"Is this it?" A student asked as our van pulled up onto a hill next to a yard filled with bits and pieces of what was formerly a home.
A jumble of tree debris, plastic chairs, miscellaneous objects, and construction gear painted the picture of the week to come for our group as we took on tornado disaster relief work in Oklahoma. We were a group of students and staff from Metro Chicago Hillel, embarking on a Jewish Disaster Relief Corps Alternative Spring Break, conducted in partnership with JUF's TOV Volunteer Network. When most college students are lathering on the sunscreen at popular destinations like Cancun or Miami for their spring breaks, this group decided to dedicate their week to something bigger than themselves.
"Chesed, or kindness, in general is a very important part of Judaism," said Leah Edelman, a student from the University of Illinois at Chicago. "As human beings, we are all intertwined. Even though you might not know the people affected by any given disaster or tragedy, it is our responsibility as Jews to do the manual labor and show just how much we care about one another."
The week was primarily spent helping a low income family rebuild after the tornados that struck almost a year earlier. The damage still echoed today in the broken trees, blown-down sheds, and destroyed porches. After a day's work the students met for dinner and activities that helped them better understand their work and get to know each other. We met with the Oklahoma University Hillel staff and a local AEPi (Jewish fraternity) member came to express thanks and meet up with his Chicago brethren. One evening, after deep discussion and games, a teacher from the Plaza Towers School in Moore, Oklahoma joined our group.
After months of battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she decided we were the group she would first speak to about her experiences on the day the F5 tornado destroyed her town. She held back tears as she explained her struggle to keep the school children alive, taking hits from flying debris as she held her students beneath her, praying that they would not be blown away. We were humbled by her courage to speak with us, her courage to stay at the school and protect those children, and her courage to remain with the parents who, after the destruction was being assessed at the school, were about to have their hearts broken forever.
"We are thrilled that our Metro Chicago Hillel students were able to join the relief effort in Oklahoma with Jewish Disaster Response Corps. Even though our communities are far apart, our students embodied the Jewish spirit for tikkun olam in helping in a critical phase of rebuilding that community," said Yael Brunwasser, director of TOV Volunteer Services.
"Sure we are here digging holes and building decks, but it's more than that; we are showing people we care about them," said Andrew Van Sickle, president of DePaul University's Hillel. The students spent the rest of the week building growing and learning, finally resting in a shared Shabbat experience that culminated the Spring Break trip with a sense of purpose and Jewish peoplehood. "We are giving people hope. We are building more than a house, we are making a home. We are building more than just a porch; we are giving people their way of life back."
The wind blows for all who were touched by this life altering experience, and we all try to readjust as we go back to our normal lives here in Chicago, only now with a deeper appreciation for the gift that was this Alternative Spring Break.
Lisette Zaid is development manager and director of Lewis Summer Internship Program for the Hillels of Illinois.
Metro Chicago Hillel is part of the department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement at Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago/Jewish United Fund and a partner of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.