Labor of Love: Helping rebuild after Hurricane Sandy

sandy campus beat image
Hillel volunteers ready to help out at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach.

In December, 14 students invited by the Hillels of Illinois traveled to Baldwin, N.Y., to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Our group, accompanied by three group leaders from both Hillel and the JUF TOV Volunteer Network, arrived a little before 2:00 a.m. at the church where we were to stay. Despite the hour, we introduced ourselves and shared our reasons for coming. Motivations varied, ranging from trying to occupy some free time over winter break to a desire to make a difference in their communities.

We started at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach. After a gracious welcome from the Rabbi, we got to work-demolition. We learned about ourselves as we knocked down the walls of a building that clearly meant so much to a whole neighborhood of people. The volunteer organization Nechama's team enthusiastically taught us the skills we needed and, just as importantly, welcomed us into their mission. We joined with other volunteer groups to wield hammers and crowbars and drag debris out of the building. We were surprised by our strength and our ability to perform such physical tasks and amazed at how strangers could work together so easily and bond over a common goal.

The next day, working in a private home, we were connected to the tragedy in a way that touched our hearts. Felicia, the homeowner, and her husband, and their six children had lived in this three-bedroom house. Pulling up floors and tearing open walls, we understood how much they really had lost. We were moved by the remains of children's artwork and the mother's surviving cookbooks. This family could be any of our families and the debris we carted away had been their treasures.

We got satisfaction from our labor, but it was clear we were only playing a small role. We helped to rebuild by the strange first step of destruction. So much more will be necessary to bring their home back. Yet, when we were greeted by Felicia and saw her tears of gratitude, we realized that the difference we were making was more than physical. When lunch time came, she surprised us with pizzas. It was humbling to see someone who had lost so much still taking care of others-us.

During our last night, we gathered and talked about our Jewish faith, tikkun olam, and what service means to us. We talked about how each of us had experienced their Jewish faith in different ways throughout our childhoods, but now were all joined by a common involvement in Hillel. For some, Hillel was the first significant involvement with the Jewish community.

However, despite our different pasts, we realized that we were now one community, inspired by people who dedicated their lives to helping others recovering from disasters. We all were moved by the willingness of people to welcome us: from Hillel and JUF's TOV Volunteer Network for giving us the opportunity to take this journey to the firehouse where we cooked and ate, and Nechama for teaching us skills to the church where we stayed and the high school that offered us their showers.

We even questioned the value of our work which could have been done more efficiently by trained professionals. In the end, we concluded that our presence did matter. A community is its people, not its structures. It is essential that we gave ourselves and our time to others when they needed it. Our caring, not our technical competency, is what truly mattered to those we sought to help.

Our small group of 14 is now dedicated to continuing to work together in social activism when we return to the Chicago area. We learned that we are not merely members of our individual university's Hillel, but also a part of a greater Hillel and Jewish community.

The Hillels of Illinois is part of the Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago/Jewish United Fund. For more information, visit or contact Lisa Klein at or (312) 444-2094.

Sarah Bruhl is a student at Northwestern University's Fiedler Hillel.

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