When Superstorm Sandy struck last fall, large numbers of relief work volunteers flocked to the United States’ Northeast region to help. But Jewish college students Mia Appelbaum, Mathew Barkan and Nadine Miller headed in the opposite direction — westward, to Joplin, Missouri, where a catastrophic tornado had leveled much of the city and killed 158 people in May 2011.

The students went to Joplin with the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, an initiative that mobilizes service-oriented young people (mainly Jews, but also non-Jews as part of interfaith groups) to respond to the long-term recovery and rebuilding needs of domestic communities affected by disasters. These are not the volunteers that bring in food, water, clothing and medical supplies to emergency shelters in the immediate aftermath. They are the ones that are in it for the long haul, clearing out debris and rebuilding people’s houses months, and even years, later.

JDRC has been helping to rebuild communities in the Midwest and Southern US since 2009, when founder Elie Lowenfeld, then an NYU undergrad himself, decided to get some friends together to help out for a week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which had been hit by a flood the previous year.

“I had volunteered for flood clean up in Cedar Rapids the summer before with AmeriCorps, and I saw great groups coming from churches,” Lowenfeld recalls in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel. “I learned from that and wanted to replicate the model, but for Jewish students.”

In his senior year in 2010, he organized two week-long trips to Galveston, Texas for rebuilding after Hurricane Ike of 2008. With many students eager to join these trips, he knew he was on to something. He incorporated JDRC as a non-profit and partnered with Hillel-The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life so JDRC trips would be included on Hillel’s list of officially sponsored alternative winter and spring break opportunities.

The organization, funded by Repair the World, the Joseph and Frieda Ross Foundation, and individual donors, originally partnered with the Bronfman Center at NYU, but is now housed at Bikkurim, a New York-based incubator for new Jewish ideas. According to JDRC executive director Adina Remz, approximately 300 students from Hillels at a dozen universities have participated in JDRC service learning trips to date.

Students from the Hillels at University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University measuring, cutting and installing trimming in Joplin, MO (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Students from the Hillels at University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University measuring, cutting and installing trimming in Joplin, MO (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Getting her hands dirty is not a problem for Appelbaum, 20, a junior at NYU.

“The building work is definitely physical, but I like the fact that we were physically giving back and seeing the progress made in rebuilding the homes,” she tells The Times of Israel by phone from Israel, where she has been interning for the Yesh Atid political party. “Even if you are not cut out for heavy-duty manual labor, there are ways to help, like painting and laying out protective paper.”

Appelbaum went to Joplin for an alternative winter break in January of this year, and to Birmingham, Alabama in January 2012 to help with the recovery from a 2011 tornado. She took both JDRC trips with Bridges, a Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue group that operates under NYU’s Hillel.

“I came to college really eager to pursue interfaith work, and I was happy to participate in JDRC because it gives us a chance to build something together and support each other as we work,” Appelbaum says. “While I was building, I was building friendships with people I wouldn’t otherwise know.”

For Barkan, a 21-year-old senior aerospace and mechanical engineering student at Case Western Reserve who serves as undergraduate president for Cleveland Hillels, his weeklong JDRC trip to Joplin was a way to create cohesion among students from different campuses in the Cleveland area.

Avi Rothberg, Shanjida Chowdhury, and Zachary Schwarzbaum from Bridges New York University engaged in interfaith text study after a long day of work.  (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Avi Rothberg, Shanjida Chowdhury, and Zachary Schwarzbaum from Bridges New York University engaged in interfaith text study after a long day of work. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Barkan did texturing and painting of walls, as well as flooring and lighting work. He liked the interwoven Jewish learning. “On two nights, we studied Jewish texts that related to what we were doing. We used the JDRC curriculum, but students led the discussions.”

“The experience also gave us a lot of insight in to the recovery process. People don’t realize what’s involved in the long-term,” says Barkan.

Darlene Harper’s home was destroyed by the Joplin tornado. She now serves on the city’s long-term recovery team and helps JDRC students better understand what devastated communities face. She meets the volunteers at some of their work sites, and also joins them for a casual dinner.

“I was very impressed with the students, how open, inquisitive, and genuinely interested they were in our community and local culture,” she says. “And they worked hard. They didn’t shy away from any of the tasks they had to do. I was taken aback by how self-disciplined they were.”

Students from Rutgers University Hillel and Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign work on repairs in a home that was badly damaged during the Joplin tornado (Courtesy of JDRC)

Students from Rutgers University Hillel and Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign work on repairs in a home that was badly damaged during the Joplin tornado (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Maria Olson, volunteer coordinator for Rebuild Joplin agrees. “They honestly were some of our best volunteer groups… each volunteer came with a smile and a very willing attitude to do whatever was needed to help families get back home.”

The students learned from Harper what it was like to live through a devastating tornado, and she learned from them about Jewish observance. Since both Jewish and Muslim students were participating in the interfaith trip, all JDRC meals were vegetarian.

“I learned about kosher food, and also that tofu can taste good,” shares Harper, who was brought up on southern fried foods. “I’ve learned to eat something healthy because of kosher.”

Just 75 Jews live in Joplin, so the arrival of the JDRC volunteers was very meaningful to the members of the United Hebrew Congregation, the only synagogue in town (and within a 70-mile radius).

“The silver lining inside the tornado cloud that hit us is the support we have received from Jewish groups like JDRC,” says Paul Teverow, a synagogue board member who lost his home in the disaster. “Their presence makes us feel like we are part of a larger Jewish community.”

Jacob Holzer (University of Rhode Island) and Blake Stein (Towson University) hard at work at Roger’s house.  Roger lost a brother during the tornado. (Courtesy of JDRC)

Jacob Holzer (University of Rhode Island) and Blake Stein (Towson University) hard at work at Roger’s house. Roger lost a brother during the tornado. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDRC)

Teverow is impressed by students who give their time during breaks to rebuild communities. Since most of Joplin’s Jews leave town for college and never return, it is energizing to have young Jews around, even if it is only for several weeks.

Nadine Miller, a 19-year-old biology major at the University of Rhode Island, overcame some initial reservations about going to Joplin with JDRC and now encourages others to go there, or to other disaster areas.

“I think the most important part of what I learned is how real these disasters are and how even though it isn’t shown on the news anymore, that cleanup is still happening,” says Miller.

Harper is grateful for this kind of attitude.

“It blows our mind that there are people dedicated to the very end of the rebuilding process,” says Harper. “People who have not forgotten us.”