When Jewish Standard editor Joanne Palmer began her story about the Minnesota-based Nechama disaster relief organization several weeks back (“Getting Dirty Doing Good,” Nov. 9), she suggested that cleanup is not glamorous work.
When I sat down to write this piece – covered with muck from head to toe – I had the same thought.
Like the troupe from Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girl in Teaneck, working with Nechama the same day to make a dent in the wreckage of what used to be a synagogue basement in Brooklyn, I wore mud-spattered boots, dirt-covered work gloves, and a jacket with suspiciously gelatinous dark stains. Glamorous indeed.
Who at the shul would have thought when storing last year’s Chanukah decorations, or putting back a Hebrew schoolbook, that it all would float away? Actually, had they floated, it would have been a lot easier. Waterlogged books are heavy. Bagging entire ruined libraries is hard, heartbreaking work.
The group leaders from Nechama were a diverse lot: funny, irreverent, committed to their work. Not for one moment, beneath the jokes and bravado, did they forget why they were there. Some had driven from Minnesota, some from Chicago, some from Virginia. One guy, last week, came from California. All were based at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, eating and sleeping when they could. I was among the volunteers recruited by Bonim Builders, a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
The Chicago volunteer who drove some of us back to the JCC after our gig said he had done several stints with Nechama since Katrina. Maneuvering through traffic as only an former taxi driver can, he simultaneously discussed the fine points of the Lewis and Clark expedition. (His long drive had given him an opportunity to catch up on audiobooks and he was a history buff.)
One group leader, from Minnesota, boldly announced that he could operate and fix any machine in the Nechama trailer. No doubt he could. Yet beneath his tough guy veneer lay unbridled curiosity and genuine enthusiasm. On the way to the worksite, his questions were nonstop: “What river is that?” “Where’s the Empire State Building?” “How far are we from Manhattan?”
While he stumped me half the time, my fellow Bergen County volunteer, a resident of Ridgewood, helped us locals save face by actually knowing the answers to some of those questions. A first-timer, he said he came because he had the day off.
Actually, everyone underplayed their motivation. None of us said, “We feel helpless when something like Sandy happens. We need to do something.” But it was on everyone’s mind, as was genuine compassion for those affected by the storm.
The retired teacher from Virginia said she simply wanted to help and had found Nechama on the internet. Like me, she had checked off the volunteer line reading (and I paraphrase), “I want to help but don’t have any particular skills.” So, working in tandem, we swept, shoveled, carried, and pushed whatever former synagogue treasures could now fit into dumpsters.
(Disclaimer: Everyone was put on notice that if we saw anything that looked like a ritual object or religious document, we should put it on the side.)
Dan Hoeft, Nechama’s operations director, went out after several long hours of concentrated labor to buy lunch for some of the troops. He returned hours later, having paid what was meant to be a short visit to an elderly couple nearby who needed help. Needless to say, lunch hour yielded to the reality of people in need ““ and everyone back at the site understood that. (Though the coffee was indeed welcome when he finally brought it.)
Midway through the day, Hoeft asked me how I was doing. I didn’t know if I should say I was enjoying it, but he said I should absolutely say that. It is fun, he said.
It was, actually. Fun, and exhausting, and sad, and empowering.
We can’t fight hurricanes, but we can lend a hand to the survivors.