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 Ari Hart
Who he is: Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) and co-founder/executive board member of Uri L’Tzedek.
What compelled you to serve in the days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy?
For me it starts with Jewish tradition. There is a quote from the Torah that says we are not to stand idly by [while witnessing] the blood of our neighbor. Judaism teaches us that above all, human life is so sacred. When the storm first hit, my first impulse was to make sure my wife and I were safe. Then as soon as we realized we were okay, and some of the pictures of the destruction started to show up on the internet, I just felt compelled to see what could be done.
We went down to the Lower East Side the day after the storm. I got together with some students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and some Uri L’Tzedek people and we went down with water, batteries and food. As soon as we got there, we saw that there was a tremendous need. It was pitch black inside buildings and people were trapped without water, food, heat or medicine. Without power or elevators, many of them – particularly elderly people living on high floors – had no way of getting the things that they needed.
So we started schlepping supplies up and down the stairs over the next few days. We met a lot of people who said we were the first human contact they’d had in days. I know volunteering can be complicated and it is possible to get in the way more than help, but so many of the people we met were alone and needed someone to say, “I’m here – are you okay?”
How many days did you volunteer?
Personally I was down for four days. What is really cool though, is the stories of how people used social media to directly address needs. In the week or two after that, I did a lot of corresponding with different relief agencies and linking people to needs online. One great story was when a woman in Georgia tweeted that a friend of hers in Teaneck, New Jersey needed help. The Teaneck woman had a sick daughter who needed a breathing machine, but they had no power and were running out of fuel for their generator. I saw the tweet and, being an Orthodox Jew, I know a few people in Teaneck! So I called a friend there and he was able to go and check in on the family. In the end everything worked out – but it was such a 21st century example of the power of social media in situations like this.
As a rabbi did you feel like it was your responsibility to rally others to help?
The first Shabbat after the hurricane, I gave a sermon about what I had witnessed. That week’s Torah portion, Vayera, talked about Abraham running to give food and water to strangers who had arrived as guests in his home. It couldn’t have offered a better framing. The next day, we organized a mass volunteer effort that hundreds of people participated in. We filled up bins of donations – foods, battery, water, blankets, clothes, gasoline – and people really stepped up to organize trips to Staten Island, Brighton Beach, the Rockaways. It was amazing to see what a community can do together when it kicks into gear. It reinforced for me how we can take these values of service and leverage them within a communal structure.
Did you work together with other communities?
We did – we were in touch with Occupy Sandy to get a sense of on-the-ground needs. We also connected with a lot of Jewish organizations including the Federation. There was a Google Doc created of schools and synagogues that had been hit very hard. We reached out to a Rabbi in Brighton Beach and he said, “yes, please come.” We also worked closely with a nearby church in the Bronx that was coordinating relief efforts, so there were a lot of overlapping networks.
What are your plans moving forward?
Now that the stage of immediate relief is over for many people, we’re moving into the stage of rebuilding. We have a lay committee of people in our congregation working to figure out how HIR can contribute in a longer term way. It may mean identifying one community in particular to support, or something else. We will see what develops.
Was there a moment that stood out to you as particularly or personally powerful?
We visited a lot of elderly Russian Jewish people in the Rockaways, and I found that very moving. Through the volunteering, I was able to experience a profound human connection. I walked into the home of a 90-year old woman who is not Orthodox but is very spiritual. Her caregiver, a Caribbean woman in her 30s, was there with her. They had no heat, no water, and were very cold. We brought them blankets and coats and spoke with them – it was heartbreaking. At one point we prayed together – we prayed for safety, for warmth, for a return to normalcy. It was very powerful to come together in that moment, three strangers, different faiths, bound together through this tragedy and, ultimately, this rebuilding.
Check out Rabbi Hart’s article on the Huffington Post, “Sandy: A Spiritual, Scriptural Response,” which he originally gave as a sermon at HIR.
Do you know a Sandy relief hero? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting @repairtheworld and tagging #hurricanesandy.