UIC students give back on break

By Leah Edelman

In December 2012, a group 15 students from UIC Levine Hillel Center, Northwestern Hillel, Loyola Hillel and Oakton Community College joined Nechama and JUF to travel to NY, as part of a mission to support the Jewish Center in Brighton Beach, which was decimated by Superstorm Sandy. Leah Edelman, a sophomore studying computer graphics at UIC, shares the story of participating in the effort.

After finishing up a semester and stressing through finals, 15 students decided that instead of just celebrating, we wanted to go to New York on a Sandy relief mission. Last month, we met in front of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, and listened as the Rabbi told us about the significance of the center to the Jewish community there. We were given masks and tools, and were assigned in groups to work in different rooms.

Prior to this mission, I, as well as probably some others, hadn't had much experience with a hammer. However, we adjusted very quickly and worked determinedly at demolishing the walls which were damaged from the storm. It actually was a lot of fun and I discovered I had a hidden talent for taking apart wooden boards and panels…who knew? It was also nice to see some of the locals come to join us including families with younger children. By the time it was almost dark, the place looked totally different than it did in the morning. It's truly amazing to see how teamwork and determination can produce such impressive results. 

The next day, we went to a Jewish family's house in Far Rockaways, NY, where we were greeted by the homeowner. She was overcome with gratitude when she saw all of us there ready to help out. It was very touching to see her gratitude and high-spirits, which motivated me to want to help her even more. She was so appreciative that she brought us all pizza for lunch! That day and the next were spent tearing apart walls, taking off the carpets and floorboards, as well as taking out all the appliances that were damaged by the flood waters.

After our second day of the trip, we participated in an Ask Big Questions conversation, focusing on answering the question, "for whom we are responsible?" It was really interesting to hear different perspectives and thoughts from the rest of the group.

Before I knew it, it was time to say our goodbyes and leave for the airport. The trip was such a wonderful and inspirational experience! I know the work we did might seem miniscule compared to how much work there is yet to be done, but I like to think about it this way; "to the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world." Every effort one makes to help out is significant. 

Even though we were just a small group of college students and we didn't help every person who was effected by the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, we did help out with what we could and our work did not just leave an impression on those we helped, but I would like to speak for our whole group by saying it left an impression on all of us as well. This experience enforced values of social justice and what it means to feel responsible for others. I'd like to thank TOV, NECHAMA, and Hillel for making this experience possible. I truly feel like I gained more than I gave. 

To read more about and see great photos from this mission, visit UIC Hillel's Storify recap here.

Sean Jacobs, Deerfield, Illinois, 1st year Masters Student in public administration, UIC 
Overall, volunteering for the JUF-NECHAMA Disaster Relief trip was a positive life changing experience. The entire trip stuck with me to never take anything in life for granted and to be thankful for everything I have including having certain necessities like a house for shelter and my family for support. In Baldwin, New York, I was glad to help put a Jewish Community Center back on its feet along with two families' homes, one 80-year-old Hungarian woman's home and another family too with approximately four to six children. The physical demands of the work for these respective locations varied greatly from removing nails and screws to tearing and removing much of the floors' and walls' wood and other materials. In comparison to tearing and removing a lot of wood and other materials from the floors and walls, even if removing nails and screws seemed tedious, every task completed whether in the homes or in the Jewish Community Center, would help the families and the organization advance one step further to being back on their feet. I was very inspired to meet and volunteer with such incredible people who like myself are dedicated to helping other people get back on their feet. Finally, I would like to thank all of my volunteer group's participants especially Marissa, Ali, and Rebecca along with all the NECHAMA volunteers especially the full-time NECHAMA volunteers for all their amazing coordination, physical labor, and sacrifices they have and continue to make to help make this volunteer trip happen and their willingness to continue helping the Baldwin, New York and any other devastated communities get back on their feet. Just like one of the volunteers who spoke at the Volunteer Fire Station and what I ultimately believe in, "doing mitzvot for others will result in others doing mitzvot for all of you down the road in your lives."

Amir Zadaka, Plymouth, Minnesota, studying in the graduate nursing program at Loyola University. 
It's hard to describe a volunteer trip that encompassed so many different emotions. It was shocking needing to tear the walls down of a beautiful synagogue, while damaged prayer books laid out to dry on the floor above us. It was moving seeing a Jewish homeowners face as she saw how many volunteers stood in her driveway, armed with hammers and crowbars, ready to help. It was inspiring seeing so many other like-minded undergraduate and graduate students speak of tikun olam. We were very sore at the end of each day, as much of it was spent tearing down plasterboard, prying up floorboards and lugging damaged materials outside. However, I know that all of us went to sleep at night feeling good about how the day was spent. I want to thank TOV, project Nechama and Hillel of Illinois for giving us the opportunity to help make a difference in the lives of other Jews this winter break.


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