Volunteering, bonding in Israel
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Volunteering, bonding in Israel

Orangetown Jewish Center’s trip provides unique chance to help

This year’s Orangetown Jewish Center volunteers in Israel.
This year’s Orangetown Jewish Center volunteers in Israel.

Ten years ago, in late August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit.

As we all know, the storm devastated New Orleans, and it activated a flood of volunteers who worked hard, over the course of many years, to help rebuild the city.

That same year, in the buildup to Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon, missiles shot from over Israel’s northern border with that country hit the border town of Kiryat Shemona so often and with such ferocity that the town occasionally was called Kiryat Katyusha.

One of Rabbi Craig Scheff’s congregants at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, Jeffrey Steinberg, pointed out that as wonderful as it was that so many people had been moved to help in Louisiana, Kiryat Shemona could use some help as well.

Children at Gan Felicia look up at volunteers. (Simone Wilker)
Children at Gan Felicia look up at volunteers. (Simone Wilker)

“So I stood up on Yom Kippur and I said, ‘I’m going to Israel to help repair Kiryat Shemona,’” Rabbi Scheff said. “And suddenly I had 20 people going with me.”

That four-day trip has been repeated every year since then; most recently this week. The 24 group members, four of whom have been on the trip at least seven or eight times and three of whom are doing it for the first time, left on Sunday, November 15, and planned to be home on Friday.

Rabbi Scheff had not planned the trip in any detail before he made the announcement. “We just found a grassroots organization that was helping with the relief effort and hooked up with them,” he said in a phone call from Israel. “We had no idea what to expect, but we knew that Kiryat Shemona was receiving most of the shelling from across the border, and that the forest had caught fire. Everyone knew that the town was really suffering.

“So we plastered and painted and gardened for four days, from Sunday to Thursday,” he said.

“This year and every year since then, we have returned to volunteer.”

Each year, the group — it’s usually 20 to 25 people, with a solid nucleus of volunteers who come back year after year — works with three different organizations.

This year, the group worked with Gan Felicia, a kindergarten day-care program for Sudanese refugee children, and with Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem that has both Jewish and Arab students. And this year, as they had every year for 10 years, the volunteers also worked with Kfar Ahavah, a foster village for at-risk children outside Haifa.

“The group dynamic and bonding is unique,” Rabbi Scheff said. “They welcome new people, and we experience such a great sense of humility in being able to serve other people, who are facing such terrible circumstances. Everybody stretches and moves beyond their comfort level, and as a result we are so open to one other.”

Last year, OJC volunteers worked at a community garden at the Beer Sheva Ethiopian absorption center. (David Klein)
Last year, OJC volunteers worked at a community garden at the Beer Sheva Ethiopian absorption center. (David Klein)

David Klein of Suffern has gone on the trip every year. “Rabbi Scheff is a phenomenal rabbi,” he said. “I have never met anyone like him, and that motivated me to become more of a shul person.”

Moved by what he called Rabbi Scheff’s “call to action,” Mr. Klein went to Kiryat Shemona. The physical labor, including reforestation, “was really satisfying. I think that we were taken aback by how good it felt. I don’t think that first year that we were planning on doing it again, but Rabbi Scheff just ran with it, and he was such an inspiration that people signed up and it had a lot of momentum.”

The shul works hard to make the trip as affordable as possible, Mr. Klein said. At first, the group worked with a guide, but soon members realized that it was an unnecessary expense. Members share hotel rooms. This year, the cost was $950, not including airfare. “It’s not frills,” he said.

Out of all the sad, hard, or inspiring things he’s seen, he is most moved by Kfar Ahavah. “There are about 150 children, and they live in nuclear families,” he said. “There are husbands and wives who have their own two or three kids, and live with them. It is an incredibly successful model.”

Orangetown members do menial cleanup work there, but they also have developed real relationships. “The director, Yoav Applebaum, is incredibly protective of the children, and he did not allow us to have much interaction with them early on, but he saw that we kept coming back. Now we are at the point where we eat meals with the kids, and we have taken them places on our bus. Yoav really trusts us now, and it is great.”

Volunteers and children at Gan Felicia. Simone Wilker)
Volunteers and children at Gan Felicia. Simone Wilker)

Because he speaks Hebrew, Mr. Klein has learned a bit about the people who live at Kfar Ahavah. “I was talking to the mom at lunch. She had two little kids. I said, ‘Do you like it here?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t.’ So I said, ‘Why are you living here, if you don’t like it? What are you doing here?’ And she said, ‘I’m doing it because my husband was here as a kid, and it saved him.’

“That hit me in the stomach. The place is life-changing.”

This year, during the trip, participants will acknowledge two recent deaths. One is of Mr. Klein’s son, Danny, who died at 20 in April. The other is of one of Mr. Klein’s good friends, Robert Katz, who died suddenly, at 53.

“This trip definitely is in his memory,” Mr. Klein said. “He had a heart of gold. He came for the first time in 2008, and he was on every trip since. He didn’t know much Hebrew then, but he was so motivated by it that he went out and took classes. His Hebrew was really decent.

“And I can tell you without exaggeration that the trip changed Rob’s life. It changed his Jewish identity. He became Mr. OJC. He became so involved that although he was a very busy guy, running a lot of businesses, he was also the guy running for the egg salad for men’s club meetings.

“I had never seen him before the trip, and after the trip the shul became an integral part of his life. And that’s Craig, creating an atmosphere of belonging.”

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