Archive for : Heroes

Repair Hero: Rabbi Simkha Weintraub On Ongoing Healing After 9/11

The days and weeks after 9/11 were a time of chaos, as first responders and teams of dedicated volunteers picked through rubble – looking for survivors and beginning the years-long process of rebuilding. But away from ground zero, in New York City and across the country, those days were also a time of deep sorrow, fear and confusion. A time when people needed to mourn, process and emotionally rebuild.

All over New York City, and across the country too, support groups sprung up in churches, community centers, and people’s homes – all in an effort to provide solace and comfort for mourners, survivors, volunteers, and everyone who was impacted by 9/11. There were groups within the Jewish community too, like the one that Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a New Yorker and the Rabbinic Director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) helped create in New York City. Rabbi Weintraub played a critical role in creating opportunities and resources for healing in those first weeks, and facilitated a support group for Jewish people who lost family members in the attack that lasted for an astounding 9 1/2 years.

In this season of reflection, Rabbi Weintraub took some time out to reflect about those first days and weeks after 9/11, the support group’s incredible impact on its members, and a particularly healing trip they took to Israel. We’ve also shared some great opportunities to get involved – with JBFCS and elsewhere – going forward.

What were the days just after 9/11 like for you and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services?
Once we could get back to our desks, nobody knew how many Jews – or how many people – had died. In the earliest moments, we heard and feared that the number was up to 30,000. We started to keep a list of names of Jewish people we’d heard about passing away, and started reaching out to family members. We developed a database early on of the 240 Jews who died. To do this we reached out to rabbis about people in their congregations. Of course not everyone is affiliated, but we did what we could. We wanted to let them know we were here, and we ended up being the de facto Jewish bereavement and trauma center in New York.

We also started developing resources a month or so after 9/11. There were questions flying in from all over – Jewish educators, rabbis, individuals, and we were getting requests for consultations and trainings. It was so close to the high holidays, and some rabbis were asking – “how do I teach the story of the binding of Isaac this year?” and “For yizkor, how do we add it into the ongoing bereavement?”

Did you do any on the ground work as well?
One synagogue in Lower Manhattan was concerned that everyone in their congregation was going to leave lower Manhattan. The damage was so extensive to people’s homes and the streets – they thought nobody would come home. For Sukkot that year, we did a program about “shelter in the storm,” and organized a sukkah decorating party for that synagogue. In the end, only about 10 people took part – but it was good for that community to be able to say, “we’re here.”

How and when did you decide to launch the support group?
It was intolerable to think of a communal trauma like this, and not try to do something for the Jewish community. We also offered Jewish spiritual counseling one on one. The group didn’t formally start until February or March of 2002. At the first meeting 12 people showed up, and a group of 8-9 regulars formed after that. Within two years, the group solidified as 6 mothers, so it became a group for parents who lost their adult children. We decided to meet formally through the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and now the group continues without official leaders, meeting in each others’ apartments.

How did the group change over the span of 9 1/2 years?
There’s no fixing the problem of losing an adult child, but various things surfaced over the years that the mother’s needed. Early on we had special meetings with the leaders of the Victim’s Compensation Fund, where they guided people about how to think about approaching it. The idea of documenting relationships was incredibly painful and challenging – how, for example, do you put a dollar figure on a husband’s ability to tutor a high school daughter in math?

As time went on, we often talked about politics, and for three years we worked on what became a very large interfaith service on 9/11 with a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Catholic and Christian who all lost relatives. Hundreds of people took part in that. As issues came up – like the bombing in Madrid and London – the group reached out to survivors through the internet.

One year on 9/11 the group organized a day of service with an organization called Selfhelp that was founded to help survivors of the Holocaust. The mothers in our group volunteered at a coffee shop on a Sunday morning, setting up and shmoozing with the retirees, many of who were survivors in their 80s or 90s.

Why did you decide to discontinue the formal group after 10 years?
I don’t know of any other group that met for 9 1/2 years – we didn’t just talk about the people we missed personally, we talked about the world. We could’ve continued, but the real question was whether or not the group wanted or need professional facilitators. At first they did, but now it’s very much about mutual support and navigating ongoing issues.

How did leading that group impacted you personally?
I’d like to answer that question with a story. We led a trip to Israel for the group with the purpose of drawing on all the dimensions of Israel that offer healing – nature, spiritual resources, human resources… We spent most of our time with Israeli Jews and Arabs who had lost close ones to violence and terror.

We also worked with a well known art therapist named Tamar Hazut who is very well known for her work helping people survive traumatic loss. She led a workshop called “Black Also Has Many Shades,” where she spread art materials all around the periphery of the room. She had black ribbons, black pipe cleaners, black tape – things like that. After a brief introduction, people are encouraged to make whatever they want and talk about it.

We sat in a circle and I was the fifth person to speak. I had made a tunic out of the black ribbons representing all the people who had torn their clothing in grieving their loved ones. As I talked about it, I remembered that our tradition says the resurrection of the dead will begin in Jerusalem. But there we were in Jerusalem and it wasn’t happening. I started to sob – I had never sobbed like that in the group before. I realized that, although the grieving was obviously very different for me, there was this very big sense of loss. There with that group of people in Israel, it felt okay to grieve, it felt kosher to grieve and I was able to let myself go.

TKTK: get involved

Repair Interview: Jamie Etkind on Her Time at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

Since 2006, Repair the World grantee-partner Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village has provided a community and high school in Rwanda for the young people who were orphaned during and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It has also served as an amazing place for service learning.

This past May University of Pennsylvania junior, Jamie Etkind, attended a Hillel-led trip for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students to ASYV for a 10-day service learning program. The students spent time with Agahozo-Shalom’s villagers, worked in their gardens, school and community, and gained a deeper understanding of the lasting impact the genocide has had on the country. Etkind took the time to tell Repair the World about her once-in-a-lifetime service experience.

What is your background with service and volunteering?
I was raised in a reform Jewish household, participated in mitzvah days when I was younger, and had a service project around my bat mitzvah where I raised money for the Koby Mandell Foundation. In high school I was also the co-founder and president of an organization that raised money for and got students involved as volunteers in hospice work. But I had never been on a service trip, and never really given much explicit thought to how deeply related Judaism and service are.

How did you find out about Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village?
Two of my friends had participated before and came back with rave reviews. They both said, “you have to do this!” I had learned about the Rwandan genocide in high school, but before the trip I never knew what happened there after the genocide. Leading up to the trip, I was incredibly excited. I did a lot of independent research including watching a bunch of documentaries about what the country is like today. I also read the powerful and fact-filled book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. In the semester leading up to our trip, our group also read a lot of survivor testimonials and did outreach events, so by the time I left I felt pretty well versed – but I still didn’t have any first hand experience.

What did you do during the trip?
A lot of the trip was focused on forming personal relationships with the students in the village. Every morning we would do a service project, like helping in the garden or kitchen. After the students’ school day, we met up with them and went to their after school clubs and took tours of the village. On Saturday, since the students weren’t in school, we got to work side by side with them in the garden.

Can you share a story or two of the impact the trip had?
One of my favorite interactions was with a student named Pacy, who I first met during a meal. One night when we were walking from dinner – it was pitch black outside in the village, but she knew her way – she told me her life story. She opened up about her family’s history and her ambitions and said, “I’d love to be like Oprah someday.” I said, “Oh, so you can be on television?” And she said, “No, so I can help other girls in positions like me.” That was really powerful – these kids have such a sense of service ingrained in them. It’s part of their daily life – they can’t wait to go to university and come back and be the generation that helps make their country great.

What surprised you most on the trip?
I wasn’t expecting to have so much introspection about my Judaism. As I mentioned, I grew up reform but I’ve been a part of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship at Penn, and have found a lot of meaning in that. On the trip, there were Jews across the denominations, as well as Christian, Catholic, Mormon, and Muslim students. We would talk a lot about religion, and people would ask me very innocent questions like “Why do you work on Saturday, but the other Jews aren’t?” or “Why are you not keeping kosher but the other Jews do?” I had never been asked those questions by anyone and it led me to the realization that if I don’t do these things, I need a reason why. I’m at a point in my life where it’s not enough to simply say, “I do it because I was raised that way.” So my eyes were opened by these other students.

Did the trip also change your thoughts or perspective about Judaism and service?
Yes, I had really never put the two together before even though I’d experienced them together. I never really thought about service being such a strong pillar of Judaism, but that was something we really explored on the trip and it got me thinking. I had always associated tzedakah as simply giving money, but now I know it’s also about service and so much more.

Learn more about Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village’s work here.

A Story in the Tapestry: Revamping the Concept of Repairing the World

This post was written by Analucia Lopezvoredo, and originally published in the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation blog on July 26th, 2012.

Analucia LopezrevoredoAnalucia Lopezrevoredo is a resident of the Moishe House in Portland, Oregon. Moishe House is an international organization providing meaningful Jewish experiences to young adults in their twenties through home-based communities. Moishe House recently partnered with Repair the World to host a retreat on Jewish service-learning. Repair the World is an organization that is working to build a movement to make service a defining element of American Jewish life, learning and leadership. This post is a reflection on that retreat.

The term “tikkun olam” has become synonymous with social justice and social action. As Jews, our goal is to fulfill the idea of “repairing the world” by serving communities in need. Though this notion is far from new (dating back to classical rabbinic literature in Lurianic kabbalah), many Jews still find themselves unable to truly connect with this concept. As residents of Moishe House, our goal is to facilitate the fulfillment of “tikkun olam” on a micro and macro level for young Jewish adults in our respective communities. With the help of both Moishe House International and Repair the World, residents of various Houses came together a few weeks ago to critically discuss ways to effectively create service-learning programs.

As someone who feels strongly connected to my local and global community, I’ve never had to convince myself to do service in my free time. It has always been a priority of mine, and something that has helped define who I am. It was no surprise that the majority of people in attendance were similarly committed to the pursuit of social justice and structural change. Hailing from nine different states, retreat participants brought with them diverse experiences, which made for a dynamic weekend. It did not take long to realize, however, that we’ve all struggled to get members of our communities to engage in our service programs. Service, we realized, does not mean the same thing to everyone, and to many, our House events are primarily social or cultural. People come to our programs to meet new folks, reconnect with old friends, and celebrate cultural events and holidays. While these factors help explain why service-learning events have not been amongst our most popular programs in the past, the truth is that service is often a difficult activity in which to engage.

When asked, many people would probably agree that service is something they’d like to do more often. And yet, it calls for people to step out of their comfort zone, give up precious free time and often work with people they don’t know. For some introverts (and even some extroverts), this can be awkward and has the potential to tarnish one’s perception of their role in taking action. As Moishe House residents, we understand how important it is to connect with others. People continue to come to our events because they feel welcomed and feel as if they belong to a community. With this in mind, I realized that in order to revamp our service programs we must first revamp how they are perceived.

For the most part, our Shabbat dinner events are the most popular programs we host. This is partially because they are laid back, but also because people strive to feel and stay connected with others. Giving service-learning events a social twist might be what we need in order to attract our ever-enthusiastic communities to our “tikkun olam” events. If people start to see all of our events as opportunities for community building, then the need to constantly recruit service-minded individuals may become obsolete. We can make Sunday afternoons of service a tradition and the “learning” component of the programs can be combined with a post-service discussion over a delicious meal or drinks. Whatever we choose to do, there is only room for our service programming to grow.

The sessions at the retreat were fantastic. Presenters like Marilyn Sneiderman, the Executive Director of AVODAH, and Will Berkovitz, Senior Vice President of Repair the World, challenged us to think critically about service projects that inspired us, as well as those that turned us away. As a group we shared our fears, goals and triumphs, and most importantly built a strong support network that will continue to be a part of our organization’s success.  Our natural environment was crucial in our takeaway.

Though excruciatingly hot for most of us, our free time was largely spent exploring the grounds of the enchanting Pearlstone Retreat Center. A night hike concluded our time at the Center, and the unforgettable East Coast storm on June 29th that knocked down trees and power lines reminded us all of how small we were in the hands of the almighty. In the end, the retreat was grand in content but (sadly) short in time. We parted ways at Baltimore Harbor, but not before culminating the weekend by volunteering our time at Living Classrooms, a non-profit educational organization that “inspires young people to achieve their potential through hands-on education and job training, using urban, natural, and maritime resources as ‘living classrooms.’” Our time with Living Classrooms sealed our bond with a service-learning experience. Though it was undoubtedly difficult to say goodbye to my new friends, I smiled knowing that soon enough we would meet again with stories of success.


Hey Hey! Repair the World Board Member Named to Oy!Chicago’s 36 Under 36 List

We’d like to interrupt this series of posts for an exciting announcement about one of our very own do-gooders!

Repair the World Board member, Amy Witt, was recently named one of Oy!Chicago’s 36 under 36 for her dedication to Chicago’s public school system and youth.

We’re so proud to see Amy recognized among an incredible group of inspirational leaders — humanitarians, educators, social activists, rabbis, and even restaurant owners — all working toward a healthier, more equal and just world.

With a passion for tikkun olam and a slew of accomplishments too long to list, Repair the World wants to give Amy a huge shout out as an outstanding and active member of her community –and of Repair the World’s board!

Why Amy?
Great question! As one of the first staff members of Chicago Run, an organization that promotes health and fitness through creative programming, Amy has helped implement and manage sustainable fitness and health programs in 55 Chicago Public Schools that serve over 13,400 students. (That’s a lot of kids!) And, in her time working with Teach for America (a Repair the World fave) she not only helped her fifth grade class achieve significant gains (over two years of growth!) in their math and English language proficiency scores, she also worked with a team to create a rigorous school-wide reading and writing curriculum that helped increase the school’s overall report card grade from a D- to an A in two years! And if that’s not enough, Amy is now helping Repair the World build its upcoming education initiative in Chicago. (More on this soon…Promise!)

Why Service?
“I believe in the power of service to bring people together by building community, and forging strong bonds between people as they work towards a common goal. I strive to make service a defining part of my daily life,” said Amy.

Amy is an outstanding representative of Repair the World’s mission in action. Not only is she dedicated to service, but she also supports her Jewish community, and sees how her Jewish values guide her work.

And it started early: in junior high school, Amy spent two summers as an American delegate at Seeds of Peace, an organization that allows teenagers from regions of conflict to learn the skills of making peace. After studying at the University of Michigan and completing her two years as a Teach for America corps member, she also participated in the REALITY Israel Experience and REALITY Check Fellowship program, wherein she had time to reflect on the inherent connection between Jewish identity and service – finding inspiration that continues to impact her personal and professional life.

Why now?

“It is critical for young professionals and others to devote more time to volunteering and to finding a cause they are passionate about. There is an unlimited impact one can have when they volunteer — on the lives of others, their community, and personally,” she said.

We kind of agree. Congrats, Amy! You’re an inspiration to us all.

Another props goes to our amazing Development Intern, Elana Hubert, for not only helping write this blog post but also getting Amy nominated! Elana hails from Los Angeles, CA and is currently studying Anthropology and Human Rights at Barnard College. We’ll have more on Elana and her delicious campus ice cream business and service activities soon!

Celebrate Helen Keller’s Birthday By Standing Up for Others

Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880. That’s a seriously long time ago – and yet, the activist and humanitarian who overcame the adversity of being both blind and deaf still stands as one of America’s most beloved heroes.

Two years after Keller was born, she fell ill and ended up blind, deaf, and mute. But instead of giving up on life, Keller worked with a teacher, Anne Sullivan, and eventually went on to graduate from college in 1904 – helping pave the way for other women graduates. After college, she lectured all over the country and devoted her life to help others living with disabilities. She was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and a pacifist. In 1915, she co-founded Helen Keller International, an organization to fight against the causes of blindness and malnutrition. A few years later in 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Keller spent her life standing up for others, and not allowing disabilities define her. In honor of her birthday, take a minute to find out more and support the organizations she founded and believed in:

  • ACLU Support or get involved with the civil liberties organization that Keller herself helped to co-found.
  • American Foundation for the Blind Lend your support or your volunteering hand (find out how here) to the country’s leading foundation supporting vision impaired citizens. FYI: Keller worked here for nearly 40 years.
  • Helen Keller International Keller’s organization is still going strong, fighting blindness, malnutrition and poverty throughout the world. Find out how you can get involved here.
  • Guide Dogs for the Blind Spend time with adorable dogs while helping to train them to assist vision impaired people. Find out how here.

Find out more about Keller’s amazing life and work here. Then check out the inspiring video from Biography below:

Repair Interview: Seth Goldman of Honest Tea & “The Great Recycle”

What happens to a bottle after it gets recycled? Well, on Monday, April 30 in New York City, tens of thousands of bottles and cans will be deposited in bustling Times Square…in a massive blue recycling bin (think: 30-foot-tall)

And what does tea that’s just a tad sweet, with a lot of soul have to do with it? It’s all part of Honest Tea’s new campaign to boost recycling rates called – what else – “The Great Recycle.” The eco-friendly beverage company hopes to recycle 45,000 bottles and cans in their big blue bin next Monday – the same number of products they sell everyday in NYC. Meanwhile, they plan to give away great prizes to participants and raise awareness about the importance of recycling.

Seth Goldman, the President and “TeaEO” of Honest Tea, is also a board member here at Repair the World (and an all around cool guy). Seth found the time amidst preps for The Great Recycle to speak with Repair the World about where those 45,000 bottles will end up, what businesses can do to encourage sustainability, and his own deep commitment to tikkun olam.

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind The Great Recycle?
As a company, we’re always looking for ways to connect with consumers and  have them connect with our mission. We’re also mindful of our role as a business in encouraging people to think about sustainability. We’ve done other sustainability projects before – like our Honest Kids program where kids send in their used drink pouches and our partner organization TerraCycle upcycles them into things like tote bags and pencil cases.
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Modern Day Passover Heroes: Aaron

Each year during the Passover seders, we recite the ages-old story of the Jews’ exodus from ancient Egypt – a tale which can seem far removed from our lives today. But each year, we also have the opportunity to breathe new life into the story as we join together to put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, and make connections that help bring the story closer to our own reality.

In recent years, modern adaptations of the Ten Plagues have been created, additions (like oranges and olives) have been added to the seder plate and tons of versions of the classic Maxwell House Haggadah have been written. The Exodus story has provided endless inspiration. But what about the story’s main characters?

Some serious game changers starred in the epic story of Passover, and we think they deserve some attention. So this year, Repair the World decided to have a little fun and explore modern day heroes – today’s leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of others and tikkun olam – and see how they remind us of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron.

Last but not least: Aaron.
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