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Hurricane Sandy Relief Effort: A Student Volunteer’s Perspective

The serenity that usually envelops the Queens community of Belle Harbor was shattered two weeks ago by the advent of Hurricane Sandy.  The Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) reached out to the numerous organizations aiding those left in dire need. Aliza Abrams, who oversees the CJF’s volunteer programs, in partnership with Shay Schachter, organized a program and transportation for 27 volunteers from the Wilf campus to assist Belle Harbor’s beleaguered Jewish populace.

Arriving in Belle Harbor was like walking into another world. The bus was forced to take a roundabout route, navigating around frighteningly tall mounds of debris and broken trees lining the road. The bus stopped in front of the Oheb Zedek synagogue. Inside, the program organizers passed out the addresses we were to report to. Four friends and I formed a team and headed out.

Traversing our way through the town was no easier on foot. In addition to the mounds of debris lining the streets and obstructing sidewalk access, the millions of pounds of sand the hurricane had strewn across the streets were being cleared off by bulldozers, marking blocks with ugly piles of sand nearly five feet high. The sidewalk was hidden underneath at least a foot of sand; Sandy was aptly named.

We arrived at the Berkowitz residence to help clean out their ruined basement. “It’s dirty down there,” Lynn Berkowitz warned me as we descended into the dank basement. “We came prepared,” I reassured her.

Mrs. Berkowitz wasn’t exaggerating; the flood had drenched the seven-foot-tall basement with not only water, but silt and dirt too. The floor squelched underfoot as we started the harrowing process of clearing out the Berkowitz’s possessions into heavy duty trash bags.

“We had eleven feet of water coming down the street, fast as the ocean,” Joel Berkowitz told us as we worked. “The basement flooded right up to the ceiling.”

A photography collection of synagogues from sixty countries and thirty seven U.S. states had to be thrown out, as well as an exotic fossil collection. Dozens of volumes of an American Heritage Index Encyclopedia were discarded, as well as a collection of the couple’s children’s and grandchildren’s shoes. Wedding photos weren’t spared either. We carefully sifted through the rubbish, placing mahzorim and other religious texts in a designated sheimot bag.

A grueling three hours later, we stopped working. We hadn’t finished, but it was time to get back to campus. Walking us out to the front of the house, Mr. Berkowitz showed us exactly where the water level had reached. “It came up to the door step, right here,” he said, stooping down on the three foot tall porch, pointing at just below his door. “I looked out the window, and saw the water coming up. I said, Hashem, please, no more, and it stopped.”

Isaac Hier (YC ’15), a student I volunteered with, related his shock to me as we walked back to Oheb Zedek. “I didn’t realize how bad it was. I mean, it was kind of a joke with the WiFi going out in YU, but then you come here and see how people’s homes and possessions got destroyed.”

But Mr. Berkowitz seemed upbeat. When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he simply told me that Belle Harbor is a beautiful community; they’d lived there since 1974, and were staying put.

Similarly, Alex Porcelain (YC ’13) related that when he went to help residents, they had been optimistic. “I went to the rabbi’s house and it was frightening to see the devastation. But he was optimistic and spirited, leading his community to recovery.”

After returning to campus, I met with Abrams. “I’m really proud that our students are helping out in the way they are,” she told me. “Even before the storm actually came to New York, I had inquiries from students saying if we are needed, please let us know how we can help. And it was really an amazing thing to see students who were stepping up before we knew what the disaster looked like.”