Nechama rallies volunteers in the aftermath of Irene
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Nechama rallies volunteers in the aftermath of Irene

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Volunteers from throughout the Jewish community worked with Nechama at a Lodi home on Sept. 11. They are shown here piling debris from the demolition of a flooded basement.

Ironic? Yes. Funny? No.

“Someone on the street had a powerboat in the driveway named Irene,” said Ridgewood resident Bette Birnbaum, who recently helped devastated families dig out after the hurricane.

Birnbaum, a member of Mahwah’s Reform synagogue Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom and a longtime instructor in the JFNNJ-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, said the experience was both moving and eye-opening.

“The smell was deathly,” she said of the flooded homes. “Families were in great distress. It felt like it was the first time I had done something so helpful to someone.”

Working with her rabbi, Joel Mosbacher, and dozens of volunteers from the National Council of Synagogue Youth, Yeshiva University, and other organizations, Birnbaum joined an effort spearheaded by Nechama: The Jewish Response to Disaster, based in Minnesota.

Professionals from the organization arrived here on Labor Day and will remain through Rosh Hashanah. So far, they have worked in such hard-hit communities as River Edge, Saddle Brook, and Lodi.

“Their truck says, ‘A Jewish Response to Disaster,'” said Birnbaum, noting that the son of one woman they helped said he used to have “a chip on his shoulder regarding Jews. But now he loves them.”

Jim Stein, executive director of the organization, said fostering such changes of heart is one of the group’s goals.

“Frequently, we’re the only Jews some of these people have ever met,” he said, adding that much of his work has been in the American heartland.

On the other hand, some of his volunteers – like the NCSY members who have joined his projects more than a half-dozen times, in places from Birmingham to Texas – haven’t been exposed to non-Jews, either.

“It helps break stereotypes down,” he said.

Calling Nechama’s work “hard but rewarding” and “very messy,” Stein said the organization, founded in 1996, handles the initial clean-up after a flood.

‘Mucking out’

“We do the mucking out,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘Get dirty doing good.’ We tell our volunteers, ‘Imagine that this is your own basement.’ We also try to have them interview a disaster victim.”

Clean-up efforts are supervised by a trained professional, Dan Hoeft, the group’s operations manager. “We remove possessions, clear walls, clean, and sanitize,” said Hoeft, adding that when Nechama leaves, rebuilding can begin.

According to Stein, when a disaster occurs, Nechama sends an e-mail blast to people to have worked with the group previously, as well as to various groups, such as OU and Jewish federations, that may want to provide volunteers.

“They then call our contact person here in Minnesota and find out where we’ll be,” he said. “FEMA calls them ‘unaffiliated’ volunteers. They’re not affiliated with a particular group but they want to be helpful.”

“We have over 300 volunteers signed up to work with us between Sept. 5 and Sept. 28,” added Nechama administrator Amy Cytron.

Stein explained that after disasters, organizations such as the Red Cross and United Way encourage people in distress to call the emergency number 211 and request help. Local organizations then match up the victims with those equipped to provide assistance.

In the case of Hurricane Irene, Lisa Orloff of the World Cares Center, based in New York, monitored the 211 calls and provided Nechama with a list of New Jersey victims.

“Every state has a VOAD [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster],” said Hoeft. When people who need help dial into the 211 system, “We work with them to help prioritize – the elderly, handicapped, single parents. We need to start with those who need the most help.”

‘We’re bouncing around’

Most sites can be done in a day, he said, pointing out that Nechama – together with volunteers from NCSY, Yeshiva University, Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom, and NYU – have already tackled sites in Saddle Brook, River Edge, Lodi, and Paterson.

“We’re bouncing around,” he said. “We’re going to expand to Essex and Passaic because there’s no volunteer presence there.”

Sizing up the damage inflicted in northern New Jersey, Hoeft said, “A disaster is a disaster – whether eight feet or a few inches of water – if you can’t deal with it yourself. Some homes were slightly damaged. In some, the main level of the house was under five feet of water. It destroys clothes, food, dishes, lives. It didn’t seem [the storm] would do that much, but the aftermath really affected people.”

In notes she kept detailing Nechama’s efforts in two locations, Birnbaum wrote about the resilience of families affected by the storm.

She wrote of one woman in Lodi, “Despite suffering from some medical problems, Marilyn seems strong and resourceful. She feels ‘happy that we are safe.’ Marilyn also puts the disaster in perspective. She said, ‘It could have been a volcano. Our people come from Pompeii. They had Vesuvius.'”

The Volunteers

Hoeft told The Jewish Standard that he was “glad to be able to be out here and close to a large Jewish population. In so many areas, we don’t have a lot of Jewish volunteers. Here the groups are really coming out.”

He noted that NCSY volunteers are “unbelievably good workers. They get a learning experience they can’t get in a classroom. They get to see extreme poverty and understand the importance of helping out.”

Eye-opening experience

“Many of the kids have never been out of Teaneck and Fair Lawn,” said Cytron. “They haven’t gone to the rural places where Nechama is typically working. And they’re meeting people who have never met Jews. It’s an incredibly eye-opening experience.”

For some groups, like NCSY, working with Nechama is part of leadership training.

Nechama provides those volunteers with “an opportunity to help those who really need the help: single parents, people who are ill, people with no resources,” said Cytron. “It’s a wonderful meld of our mission and what [NCSY] is trying to teach them.”

Stein called NCSY an “amazing partner” and added that Nechama was proud to have received the youth organization’s first-ever partnership award, presented last month at a national staff convention in Stamford, Conn.

Rabbi Ethan Katz, associate director of New Jersey NCSY, the youth arm of the Orthodox Union, said he has been able to provide volunteer groups of about 15 people each day.

“Different people show up different days,” he said, noting that schools such as the Torah Academy of Bergen County are among those providing the workers.

Using e-mails, Facebook, and texting to mobilize volunteers 16 years and older, the Teaneck-based youth group invites interested students to call its office for their assignments.

In a statement soliciting volunteers, Katz wrote, “Confronted with wind and rain and the ensuing floods that have turned local streets into quagmires and backyards into swamps, New Jersey NCSY – which for four years has organized teens from NCSY groups and local yeshivas and public high schools to go on the road to bring disaster relief following hurricanes and tornadoes – finds itself with enough work in Bergen and Essex Counties to plan for almost a full month of cleanup activities at its home base.”

“The kids find it a life-changing experience,” said Katz. “They can make a difference in someone’s life [and see] the power of kids working together. They work side by side with homeowners and see their appreciation.”

Creating ‘real leadership’

He said that over the past few years, NCSY has been leading such volunteer efforts “for chesed and tikkun olam” – for helping people and repairing the world. “It’s not about bowling and ice-skating. It creates real leadership. They love doing this kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s what they’re looking for.”

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher said his stint in Saddle Brook on Labor Day reminded him of his first volunteer assignment with Nechama, helping to clean up New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

After viewing the damage in Saddle Brook, Mahwah, Wayne, and Paterson, the rabbi said, “Anyone who says that Irene was not a big deal or that the government overreacted hasn’t gotten out that much. It was devastating. The needs are intense.”

In one Saddle Brook home, said the rabbi, “we went in and took everything out of the basement. The homeowner was there and helped us separate keep from throwaway. It was very emotional for her. Then when everything was gone, we took down the walls and plasterboard to the studs, cleaning with bleach to prevent mold. This will allow the homeowner to put up new plasterboard and begin again.”

Mosbacher, who is urging members of his Reform synagogue to help with the clean-up – they have already brought supplies to affected areas – said he “hopes the Jewish community will step up in ways we haven’t quite done yet.”

Sees great need locally

While the community sent “18-wheelers [with supplies] to New Orleans, I don’t see that kind of mobilization in the community yet. It’s on a different scale, a different crisis, but there’s actually tremendous need in this area,” he said.

Mosbacher said he has remained in touch with Nechama since his work in New Orleans.

“I got an e-mail saying they were mobilizing in Bergen and it was clear that we were needed right away,” he said.

His synagogue is also trying to line up hosts for the two Nechama representatives who are here supervising the work.

“My congregation is hosting for a week,” he said. “I’ve reached out to other rabbis to get them to host, as well. When they were deployed to rural Alabama, they stayed in churches,” he noted. “It can’t be that when they come here they end up sleeping [only] in churches, as well.”

Joining Mosbacher in Saddle Brook was his 13-year-old son, Ari. “My son hadn’t done anything like that before,” he said. “It was an overwhelming experience. I’m very proud of him.”

Stacy Orden, coordinator of Bonim Builders – a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – said she has been serving as “point person” between Nechama and those who have called into federation for assistance. Bonim, staffed by volunteers, repairs houses for those in need.

“We’ve gotten requests from the Teaneck, Maywood, and Oakland areas,” said Orden. “If a synagogue needs assistance, they call federation and I connect them with Nechama. If an individual in a private residence needs flood remediation, then they dial 211 and Nechama or a similar organization will put that residence on the work schedule.”

Orden explained that before the 211 system was firmly established, Bonim did receive some calls and was able to help some families individually. Her group had sent out a message calling for volunteers before the Labor Day weekend and got about a dozen responses, she said. Four of the callers were assigned to provide hurricane relief.

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