As she slogged through the marshlands of the Jersey shore community of Union Beach, carrying away pounds of garbage, Rabbi Mary Zamore said she recalled the words of Hillel.
“‘We are not required to complete the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it,’” Zamore, associate rabbi of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, said in a phone interview. “It is a Jewish message to help your neighbors who are in need.”
The rabbi, her husband, Terje Lande, and their 12-year-old son, Aryeh, were among some 35 volunteers from the Greater MetroWest community who spent Dec. 30 dismantling a wooden deck that had been dislodged from a home in Union Beach and blown by waves and winds into the marshes.
Their visit was the latest project in an effort, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, to assist Union Beach in its recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
“You can’t get a bulldozer in there, so we had to dig out the deck and all the garbage on top of it,” said Zamore. “We had to create paths so the garbage could be carried out. It was a mess. It was overwhelming.”
Stanley Mittelman of West Orange said breaking down the debris into portable pieces “was for me very physically straining. But the people who went through this are not looking at debris. Their lives are the debris. Our group just concentrated on the physical, because I don’t think we could handle the emotional part of that.”
Some 6,200 people lived in the town of Union Beach before the storm hit. In its wake, 1,600 of the town’s 2,100 homes were damaged or destroyed.
The federation coordinated clean-up visits on three consecutive Sundays. Their efforts have been augmented by skilled laborers and demolition crews who have donated their time, aided by a $10,000 federation donation.
Elsewhere in the region, the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and its agencies distributed over $100,000 in food and financial assistance in the storm’s wake.
Some volunteers, like Rob Goldberg of Livingston, had returned to the battered community for a second time. After working to dismantle the deck, Goldberg was dispatched to Keansburg, where he removed sheetrock and floorboards from another ruined home.
“I really felt bad about the people of Union Beach,” he said. “These are blue-collar people, not wealthy people with shore homes, and I felt I needed to do something.”
Goldberg said several residents came out to thank the volunteers. “One woman kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you’ over and over. Then she told me she had also lost her job. I felt so bad. It was horrible.”
Lori Baytala of Cranford volunteered at Union Beach on Dec. 23. “These people lost so much,” she said. “When we took a ride around, it tore your heart out. It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. There was a refrigerator at the end of a street, and people’s belongings were literally blown everywhere.”
Small items, from pill bottles and baseball cards to high school yearbooks and wedding albums, were found inside the vast field of debris — some washed ashore from as far away as Staten Island. Dutifully, the volunteers collected and brought the items to the Union Beach municipal building for return to their owners.
“When we first arrived, we wondered how could we make a difference,” said Zamore. “By the end of the day, the deck was gone. Piles of garbage were gone. Paths had been created. You could really see your labor making a difference.”