Group of Students Head to Houston for Hurricane Relief Mission After Over 100 Volunteer
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, over 100 Yeshiva University students volunteered to forgo their first day off from school and attend a relief and rescue mission to Houston, Texas. The mission, which had room for 12 volunteers, focused on providing relief to the Jewish Community in Houston after it was devastated by the Category 4 storm last week.
The mission took place from Sunday, September 3 to Tuesday, September 5. The student volunteers, who were put up at non-flooded homes, helped families salvage their belongings and clear out their houses so repairs could eventually be made. Students packaged meals for families in need, tore down sheetrock, and helped with mold remediation while wearing masks and goggles. Although only twelve spots were available on the trip, over 100 students volunteered to go on the mission within a few hours of the sign-up email going out.
“The greatness of our students is their willingness to get involved and make a difference, be it around the corner or around the world,” remarked Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the Vice President for University and Community Life, when asked about the overwhelming response to sign up for the mission.
The mission was funded by the YU Office of Student Life and Neal’s Fund, a social entrepreneurial fund that gives students the opportunity to help the Jewish and general community by awarding small grants to student-charity-based startups.
A GoFundMe page was also created by the Yeshiva University student councils to help purchase various materials and supplies for the trip. 35 donors participated, raising $2,126 of the $5,000 goal over four days.
According to Rabbi Brander, the relief effort was organized by the Office of University and Community Life, the Office of Student Life, and various student leaders, including the Yeshiva University student councils. Together, each office ensured the trip would be safe for the students and beneficial to the community in Houston.
Hurricane Harvey wreaked significant damage on Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast. In Houston, severe flooding from approximately 50 inches of rainfall left 30,000-40,000 homes destroyed. At least 39 people died as a result of storm.
Rabbi Barry Gelman, the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, described some of the struggles he has been facing as a leader in the Houston community.
“The key factor is that people don’t give up and succumb to a sense of helplessness,” Gelman explained. “It’s very important to try and help people understand the strength of our community.”
Students on the mission saw the Houston community show resilience in the face of disaster.
“It’s amazing how put together these people are,” explained Eliana Klein, a junior at Stern College for Women who participated in the relief mission. Klein was shocked at the unexpected optimism she encountered from the hurricane victims, noting that many of them had gone through the trauma of flood damage before.
“I saw people in front of their yards laughing with their families and friends,” she observed in admiration. “These people are not negative - not even for a second.”
While most of the volunteers were selected through a lottery run by the Office of Student Life, students from Houston were offered priority spots on the mission.
“It means so much to me as someone who grew up in Houston to see YU students giving of themselves to enable Houston to pick itself up,” said Amitai Miller, a Houston native and Yeshiva University student who participated in the relief mission. “I am so proud and fortunate to be a part of an institution that looks after its students and that demonstrates its care for individuals well beyond the scope of the university.”
Rabbi Gelman, the Houston Federation, and the Orthodox Union helped the YU relief mission coordinators decide which volunteer efforts to participate in.
“The relief missions are important because they help lessen the burden that people have,” said Rabbi Gelman. “They give people a sense that other people care about them.”
Linda Stone, the Director of Student Events who attended the mission, described the work of the volunteers as physically and emotionally difficult. She noted, however, that despite all of the work, the student volunteers never backed down from a task.
“The students worked so hard and never complained - they only wanted to do more,” said Stone. “I am so proud of our students and what we were able to accomplish.”
In addition to the flood relief work, Dr. Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students and an expert in trauma and mental health issues, ran an in-service training program for the congregants of United Orthodox Synagogues and the teachers of the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston that focused on working with children and adults who have experienced trauma.
“Children are scared, anxious, and for some, mourning the loss of everything they own,” Dr. Nissel pointed out. “Seeing curbside piles of people's furniture, toys, games, book shelves, stuffed animals, etc. is so incredibly difficult to fathom.”
Students that did not attend the mission have been involved with other initiatives to provide relief to Houston. Celia Rayek, a Sy Syms School of Business student, announced on Facebook that she would be collecting various supplies such as granola bars, garbage bags, and pens to send to Houston after she contacted the Orthodox Union and expressed a desire to help.
“As Jews, we are all responsible for one another,” reflected Rayek, who has already collected two bags of donations and hopes to send out the supplies by Friday.
According to Rabbi Brander, this mission is the first of many programs bringing YU students to Houston for weekends that will combine flood relief work with meaningful shabbat experiences in Houston.
“YU is an extraordinary university experience, one that is grounded in Torah, with challenging academic coursework interwoven with leadership opportunities,” said Rabbi Brander. “Sometimes we just need to make a statement that we are here and that [YU helps!]”
Photo credit: Yeshiva University Facebook page