Amid the sound of hammers and drills, a group of American and Israeli Jews carefully laid down boards for a deck and carried large slabs of sheet rock.
Volunteers with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ spent Aug. 11-16 learning, working, and worshiping together as they helped rebuild a Union Beach home at the Jersey shore ruined by Hurricane Sandy. The house belongs to a widow, who lived there with her daughter, two young granddaughters, and her 19-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum.
During their stay, the 22 volunteers, including 10 Israelis, lived as a community, hosted by members of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan. The synagogue also provided meals and other services for the volunteers as part of its longstanding support for Union Beach since the superstorm last October.
“This is a building project, but it is also an experiment in Jewish living and creating community,” said Rabbi Joel Soffin, president of Jewish Helping Hands, which he founded upon retiring as religious leader after 27 years at Temple Shalom in Succasunna. “In the morning we worship together, then work all day and at night we study Torah.”
Helping Hands is part of an interfaith initiative, Bonim B’Yachad: Building Together in Union Beach, cosponsored by the Greater MetroWest federation and Gateway Church of Christ in Holmdel, its “on the ground partner” on various projects in Union Beach since December.
The Bonim B’Yachad project received substantial funding from Jewish Federations of North America through its Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.
The idea to have the Israelis join their American counterparts came from Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate executive vice president in Israel.
“When Amir learned about all the calls people in Israel were making to New Jersey after Sandy he thought: Wouldn’t it be great to do something with American Jews,” said Soffin on Aug. 15. “Israelis are used to having Americans worrying about them and coming to help them. Here the Israelis were worrying about us.”
Israelis came from the regions of Ofakim and Merchavim, Kibbutz Erez, and Arad, which are linked to the federation through the Partnership 2Together twinning program.
Overseen by the Jewish Agency for Israel, partnership projects foster a sense of peoplehood, said JAFI North American director of communications Tali Aronsky.
“We have Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews building a real relationship and really getting to know each other on a project such as this,” she said.
The Dock Street home, like so many others in the neighborhood abutting Raritan Bay, was so heavily damaged it could not be salvaged. On a street where some of the homes still stood empty and waiting to be demolished, Cyndi Dalton and her family anticipate moving back home in the near future.
The family had been splitting its time between a niece’s house and a friend’s house, sleeping on the floor. More recently Dalton and her son began renting an apartment in Keansburg.
As the Israeli and American volunteers teamed up to work on ceilings, walls, and floors, the bonding was evident.
“This is my way of giving back,” said Lionel Geltman of Randolph, who previously accompanied Soffin to New Orleans twice after Hurricane Katrina. “What makes this time particularly exciting is that we are doing it with Israelis. A lot of us are practicing our Hebrew.”
Joining Geltman was his 27-year-old daughter, Suzanne, a school teacher in Randolph.
Tal Morag, who led the Israeli delegation, said that in addition to helping Americans, the project created “a living bridge and a connection” centered on such Jewish values as tikun olam, repairing the world. “I have never done anything like this before,” she said.
“These are an amazing group of people,” said Morag, who is from outside Ofakim. “They took time off of work. They paid for their flight to get here.”
Ambachew Reda of Ofakim came to Israel from Ethiopia at age 11 during Operation Solomon.
“Some of our strength comes from our ability to help others who need our help,” he said as Morag translated. “Every day I come here in the morning and I’m excited, and moved, and inspired.”
Shabi Moshe from the Merchavim area said he wanted to help “someone get their life back on track.”
“This is new hope, a new beginning, and it will become a nice house,” he said. “A lot of passion went into this house. I am just disappointed that I will not be here” when the work is completed.
During their tenure the volunteers completed the spackling, installed the sheet rock and doors, and almost finished the windows.
Federation supporters Eric Harvitt and Mickey Gottlieb, owners of the Landmark Company, are “rallying” their contacts in the real estate industry to finish the work on the house.
In a “blessing of the house” ceremony on Aug. 16 the volunteers got to meet Dalton as she walked through her home. Each volunteer also stood to recite their individual blessings, all of which will be compiled in a book to be presented to the family. A bracha was also made over a hallah supplied by Shaari Emeth.
Speaking during the ceremony were Greater MetroWest executive vice president/CEO Max Kleinman, Gateway church disaster response team director Cliff Gray, and Shaari Emeth Rabbi Melinda Panken.