Upon seeing the destruction left in Hurricane Harvey’s wake in August, both the Greater Philadelphia and Jewish communities stepped up to help Houston residents, from local restaurants fundraising for relief to clothing drives.
For students at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, the need in Houston continues to be a vexing problem. So a group of eight students traveled to the Texas city from Nov. 6 to 8 to help with relief efforts.
“Right after the hurricane hit a few months back, we started our planning,” recalled Rabbi Aaron Horn, dean of students, adding they partnered with the Orthodox Jewish youth group NCSY. “We needed to figure out staff, budgets, etc., so it took a few weeks to get our application off the ground, but we opened it to our entire high school.”
They had 20 students vying for eight spots on the trip, with questions throughout the application process such as what they expected to give and what they expected to gain by going on the trip.
While in Houston, the students worked with NECHAMA-Jewish Response to Disaster, an organization that provides natural disaster relief, and helped gut houses.
For Horn, the purpose of the trip was instilled with Jewish values.
“As a Jewish community, it’s important for us to show solidarity with those who are in need,” he said. “Chesed is a value we want to inculcate in our students, whether it is around the corner or halfway around the country.”
Plus, it was an excused absence for a worthy cause, which the school was more than happy to provide.
“As Jews we have an obligation to help those in need when we have the capability to help out. This is a message that can’t be said too many times,” Horn said. “But, no matter how often you say it, unless the school steps up and enables students to get their hands dirty, it remains cognitive. Once the school says, ‘Go to Houston to clean up, and the school’s excusing your absences while you embark on a noble call,’ that is different.
“My goal was for them to feel chesed with their hands,” he added, “not hear it and have it live in their heads.”
Staff members Rabbi Daniel Bauer and Amir Ben Gal accompanied the students on the trip as they drove from Philly to Baltimore to catch an early flight.
For the students on the trip, it was an opportunity to make a difference — especially since news coverage of the destruction has dissipated.
“I thought it was very important that still two months after, there’s people with no homes,” noted Batsheva Rubin, a senior. So she thought that before she leaves high school, she could do something to help “because I have a responsibility to my community and the Jewish community and community at large as America.”
While there, the students helped knock down houses — everything but the frame — to help preparations for another organization that would rebuild them.
Houses were rotted, moldy and broken down from the storm.
“I never thought about it so personally, and it made me think if my house burned down or had flooding how hard it would be for me,” Rubin said. “It was very shocking.”
One man even helped them knock down his own house.
“It’s crazy he was able to do that,” Rubin said in awe. “Watching your memories and your house be knocked down, it was crazy.”
They met with the Jewish community, including a prayer service at the local synagogue, and talked about living in temporary homes as their own were repaired. Talking with them helped her see the impact of a larger connection, she noted.
They heard about how quickly homes in the Jewish community and homes of others in faith communities were rebuilt.
“It taught me the sense of community,” she said, “that when you’re in need, you know that you have these people who are just running to help you.”
In addition to serving as a valuable learning experience, the trip was an opportunity for personal growth as well.
“It taught me that people I don’t even know or will never meet I can affect, and how much going for three days to this town made such an impact on someone else’s life,” she said. “Even though I was only there for three days and I’m back to my real life and everything’s fine for me, I know they still think about how we helped them, and it’s nice I was able to do that for them.”