When the tables are turned

Young Israelis mobilize to help victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York.

sandy israelis 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Sarai Steinberg)
sandy israelis 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Sarai Steinberg)
When Lynne Galler arrived at her family home in Hewlett Harbor after Hurricane Sandy viciously whipped across Long Island, New York, the basement was flooded with four feet of water.
As Galler sadly stood amid the wreckage seeing and hearing of the massive destruction elsewhere, she thought, “I want the Ein Prat Mechina alumni here.”
Galler, a major donor and board member of the Mechina at Ein Prat – The Academy for Leadership in Kfar Adumim, knew the kind of motivated young leaders that have grown from the program. She knew that many had experience dealing with difficult situations in the army and that others had been active in relief organizations, especially following the Second Lebanon War. She also knew that these young Israelis, with strong Jewish-Zionist identity, recognized the importance of Jewish solidarity.
So began a chain of events that resulted in 12 Israelis dropping everything and mobilizing to help the Jewish community in New York for two weeks.
Galler got the ball moving by contacting Ein Prat and telling them her idea. Alumni coordinator Noam Arbel put out a call to Ein Prat graduates.
“In 24 hours, graduates began to volunteer.
It speaks volumes of the kind of people they are,” says Galler.
“We are used to turning to our Friends in North America for support,” says David Nachman, head of the Mechina program.
“But when they needed support we knew that we had to be there for them as well. Jewish responsibility one for the other is a value that we strongly stress at the Mechina.”
In the meantime, Galler contacted Susan Kohn, executive director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Volunteer and Leadership Development Division, to line up volunteering opportunities for the Israelis.
“The Federation’s assistance was extraordinary,” says Galler. She also contacted Rabbi Scott Bolton from her Manhattan synagogue, Or Zarua, to garner community support.
On Monday morning, a week after Hurricane Sandy, things were still up in the air.
When Galler spoke to fellow board member Herzl Makov, he said it was a great idea but there was no funding available for it.
Galler was convinced that the volunteers could offer valuable assistance. She and her husband, Hezzy, funded all of the travel costs in the hope that others would join the effort.
“I called Noam Arbel and said ‘Get them on the plane,’” says Galler.
On Tuesday night, six of the volunteers left for New York amid weather forecasts of a nasty snowstorm approaching the northeast.
“We were the last flight out of Zurich and the last to arrive to JFK airport on Wednesday before it closed down,” says volunteer Shani Lachmish. “Strangely enough, we weren’t scared. We felt that we were on a mission and nothing would happen to us.”
Graduate and mission member Nathan Mann, 25, originally from Long Island, arranged for eight of the volunteers to be hosted by his friends Deborah and David Shimko, who live in New York with their five children. The other three volunteers stayed at an apartment owned by Galler.
On Thursday morning the Israelis started their volunteer work in Far Rockaway with the Jewish Association for Serving the Aged (JASA), a UJA-Federation of New York agency, helping an elderly population with a large majority of Russian Jews.
“There were five buildings, each one between 17 and 22 stories high, without electricity, water, heat or power,” explains Mann, who was an officer in an elite IDF combat unit after his year at Ein Prat in 2006 and is now studying economics and sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “With no elevators, many of the elderly residents were stranded in their dark apartments without running water and a lack of food and supplies.”
Lachmish, 26, a 2005 graduate who went on to serve as a casualties officer in the army and recently graduated with a degree in Jewish philosophy and drama therapy from the Hebrew University, left her job directing a musical – and her fiancé – to join this mission.
“I understood that Jewish people needed our help. They help Israel in so many ways, and this was our chance to give back,” she explains.
In a letter to her mother when she first arrived, Lachmish wrote, “It is hard to imagine that huge New York could be so dark – building after building, at night, without one single window lit up. There is no street lighting, no traffic lights, the skies are cloudy – it is frightening and sad.
But sadder still is the knowledge that there are hundreds of elderly people in this basic sheltered housing complex. For nearly two weeks now, they’ve been stuck in their apartments, totally dependent on the kindness of volunteers who come with a warm meal and a friendly smile. I feel privileged to be one of those volunteers.”
ON THE first day, the Israelis climbed to the top floors of the buildings. Of the 1,200 tenants, approximately 700 were still in their apartments. They knocked on doors and handed out warm meals, bottles of water, toilet paper, batteries and flashlights.
They spoke to the people in English and Yiddish and broken Russian. They worked alongside the local volunteers. But with their experience, they saw that things could be run more efficiently. They approached the organizers and asked if some changes could be made. By the second day, things were different.
“The Israelis were simply amazing,” says Elaine Rockoff, director of Community Based Programs for JASA. “They weren’t just volunteers. They were leaders. They jumped in with both feet, they knew what they were doing and they immediately became part of the team.”
“But at the same time, they looked at the situation, understood the wider picture, assessed the needs and planned strategically.
This was a tremendous help to us,” continues Rockoff.
“We told the locals that we were there to help, and that what we wanted to do were just recommendations,” says Mann. “They immediately saw the advantage of our suggestions and told us to run with them.
“We set up a command center on the second day, so that every building and every apartment was covered,” explains Mann.
“We made lists and charts and had information on every apartment and its needs.
We put one person in charge of each building, and all volunteers reported to that person.
This way, no one was left out and there was no duplication of services.”
“The tenants were worried and frightened,” says Leah Ferster, JASA’s chief services officer. “The Israelis walked into the homes with confidence, and this gave the people assurance that everything would be OK. Their ability to handle difficult situations was incredible. And they did it all with charm, professionalism and calmness.”
“There was one elderly Russian lady who was waiting in the dark corridor,” says Lachmish. “We couldn’t see her there; it was pitch black. The flashlight on my forehead shed a little light on her and I could see she was crying. She had been standing there for I don’t know how long, just waiting for us to reach her. As we arrived, I held her hand and, ever grateful for the Russian course I took at the Hebrew University last year, I managed to have a short chat with her. I asked what she needed and told her we were a group of volunteers from Israel. She squeezed my hand so hard and then threw herself onto me and hugged me.”
“There was an elderly Israeli woman living there too,” continues Lachmish. “She was so upset, crying that no food had reached them for three days and all the canned produce she had was finished. But the fact we had come from Israel was so important to them; we felt so appreciated.”
When the power came back to the apartments, the Israeli volunteers went to the ravaged community of Sea Gate in Brooklyn.
“Here the work was very hard, physically and mentally,” says Lachmish. “We helped to clear out flooded basements, but we had to wear masks because there were a lot of toxins from sewage water, mold and wet insulation.”
“Over 300 houses were damaged. It was like a war zone,” says Mann. “We helped to clear the homes so that people could move back in again. We worked with community leaders and with the Federation professionals.”
The group felt fortunate to work with volunteers such as Elya Tzur, a former Ein Prat counselor and founding CEO of the Lev Echad – One Heart organization, which provides community crisis aid through its network of some 4,000 volunteers, and Uri Tsitrinbaum, a crisis management professional. Tsitrinbaum, who was on the ground in Haiti after the hurricane there, took a 35-hour flight from the Congo, where he was working, to join his friends on the mission in New York.
“We created something extraordinary,” says Galler. “We are building bridges to the Jewish community and strengthening ties to Eretz Israel.”
“Coming to the aid of fellow Jews is a two-way street,” says Mann. “Our message of solidarity strengthens klal [all of the people of] Israel.”
Lachmish agrees. “I can’t put into words how excited and touched the elderly were when I told them that we had come from Israel; that we had left everything and flown to New York especially to help. They showered blessings on us and they cried, ‘here, the Jews have come – our brothers and sisters – all the way to the 22nd floor of this building to help us.’ And even if there was no food left, just water and toilet paper, they appreciated it so much. I can’t emphasize how much it meant to them.”