I tikkum olam-ed the mitzvah out of my spring break last semester.
Instead of going somewhere warm for some rest and relaxation, I decided to participate in an alternative spring break trip offered by Hillel Milwaukee. I, along with Alec Feygin (Marquette University ’21), and Deb Fendrich (director of Jewish student life and learning, Hillel Milwaukee), went to Houston with the help of NECHAMA, a Jewish disaster response organization. While we knew we would get the “warm” part of the spring break experience, none of us realized how much this opportunity would teach us about community, teamwork and our Jewish identity.
Work Day 1:
As the lights in our communal bedroom were flipped on at 7 a.m. by our staff, I looked up and saw that in synchronization, everybody had pulled their sheets over their head and drifted back to sleep. It was a couple days after daylight savings had stolen an hour from our already seemingly short night, and waking up early was not helping us adjust. We warmed ourselves up with coffee, tea, and good conversation before heading out for the day.
At the worksite, we met Gwen, the homeowner, who told us about her experience during hurricane Harvey. Even though it was a difficult time for her, she was able to describe what it was like to have three feet of water in her home. When her story ended, she left our group of six college students, one chaperone, and two supervisors to rebuild her house.
Our first day of work went slowly as we learned to properly use the heavy power tools and install drywall. It was important to all of us that we made no mistakes since we felt it was more than just a house that we were rebuilding; it is a home, and it represented hope. Every piece of drywall came with its own set of challenges, sometimes taking up to three tries to create the perfect piece.
Later, we had the opportunity to hear from a Harvey survivor within the Jewish community. Lydia Musher, a professor at Rice University Jesse H. Jones School of Business, narrated her experience through a story that had us sitting at the edge of our seats from the very beginning. She described her experience during the flood: the way she could see the water levels rising in her garage every 5 minutes, the way neighbors’ families piled into her home just because she had a second floor, and the way she and her husband had to transport people to their neighborhood Kroger using a couple kayaks, one person at a time. Her most important advice: buy flood insurance, no matter where you live, because this could happen to anybody.
The stories we heard this day dramatically changed my perspective of the Houston community because it made me realize that although the city had been devastated by natural disaster, they turned their situation around by coming together and helping each other in a moment of crisis. There’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done but the feeling of cooperation resonates all throughout the city.
Work Day 5:
Waking up at 7 a.m. didn’t get any easier, but putting up drywall did. We finished drywalling all of Gwen’s house and started on the insulation when she paid us a visit. She took a few cautious steps into the house, not knowing what to expect, but after a sigh of relief, she continued. Without speaking to anybody in particular, she admiringly whispered “it’s starting to look like a home again.” That was when we realized that tikkun olam is not only about putting literal walls up, but about tearing figurative walls down. These figurative walls represent a multitude of tendencies: ignorance, desensitization, even neglect. Being present in the affected area and meeting people who went through Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath makes me want to help with disaster relief more than ever. It played an important role in understanding what disasters do to a community, including how people can help them from within the area and afar.
After various discussions about the most efficient way to help their situation, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to help Houston regain its footing is by sending money and offering them a hand, literally. There are only so many contractors, painters, and construction workers in the Houston area, so being able to contribute manual labor by going there yourself to do the work that they need provides for a much easier transition from devastation to stability. We are proud to have had a role in Houston’s progress and hope that others can find their own opportunities for doing a mitzvah, big or small.
And with heavy hearts, full stomachs and almost as much pride for Texas as a Texan has, we migrated back home to Milwaukee to return to our hibernation until it warms up again, or at least until we find another opportunity for tikkun olam. We hope to return to Houston in the future under different circumstances, whether that be to attend their world-class annual rodeo again or to celebrate the progress they’ve made.
Monica Hochberg is a senior at Marquette University.