When They Come for Us, We’ve Already Done it Ourselves!

by Alina Bitel

At 11:45 pm on Saturday my cell phone rang and I did not recognize the number. It was someone I have known for over 18 years, but have not been in regular contact with for the last 10. He briefly said hello and went straight to the point, “I have 4 trucks with donations my friends have collected and drove to New York from Philadelphia; where can we drop them off?”

Though this call would be somewhat unexpected in a regular situation, this was just one among hundreds of phone calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages I have received over the last five days. What started as a short visit to assess the needs at the FDR High School shelter, which provided temporary housing to over 800 Hurricane Sandy victims, turned into an ongoing effort to provide the attention and the help so urgently needed by the communities of South Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. My Facebook post, outlining some of the volunteer needs at the shelter for hurricane victims went viral within hours. I was overwhelmed with the number of people who were eager to help with anything they could. While stranded in their flooded buildings without electricity, heat or running water, they were collecting warm jackets and blankets, children’s clothing and flashlights to donate to those who suffered even more. Carpools were organized from New Jersey and Manhattan to bring the necessities to the affected areas in South Brooklyn. Friends from Florida and Kansas called, asking where they can ship boxes of aid they have been gathering. Baby strollers were purchased and dropped off within an hour of being told they were needed.

I witnessed unbelievable, heart-felt support from hundreds of young adults who were ready to run activities for children at the shelter, sort through bags of donations, raise money, prepare and deliver 400 hot meals daily, and purchase and distribute water, food and flashlights to seniors stranded for days on higher floors with no heat, light or water. Oh, and did I mention that an overwhelming majority of these young adults come from the Russian-speaking Jewish community? This is the same community that is often characterized by their lack of volunteerism and philanthropic giving, their disinterest in connecting to the larger community and leading a life not guided by the Jewish tradition.

It is very difficult for me not to get emotional, seeing how ready my friends are to live and breathe the values of Tikkun Olam and Pikuach Nefesh, without even knowing what they mean. The efforts of several hundred of my friends were just a fraction of what has been happening in South Brooklyn since Hurricane Sandy. The amazing efforts put together by the community organizations made a difference in the areas that did not see any help from the city, Red Cross or FEMA for days after the tragedy. Brooklyn College Hillel mobilized their student volunteers and opened their doors for people in need of electricity and hot water. Several hundred homebound seniors were visited with basic supplies and food by the volunteers mobilized by COJECO and RAJE in Brighton, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island neighborhoods. Multiple donation drop off and distribution centers and volunteer hubs were established by Kings Bay Y and Shorefront Y in central locations of South Brooklyn. Crisis counseling and an emergency fund for the most vulnerable populations was established by the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst, along with emergency child care and legal assistance, as nearly a hundred J alumni volunteers deployed to multiple locations in Brooklyn and Staten Island to give their time and soul to the hurricane victims.

The last few days shone spotlight on the true character of the new generation of the Russian-speaking Jewish community – the community that I am proud to represent. These events highlighted the desire of the young adults in our community to live the Jewish values, even though they don’t always know what those values are. The volunteer efforts emphasized their urge to build a community without putting a label on it. Though brought out by a tragedy, their actions become a true testament to the deeply rooted value of working together to make the world a better place. Their eagerness to contribute time and money, fully understanding the cause and being engaged by the home grown leaders, is the cement that will connect the bricks of the house we call community.

Alina Bitel is Program Director, Engagement Initiatives at Foundation for Jewish Camp and Co-Chair Limmud FSU-USA.