Rebuilding New Orleans house by house
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Rebuilding New Orleans house by house

With the victims of Hurricane Katrina still in need of help, local residents are finding creative ways to provide assistance.

Demarest resident Peter Weinrobe and his ‘0-year-old daughter Melissa arrived in New Orleans on Dec. ‘4 to help rebuild homes devastated by the hurricane. So did Sarah and Jessie Losch of Wyckoff and Richard Giberson of Wayne, representing Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

As part of the Reform movement’s Tzevet Mitzvot: Adult Mitzvah Corps, the six are "embracing the three pillars of Jewish life: learning, prayer, and righteous deeds," said Barnert’s interim rabbi, Joel Soffin, who founded the program. Created while Soffin was serving Temple Shalom of Succasunna, which remains a co-sponsor of the program, Tzevet Mitzvot is now a project of the Union of Reform Judaism.


Wyckoff resident Jessie Losch, right, works with Scott Konrad of West Virginia to rebuild a home.

This year, Tzevet Mitzvot is embarking on its sixth "build," the second in New Orleans. Working with the city’s Touro Synagogue and True Vine Baptist Church, the venture has brought together some 35 volunteers from all over the country to pray in the morning, rebuild homes during the day, and study Torah at night. They will leave New Orleans on Dec. 30.

Soffin, who said he got the idea for the project after participating in a "blitz build" in Canada with Habitat for Humanity, came back from the trip convinced his congregation could organize a similar project. He has been helping to build houses ever since.

"This is my sixth trip and I still have no building skills," joked the rabbi, pointing out that "[Temple Shalom congregant] Stu Bauer is the expert. He teaches the crew leaders, who teach the others." Nevertheless, he said, while only a few volunteers possess specialized construction skills, "our hearts are willing."

Sarah Losch, Barnert’s director of lifelong education, told The Jewish Standard during a lunch break from her building duties that, with no prior construction experience, she had spent the morning taping and spackling over sheetrock. She and her daughter Jessie, who is working with power tools for the first time, are repairing homes in the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit districts.

Losch pointed out that participants’ registration fees were used in part to buy tools and supplies, some of which will be stored at the local JCC, to be used by other groups that come to help rebuild the area. Other tools will be donated to Habitat for Humanity or left with the families whose houses are being renovated.

Tzevet Mitzvot "is not a building project but an experience in Jewish religious living," Soffin told the Standard. Each day, through worship, building, and studying Torah, "we are reminded of why we do this. God expects us to do this."

Losch said she has benefited tremendously from the program. "Every bone in my body hurts," she said, "but I ask myself, why would anyone take a vacation when there are so many things like this to do?"

Weinrobe, who participated in the program in ‘003 together with his wife, Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, and their daughter Melissa, said that their earlier efforts were centered in Burlington, Vt., where they helped build a new house for a needy family.

New Orleans is different, he said, noting that "the task here is so great and so daunting that you don’t know where to start." Still, he added, "each of us has a responsibility to start somewhere."

"We’ll get as much done as we can in the time we’re here," he said, pointing out that he gets "a tremendous sense of fulfillment" from the work. In addition, said Weinrobe, "you have an incredibly good time."

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