|Nechama staffers and volunteers cleaned up the United Synagogue of Hoboken. COURTESY NECHAMA|
There is nothing at all glamorous or exciting about cleaning up after a natural disaster.
A huge storm is a terrifying or majestic thing, way outside of normal life. Depending on your theology, you might see it as an act of God or a manifestation of nature at its most raw, but certainly you cannot stare into its lashings of wind and wild swirls of water and see it as a work of humankind. To use the word accurately, it is awesome.
Then it storms away and leaves destruction behind, leaving it to us mere mortals to shoulder the huge, dispiriting, seemingly Augean task of making the mess go away.
Where do you start? Who are you going to call?
A Minneapolis-based Jewish VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) nurtured by the concept of tikkun olam, Nechama: The Jewish Response to Disaster grew out of the tornadoes and floods that devastated Minnesota in the late 1990s. The group organized to help clean up that disaster. It would have disbanded once the job was done, but found it could not in the face of Hurricane Katrina. In response, Nechama sent teams to help with the cleanup in the hardest-hit Gulf communities and to arrange logistics for other cleanup attempts. Its members have been flying around the country making things better ever since.
Now, Nechama is in northern New Jersey, just a little more than a year since its work here in the wake of Hurricane Irene in September 2011. It has set up its base at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. So far, most of its work has been in Hoboken, although most likely it will branch out to other parts of the region in the six weeks or so it has allotted for cleanup here, before winter’s onset makes that work impossible.
Avi Lewinson, the JCC’s executive director, is working closely with Nechama. “The way they work is that they come in with team captains” – mainly the four men who work for the organization – “and they work with local organizations – JCCs, federations, synagogues, churches – to start assessing damage and see where they can be more useful.”
Nechama coordinates with local governments or other VOADs, so they’re not all clustered in one place. It works with local volunteers; some of them already are expert in the tasks at hand, but others learn as they go. The team captains teach them, leaving a more capable group of volunteers behind them once their part of the job is done.
When Nechama got to town on the Thursday after the storm, Lewinson told them that a JCC staffer’s house had been damaged badly. Two trees had fallen on it. The crew went to Demarest and cleaned up the house. They do not have or use heavy equipment, and they cannot rebuild.
“To remove the trees, you’d need a crane and a bucket,” Lewinson said. “They don’t have that. They cleaned off all the brush. That saves time and significant money, so that when the crane comes all it has to do is lift the tree.”
The other work – the smaller scale, less eye-catching, more backbreaking work – is done already, and for free.
Not all of Nechama’s employees are Jewish, and it does not help only Jews; it sees its mission as helping the underserved and vulnerable.
“The whole idea – and it’s kind of cool – is that it builds a mutual respect among different religious and people,” Lewinson, who hosted them for Shabbat dinner, said.
Bill Driscoll, Jr., Nechama’s executive director, is 29 years old. “I’ve been doing this since a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” he said. “I started as a volunteer and worked my way up.”
He loves the Jewish values that undergird Nechama.
“We all come together in the spirit of collaboration to help people in need,” he said. “As a Catholic guy myself, Jesuit educated, I can get behind the spirit of tikkun olam. It’s very close to the Catholic idea of social justice. There is a big push for men and women being for others.
“We welcome anyone who wants to volunteer for us, and we are willing to help anyone who needs it,” he said. “We tend to give priority to vulnerable people – the elderly, single parents, disabled people, people who can’t afford to pay for services.
“Cleanup is our primary deliverable service. It ends up saving a homeowner or a community space thousands of dollars.”
Even more important than saving them money they might not have is “giving people hope,” Driscoll continued.
“It’s a big statement when someone comes – maybe from down the street, maybe from across the country – and stands next to disaster survivors, and says, ‘You know what? I can’t do everything, but I can do a few things for you.’ It starts you down that road. You might think, ‘I don’t know how I can clean up this mess,’ and then 12 people show up and do it for you.
“The most frequent comment I hear from volunteers is that they get more out of it then they put into it,” Driscoll said. “To touch someone who is in a really tough situation and to be a source of help for them – that’s very powerful for everyone involved.”
Bette Birnbaum, a longtime Melton teacher, moved to Hoboken from Bergen County just a few months ago. She already had a working relationship with Nechama.
“After Hurricane Irene last year, I turned to my rabbi, Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom in Mahwah, and I said, ‘What can I do?’ and he said that when he was in New Orleans, he worked with Nechama.”
Mosbacher told Birnbaum that it had done an extraordinary job, and he put her in touch with the organization.
The first big job Nechama tackled this month in her new home town was cleaning up the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Birnbaum said, and the next one was a community center, which not only houses many local groups but also had to be cleaned up in time to serve as a polling place in Tuesday’s presidential election.
Now they are at work at a food pantry at Our Lady of Grace, a Roman Catholic church in Hoboken. The pantry, where Birnbaum has worked for some time, is called In Jesus’ Name. All the local churches and the one shul in Hoboken support it, as it provides support to “people who have fallen through the cracks – the indigent, the homeless, people who have run out of food stamps by the end of the month.”
The woman who runs it, April Harris, “has built a mission to the poor,” Birnbaum said.
Harris stored a collection of donated goods – clothing, baby supplies, food, diapers, shoes, household goods – in the church’s basement, which flooded.
“April was understandably freaked out,” Birnbaum said. “She keeps saying, ‘What about the babies? What about my people?'”
Nechama is helping clean it out.
“It’s a huge job,” Birnbaum said. “We had 20 volunteers the other day. There is standing water that we started to wet vac. We need people – strong people – I hate to stay it, but strong men – to lift the water up the stairs. It’s grueling work.”
It is Nechama’s work.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of United Synagogue of Hoboken appreciates Nechama’s work. The shul regularly sends volunteers to the food pantry, he said, “and they are the recipients of our food drives at Yom Kippur and several points during the year. We work very closely with April Harris.
“Seeing Nechama volunteers assisting them in recovering their flooded space was a very emotional experience for me.”
“The Nechama staff has two tee shirts each with them, and a pair of filthy pants. And they go around doing good, and helping others do the same,” Birnbaum said. Not only is the group’s motto “We get dirty doing good,” the volunteers get dirty, too, she said. They too push brooms and pull squeegees across windowpanes.
“They have become my friends,” Birnbaum said. “They’re the salt of the earth.”
To learn more about Nechama, including how to volunteer and also how to help fund it, go to www.nechama.org.