In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, tens of thousands of people pitched in to help their neighbors and communities – and many people continue to help with the rebuilding efforts today. Their individual and collective generosity of spirit was and is truly remarkable. In honor of their service, Repair the World is interviewing people who saw a need, stepped up and made a difference. Check back often to find more stories and interviews!

Volunteer: Rabbi Marc Katz
Who he is: Assistant Rabbi Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

What compelled you to serve in the days after Hurricane Sandy?
A few people from our congregation, including some of the clergy, showed up on the first night to volunteer at one of the local emergency shelters. One of our rabbis, Shira Koch Epstesin, called me and I met her there for a couple of hours to do pastoral care. From there we realized there was a real need to feed people.

The first night, the shelter was passing out these ready to eat meals – really disgusting, sauce-filled things that were not healthy or tasty. So we sent out an email to our congregation that said, “we need volunteers to drive to Costco and help prepare meals.” So many people showed up, we ended up having to turn some away at the door. Once we realized how much people wanted to help, we made up a schedule for the rest of the week on Google Docs. From that point, we continued helping the shelter here in Park Slope and then started bringing food and supplies down to Red Hook, when we heard there was a need there.

How did your work evolve over the days and weeks?
In starting to do this work, we realized that there was way more need than we originally thought. We also realized that the need was wider spread than we thought. We started hearing reports about buildings in Coney Island and the Rockaways where elderly Russian Jews were trapped up on high floors with no power and no way to get down. So we started branching out and sort of adopting buildings to canvas and care for. We would have volunteers running supplies and hot meals up and down stairs. In some of these buildings, we were the first people the residents had seen. Many of them needed medicine, so we would call pharmacies with them and have them give their information. Then we’d go get their prescriptions and deliver them directly to them. Honestly, for the two weeks after Sandy I barely did any other synagogue work!

Did you feel it was important as a religious congregation to rally others to help?
Yes, we quickly became a main hub in Park Slope. If you wanted to drop off supplies or find out what to do, you came to us. We sort of fell into that role and then put our resources into that. One amazing story of community impact was the Thursday after the storm, we put a call out via Facebook and our networks asking for 600 hardboiled eggs to serve to the shelter for breakfast. Almost immediately people started showing up with eggs, and within three hours we had collected 6,000 eggs! That’s 500 dozen. It was incredible to see that collective effort, and we ended up being able to put all of the eggs to use. We made a lot of egg salad!

What are your plans going forward?
What we’ve done is adopted a partner public school in Brooklyn. We’re sending hot meals and sandwiches for them to bring to their families. School is in session and the school didn’t get flooded, but a lot of the students’ families lost their homes. We’re also continuing to send volunteers down to areas that need help and partnering with Occupy Sandy on that. Really, this has been a huge team effort within CBE but also within Brooklyn and New York. The Mayor’s office has been fantastic, Brad Lander’s office (of the New York City Council) has been unbelievably great. And our broader team of partners from Occupy Sandy, to UJA-Federation, the Kings Bay YMCA and the Jewish Association for Services-Aged (JASA), have been truly incredible to work with.

Our vision long term is to harness this outpouring of community energy – we had 1,500 volunteers come through our door, both Jewish and not Jewish! – and leverage it into a longer-term project. Hurricane Sandy helped to shine a light on neglected, impoverished areas in Brooklyn that needed help before the storm, and will continue to need help after. Now that we’ve been woken up to the larger issues, our job is to figure out how we can make a sustained difference.

How can people plug in and get involved?
The real champion of CBE’s volunteer efforts around Sandy has been our program director, Cindy Greenberg. People can reach her via Sandy[@]cbebk.org to find out more ways to help.

Find out more about Congregation Beth Elohim here.