On September 21st, 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston’s coastline. A Category 4 storm, Hugo tossed boats from the water into the streets, reduced neighborhoods to piles of kindling, and changed lives forever. My family, like many others in the Lowcountry, benefitted from volunteers who provided hands-on assistance. A team from Georgia showed up in our neighborhood a week after the hurricane, and removed the trees that had fallen on our house and lawn. Even as a child, I understood that their help started us on the long return to a new normal.
Years later, while working at NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, I was given the chance to pay it forward through leading two interfaith service trips first to Birmingham, AL in 2012, and then to Joplin, MO in 2013 – both communities devastated by tornadoes. On these trips, I worked alongside students cleaning up debris, painting, and putting up siding. In the evenings we would make dinner and sit down to eat with guests from the community who shared their stories. It was through those dinnertime conversations that the real meaning of our work came to light. It wasn’t how many panels of drywall that were hung, but the strength and hope that these survivors drew from volunteers bearing witness to what they had been through. And offering a hand to help them on their road to recovery.
It was during my tenure at the Bronfman Center that I first met Elie Lowenfeld (then a student and now a fellow NECHAMA board member). Elie founded an organization dedicated to the mission of mobilizing volunteers to respond to the long-term recovery needs of
disaster-stricken communities (the JDRC, Jewish Disaster Response Corps). I was asked by Elie to join the board as I knew first hand the contributions volunteers can make to a community. When we merged with NECHAMA in 2015, I made the decision to stay on the board as I believe that this work is necessary and the Jewish community should be working along other faith communities to help their neighbors.
As a board member of NECHAMA, I traveled to Puerto Rico in 2018 with a friend to help repair homes that had been damaged by Hurricane Maria. One day, as I was repairing the roof of a home, I looked down to see my friend who had lived through Superstorm Sandy and experienced damage to her own home in Rockaway Park, NY, sitting with the homeowner. She was listening to his stories of growing up in the house and looking through the family photos he had managed to save from the storm. While I performed the physical work of repairing his home, she provided the homeowner comfort and space for reflection.
As a board member of NECHAMA, I’m exceptionally proud of our staff and volunteers who show up in disaster zones willing to help those most in need and welcome all to work alongside them. Please join me in supporting NECHAMA.