-filled tool belt still around her waist and her forehead glistening with sweat, talks about the work.

"I had an incredible time," she says. "It was strenuous but I love the work. It’s a great break from everything at home – a real healthy feeling."

So healthy in fact that Franco says she’s already signed up for a Habitat project planned soon for Hempstead, L.I.

"It tells you a lot about yourself," Julia Katz, a Riverdale Day School junior, says of the home building. "Every nail feels rewarding."

For many of the students, meeting a family who will live on one side of the duplex drives the experience home. "We’re not just putting money in a tzedaka box," says Ilan Finkelstein, a junior at York Prep in Manhattan. "We’re seeing where our work is going."

For Jason Kucine, a 17-year-old senior from Marlboro, N.J., "it was the greatest summer. I felt warm-hearted inside when we met the family. They’re the people we’re building this home for."

Says Aliza David, a feisty graduate of Teaneck (N.J.) High School who will be attending Hampshire College in the fall: "I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that we did something substantial, something that will last, and that this family and not some big corporation will take it over."

Marty Kopelowitz, the project director in Helena in his 27th and last year with the AJSS, calls the construction work "tough stuff."

"The kids learn their limits of physical endurance. But they recognize this is a unique chance to put into action the Jewish ideals they’ve learned – only this isn’t a classroom," he says. "I think they formed bonds with the family they met and with the Habitat work supervisors."

In weekly group sessions over the six weeks in the mountain West, the students (there were 15 in all from the U.S. and Canada) discussed what it means to be Jewish, the nature of Shabbat and the meaning of tzedaka. One talk though, led by Gallin, touched on a sense of place and hinged on whether the campers felt more connected to the Holy Land or the American landscape. It was mixed – some saying the Jewish state, others the United States – Gallin reports from his rooftop perch on Day Spring Loop.

But for this summer at least, they were very much in America, in the West of Lewis and Clark. And they too were a Corps of Discovery of sorts, only theirs was a voyage of self-discovery – how much hard labor could they take, how much of themselves could they give to those less fortunate, how much of the vast and timeless West could they absorb.

And as Will Gallin and Beth Franco get ready to nail down another shingle, a lone deer, ears up and head pitched slightly back, lopes smoothly across a nearby hill, the West gracing the Easterners with a farewell vision. Then it disappears around a bend.