Rebuilding Long Island

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Google Maps tells me that I am over Beatrice Nebraska right now, bumping our way through the clouds as Virgin America conveys me back to SFO from JFK. I’m listening to Nolwenn Leroy, pop superstar in France, if in unknown on our shores, and my latest musical obsession, singing in English, French, Celtic and Breton(!).   Hopefully, by the time we reach the Colorado border, I will have a postable entry finished.

So I am not alone on this flight.  Sitting a few rows from me are 8 teenagers, most of whom are from CBJ, who accompanied me to Long Island to assist in rebuilding houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.   With two of our other young adults, they formed the second group that accompanied me to the east coast.  Last week, Rob Saltzman and Paul and Eli Melmon joined me for a week of painting, sanding and mudding.

Wait a minute.  Hurricane Sandy?  Wasn’t that storm a long time ago?  Like October 29, 2012?  What still needs to be done?  I haven’t seen anything in the newspapers (or more likely, on Yahoo News) about it for months.

And that’s the point.  Once the media has exhausted its attention span on a disaster, it ceases to exist in the minds of its readers.  Unless, of course, those readers happen to live on the New Jersey shore, Staten Island, Long Island, or Brooklyn and ride the R train to work.  All of those areas are still struggling in ways often invisible from the street view.   Driving through the south shore of Long Island, one might never know that entire neighborhoods sat under feet of water and lost power for weeks on end.  Until one enters a house and finds…..

Let me back up for a moment.  How did we get here in the first place?  It started in May, not too long after the devastating tornado that leveled Moore, Oklahoma and surrounding communities.  I was reading a story about the cleanup effort, and one volunteer was quoted as saying that you can’t even imagine what it is like unless you are there.

Now, I don’t know why, but at that moment, a spark flashed in my head.  I realized that what was missing for me this time is that I have never done any hands-on relief work; I’ve only ever sent a check from afar.  As I thought more about it, I realized also that we as a community have never had an organized response to disasters.

This isn’t to minimize the work we have done, both as community and as individuals.  We serve dinners at Maple Street Shelter; host Home and Hope; and participate in innumerable mitzvah projects locally.  The Arfins, among others, went to New Orleans to rebuild houses many of our physicians have gone to poor countries and donated their medical services; our attorneys do so much pro bono work.

But an organized effort to disaster?  When disaster strikes, Rabbi Ezray will send an email out to the community asking for donations, and many people respond generously.  That financial support is critical, but we haven’t been there.  And that is especially true for our teenagers. I have struggled over the years to find a formula to connect our teens to Jewish life in an ongoing and meaningful way.  So connecting the dots here, I thought we may have something.

Back to the spark from the story of that volunteer in Oklahoma.  That evening, I sent a message to Nechama- Jewish Response to Disaster (the only Jewish disaster relief organization), which was on the ground in Oklahoma, asking if it would be possible to bring a group to help with the recovery effort.  I received a quick response from Jess, who was coordinating the relief efforts.  She let me know that Nechama would only be in Oklahoma for a short time, but that rebuilding houses on Long Island would be ongoing until April 2014.

As luck would have it, Nechama had room for groups to volunteer the first and second weeks of August.   And what would the work be?  Drywalling, laying insulation, mudding, sanding, painting.  And how handy did one have to be to participate?  Well, not very, as it turns out, because the tasks were very well taught and overseen by Nechama staff.  With such an undaunting set of tasks, fifteen volunteers signed on for a great mitzvah project.

Let me take a minute to comment on the Nechama staff.  Wow.  A group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings being paid next-to-nothing, and mostly non-Jewish!  All of who have dedicated themselves to lives of service.  Americorps, Habitat for Humanity, All-Hands Volunteers, FEMA are just some of the organizations these young people have worked for.  And why do they do it?  One staff member, Scott summed it up best: Because we are needed.  It just made me stronger in my conviction that this country needs to institute mandatory national service for our youth.  But that’s another post for another time.

So what did we find when we entered the houses?   In the first house we worked on, it was 1095 square feet, mostly on the ground floor, with a small room upstairs.  When the water entered the house, it was so high that it lifted the refrigerator up and floater the heavy appliance in several feet of water.  In one closet, the high water mark was visible at about 3 feet.   The people who lived there, a single mom and her 8-year-old daughter, were living in the room upstairs, with no kitchen, and little useable living space downstairs.  We mainly spent our time there painting, as it was close to completed.  Soon, they will have floors again, and will be able to use their downstairs space.

Other houses were not as advanced.  In one, there was barely drywall put up, and we spent most of our time filling in seams with drywall compound (mudding) and sanding.  Needless to say, it was a lot of dust!  A 90+ year-old woman was the resident of that house, and she had to relocate to her daughter’s house while hers was in disrepair. Rachael Yourtz had a beautiful Facebook post in which, at another house, the woman who had lived there was so grateful, she broke down in tears.

Life on Long Island, and other places in the New York area, are far from normal still.  Life in many places in New Orleans is far from normal.  While the headlines fade, the struggles don’t.  Please keep that in mind when you have a spare day in New York (Nechama is a wonderful organization to work with), or when you’re considering where to take your next vacation.  Or if you’re going to Hawai’I, maybe you can volunteer at Second Harvest for a day.  Travel that incorporates social action is on the rise, and I for one hope to work it in to my life in much more regular way.

Well, Colorado has arrived beneath us, and Nolwenn has given way to Green Day- oxymoronic musical choices for sure- so it is time to wrap up.   I hope you will find this series of thoughts and observations to be informative, if not at times humorous, educational, inspiring and occasionally controversial.