Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. I once saw an image of Tikkun Olam that depicted the world broken into many different pieces. The image showed people putting the pieces back together as if the world was a giant puzzle. Traveling to Long Island with JUF to rebuild homes, I got the opportunity to pick up the pieces.
As Jews we are taught the importance of Tikkun Olam, and we often hear this word spoken in our synagogues and Jewish groups, but rarely do we get the opportunity to act out the physical meaning of this Jewish value. Often times when we volunteer we are helping people in a soup kitchen, a community center, or even sending money and therefore we are removed from the personal lives of the people we are helping. In this experience with Hurricane Sandy victims, we walked right into their lives, their homes and literally picked up the walls. Through this experience I felt like I was actually contributing to Tikkun Olam in a way I had never felt before.
I truly believe that as Jewish people it is our obligation to help others without questioning, race, religion, or need. So many times in Jewish history we looked for others to help us, now it is our turn to help others.
Eight Chicago young adults took off work to travel to Long Island, New York to work with a Jewish relief organization called NECHAMA to help rebuild homes that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. We were motivated by the same thing: we were sick of feeling helpless when watching the news coverage and wanted to get our hands dirty. The whole group was so thankful for the opportunity to do something for the Sandy Victims.
The relief organization NECHAMA was started by Jewish people who wanted to help with disaster relief but found few organizations that did not require a religious proclamation in order to join their relief efforts. Today, NECHAMA will accept volunteers from any religion and help disaster victims based on greatest need – not their religious affiliation.
Our group spent two days working in the homes of Sandy victims. These families live on the water in Garden City, Long Island. Half of our group put up sheetrock, while the other half sanded, painted, and mudded. While overlooking the calm water, the homeowner spoke of living in the house for 25 years and never having hurricane damage until Hurricane Irene, only 14 months before Sandy. He spoke of how he spent $90,000 rebuilding his home after Irene, and that once Sandy hit he didn't have enough money left to repair the damages a second time.
This is where NECHAMA came in. This sweet retired man was so thankful to have us there. He mentioned how special it was to him that so many different people had worked on his house, including many rabbis and priests. We were all struck by how positive he was. He had been living in this mess since the hurricane hit, but his life went on. He went about his normal activities and then he came home to help us paint, and he did it with a huge smile.
This experience was the literal translation of Tikkun Olam, picking up the pieces, but it was also a more abstract translation. By stepping outside my comfort zone, and seeing how humans can deal with disaster, I began to see the repairs I need to make in myself and in my world. As people and especially as Jews, we should all look inside ourselves for improvements, whether that is respecting our parents, limiting our gossip, or being better friends. If we are all whole as individuals we become better at rebuilding the world.
* This trip was coordinated by the Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network and made possible by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Learn more about how to get involved with the Young Leadership Division (YLD). For more photos of the mission, visit the YLD Facebook page.