Angels with Chainsaws

After Hurricane Sandy struck, a remarkable Jewish group showed up to help people dig out from the storm.

by Bette Birnbaum

Comments Off on Angels with Chainsaws

Stacey Eager Leavitt will always remember the ironic timing of Sandy, the superstorm that wreaked havoc on the East Coast of the U.S. last October. “We were putting the finishing touches on the 50th anniversary celebration of our building,” recalls Eager Leavitt, president of the South Baldwin Jewish Center on Long Island, “when Sandy ravaged the synagogue.”

In the wake of the storm, conditions in South Baldwin were dire. There was no power, and streets and houses were flooded, including Eager Levitt’s home and the homes of many other synagogue members. With congregants too busy with their own problems to pitch in at the synagogue, no funds to finance demolition, and no idea how to even begin cleaning up the building, Eager Levitt was in despair. She contacted United Synagogue for advice and they suggested she reach out to Nechama: A Jewish Response to Disaster.

Nechama administrator Starbuck Ballner helped the efforts in Hoboken.

Nechama administrator Starbuck Ballner helped the efforts in Hoboken.

“I spoke with Nechama administrator Starbuck Ballner who said they were just finishing their work in Hoboken and would come to Long Island in a couple of days. I cried tears of relief and thanks,” said Eager Levitt.

Nechama showed up at the synagogue as promised. In a little more than a week, closely supervised crews of volunteers removed debris and gutted, cleaned and sanitized the synagogue building, the rabbi’s home, and the homes of a number of congregants. The Nechama crew “just turned on their music, and with their youth and hopefulness, turned bleak into promising,” Eager Leavitt recalled.

Since 1996, Nechama, based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, has trained and mobilized thousands of volunteers to help communities clean up after floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters regardless of religious affiliation. Their work is done in a spirit of goodwill, creating mutual respect among all people. In some cases, Nechama’s assistance is requested by communities, while at other times they step forward to offer a distessed community its volunteers, equipment or knowledge.

Rabbi Paul Drazen, now head of special projects, was United Synagogue’s regional director in Minneapolis from 2002-2006 when he first encountered Nechama. He was impressed from the start. “I thought it was terrific that Jews had created an organization to help communities, no matter their faith, just like Christians do domestically and internationally all the time. When a truck emblazoned with the words ‘Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster’ pulls up, it’s not only good for the people who are being helped, it’s also good for the Jews.”

Volunteers clean up the Hoboken Multi-Service Center.

Volunteers clean up the Hoboken Multi-Service Center.

Rabbi Drazen was also impressed by Nechama’s commitment to mobilizing volunteers and giving them on-the-job training. Following Superstorm Sandy, when Drazen heard that Nechama had boots on the ground and was organizing volunteers to help storm victims, he authorized $20,000 from United Synagogue’s Sandy relief fund to be given to the  group. “United Synagogue began collecting money immediately to provide Jewish communities with things like Shabbat meals and connections to disaster-relief services, but it does not engage in direct relief,” Drazen explained. “Because we knew Nechama’s track record, we were able to avoid the lengthy vetting process and offer the money almost immediately, knowing it would be put to good use.”

Several post-Sandy Nechama volunteers are affiliated with Conservative Judaism. Barbara Malach Kalman, whose children attended New Jersey Solomon Schechter schools through high school, belongs to the United Synagogue of Hoboken, which also was badly damaged. Malach Kalman helped clean up the congregation’s waterlogged basement and cleared debris from Hoboken’s inundated Multi-Service Center. Before the storm struck, the sprawling, low-rise center had housed the city’s Health Department, senior-adult services, the Bureau of Vital Records, and a day-care center.

At the Multi-Service Center, Malach Kalman worked alongside Dan Hoeft, Nechama’s director of operations. Given the chaos the storm left behind, Nechama’s experience and organization were crucial. Malach Kalman was impressed by the passion and compassion displayed by the staff and volunteers, one of whom had never met a Jew until he volunteered with Nechama. “We were so lucky that Nechama came to Hoboken. I’m sure that all of the communities they have worked in feel this way.”

The volunteers at Hoboken's Multi-Service Center.

The volunteers at Hoboken’s Multi-Service Center.

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey, also volunteered with Nechama at the Multi-Service Center. He praised the know-how and maturity of the Nechama staff and particularly liked their method of involving volunteers, including Jews of all ages and movements. “Not only does Nechama provide a way for people to do serious tikkun olam,” explained Pitkowsky, “but it also is one of the most interesting avenues for real conversations between denominations and demographic groups. Where else do all kinds of Jews come together in such a productive and positive way?”

Nechama volunteers who showed up to work on the massive cleanup of Temple Beth El in Brooklyn were horrified by what they found: Torah scrolls ruined by flood waters that were so powerful they had knocked down cinder-block walls, toppled kitchen appliances and caused pianos to float away. Although the job was daunting, Joshua Levinson, who came with a group from Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, was moved by the experience. “We worked alongside Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Claudio Kupchik,” Levinson recalled, “and made a huge dent in a major clean-up project because of Nechama’s leadership and expertise. We left with a strong sense of community and accomplishment.”

Nechama volunteers pose together with members of the United Synagogue of Hoboken

Nechama volunteers pose together with members of the United Synagogue of Hoboken

A number of volunteers even came from Chicago. Chaya Moskowitz, a 2010 graduate of Chicagoland Jewish High School, helped clean up the Jewish Community Center of Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, as well as private homes on the South Shore of Long Island. One homeowner was shocked that people she didn’t know would come so far to help her, and do it for free. Moskowitz, who volunteered despite a broken hand, became so involved that she delayed her departure by a few days.

It’s clear that Nechama puts as much work into the experience of its volunteers as it does into repairing buildings. “Before we entered a home, the Nechama team asked us to reflect on how it feels to have strangers come in and tear your house apart,” said Rebecca Russo, director of engagement at the Hillel House of Northwestern University, who traveled to New York with a Hillel group. “They also wanted to know how it felt for us, the people doing the tearing down.”

Starbuck Ballner says that while Nechama appreciates the accolades from victims and volunteers, the resurgence of community spaces, like houses of worship and activity centers, and the restoration of homes so that people can get back to their lives, is the most meaningful payback for doing relief work. Even so, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, of United Synagogue of Hoboken, expressed gratitude to Nechama on behalf of the entire city. “Within just a couple of days, Nechama began the process of healing Hoboken by clearing debris and cleaning Our Lady of Grace Church, In Jesus’ Name Food Pantry, the Multi-Service Center, and our synagogue. What an extraordinary way to put Jewish values into action!”

Bette Birnbaum, a 2004 graduate of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS, lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. She is on the faculty of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Education at Central Synagogue in New York City, serves on the board of directors of Nechama: A Jewish Response to Disaster, and is training with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education to become a chaplain.