By Emily Younker and Scott Meeker
“Tikkun olam” is Hebrew for “repairing the world,” and the concept — of service to others, of helping those in need — is prevalent in Judaism.
Enter the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, which sends young Jewish people into the disaster-stricken areas of the country to provide relief and assistance.
“It’s one of the highest values in Judaism, to repair the world, and disaster relief fits in perfectly with that,” said Adina Remz, executive director of the New York-based organization. “As a Jewish person, this is something we value and we should be doing.”
About 90 students from eight universities across the country volunteered in Joplin earlier this year over the course of six weeklong trips sponsored by the corps, with many of those students giving up their spring break in March to attend, said Remz, 25. Two trips were interfaith events, bringing together both Jewish and Muslim students.
Students worked with Rebuild Joplin, tackling whatever construction projects were on the docket for the day. They also held dinners for the homeowners and met with local volunteers as well as the local Jewish community, Remz said.
“Initially these students come in and they’re not sure (of their impact) — They don’t see a house being built start to finish, but when they meet the homeowners ... they realize you really are getting these homeowners one step closer to getting a home when they really have lost everything,” she said.
The trips were not only focused on service, but they were also a learning experience, Remz said. Students were taken through the heart of the devastated area and learned about the tornado and the Joplin community.
Julia Blanchette said she won’t forget her tour of the tornado’s path. More than a year after the storm, lingering evidence of its destruction “was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” she said.
Blanchette, a 21-year-old nursing student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, spent a week in Joplin in January on one of the trips with nine classmates from her school’s hillel, or Jewish campus organization. She said she had done neither construction work nor disaster relief before, but she jumped right in.
The group was placed at a Rebuild Joplin house and plastered walls, put in flooring and painted. Blanchette said they also met with locals to swap stories and share meals.
“Myself, I didn’t feel like I was doing that much by painting a wall, but just by talking to them (Rebuild Joplin clients) and seeing how appreciative they were, I did feel like I was making a difference,” she said. “I was putting myself out there, getting out of my comfort zone, and I just had so much fulfillment because of the people I met and just seeing how much of an impact we made as a group.”
Remz said no additional Joplin trips are currently scheduled, but she doesn’t rule out returning in the future.
“It’s definitely something I’m thinking about,” she said. “We felt that Joplin and the community members really touched us in a way that will stay with us forever.”