Down but not out. These were the words that popped out at us as we pulled up to the part of the town of Washington, Ill. that was literally torn apart by a tornado in November. I recently spent the day volunteering with JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network, partnered with a Jewish disaster response team called Nechama.
What started as a fun car ride from Chicago quickly turned real, as the realization of the task at hand sunk in. Imagine your hometown, and think of a normal day that you might spend. You say hello to your neighbors, see your friends at church or synagogue, maybe even join one another for a neighborhood outing. Now, imagine that same neighborhood, but with everything leveled completely. That is the reality of what happened in Washington, Ill. Trees had been uprooted, cars had been destroyed, signs had been torn to shreds, and what I thought were pebbles stuck in my shoes turned out to only be bits and bits of pieces of glass that had been blown out from anywhere and everywhere. The most miraculous thing to me was how two blocks over it was as if there was never a storm. I guess it's just luck of the draw where the storm hit, and no one knew if they were safe or not.
So, back to the house. The house we were asked to take down had a big sign in front that had been put there by the son of the homeowner. On a piece of the house that had been broken off, it read "Down But Not Out." It's hard to explain what it's like to see that sign, while spending the day tearing apart that home. Insurance helps out a lot with tornado damage, but taking down the house saves the owner thousands of dollars.
I took a moment and went down into the basement, which was still intact. I looked up at the door to the upstairs, realizing this was what these people might have seen after the storm. Imagine going upstairs from shelter in the basement, to find everything destroyed. It was very hard to take. Just then, I saw an older man come downstairs; the owner of the house. He explained to me he was looking for his great grandmother's table, which he had kept as a keepsake in the basement. The table was nowhere to be seen. I had prepared myself for the hard work, but it's hard to prepare yourself to see an older man with tears in his eyes having lost something very dear to him, especially from an unexplainable act from God.
A man from next door came over and told us bone chilling stories from the storm. One man was trying to get his family downstairs, but the storm picked him up and they found him no longer alive up in a tree over a mile away. The car across the street was destroyed but in the trunk you could see a bag from the store filled with wrapping paper that had just been bought.
Later in the day, the wife who lived in the home we were working on came by and told us that the hard part was seeing the house still up; and that reality was sinking in as we were taking it down. She said she was at church when the storm happened. A lot of people in the town were apparently at church at the time of the storm. I knew we were doing something great when she repeated twice, "Jews helping out with a Christian home, imagine that." Our help was really appreciated, but I knew it was just a small part of a huge process.
Lastly, I want to talk about the significance that this all took place during Chanukah. As we lit the candles after a day of hard work, I reflected on the destruction we had helped. One of the members from our trip gave some great words that I wanted to share with everyone. Back in the time of Chanukah, the temple was destroyed and everyone had to rally together to pick up the pieces. They didn't have time to sit and cope and be down, they had to start the cleanup and rebuilding process immediately. The same goes for the tornado in Washington. These families immediately started picking themselves up, and then other volunteers came to help in the efforts. This town is down but not out. They are not destroyed. I am glad to have been able to have been a small part of their rebuilding miracle.
It wouldn't be fair to leave out the positive things I saw while cleaning up. First, the amount of help and support that I saw was amazing. The Salvation Army came around with hot chocolate and snacks, along with a dog to help raise the morale. One man pointed out they had help from Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, and other religious groups. It seems that one thing we all have in common is the realization that when help is needed we can make a difference. Just as the sign stated, this town was down, but they were most definitely not out.
I want to thank JUF, TOV, Nechama and my own Synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom for allowing me to be part of such a meaningful experience.
Matt Rissien is director of Youth Activities at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook. He is a 2013 Oy!Chicago Double Chai in the Chi "36 under 36" winner.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has sent $5,000 for relief efforts to the Jewish Federation of Peoria. Those wishing to aid in tornado relief should send funds directly to that local federation at jewishpeoria.org