Nadine Strauss – Executive Director, Herzl Ner Tamid, Mercer Island, WA
Trustee, NAASE Board of Governors

The many sign poles dotting the highway along the beach announcing no longer standing opulent casinos, fancy restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as the hundreds of awnings dangling from windows of once stately homes, brought both astonishment and appreciation. Astonishment because of the sheer force of nature unharnessed from human control that could slice a huge bridge into a caricature of sliced bread, and appreciation of the universal hope found in this tormented community.

I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi in May 2006 with fellow members of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Synagogue Executive Directors (NAASE). Rabbi Moshe Edelman of United Synagogue, a reporter on assignment from the Jewish newspaper in Washington DC, and fellow synagogue executive directors came from all over the country to Biloxi, united by a desire to learn and to help. None of us do much physical labor in our usual lives, much less in the famous southern heat and humidity. Nonetheless, we arrived with our old clothes, workbooks, and gloves to undertake our assignments.

We spent our first night learning from a young FEMA employee, Rachel, about her struggles with assigning trailer homes to displaced residents and of the challenges ahead for 100,000 people currently due to be evicted just as the hurricane season was about to commence. We learned that the Gulf Coast communities cannot sustain a category one hurricane, much less one more severe. We heard from Steve and Lori, the past president and current president of the local United Synagogue-affiliated shul of 60 families. They told us of the fate of their congregation, most of who lived far enough away. The synagogue did not fare well as it was only two blocks inland and is now uninhabitable. Insurance covers the damage caused by flooding but not damage caused by the force of hurricane winds.

We took a bus tour with Steve, who also works for the local tourism agency. Steve described the hurricane’s impact and showed us the devastation. The town was a moonscape. Whole neighborhoods, many streets, and massive amounts of the small city’s infrastructure, including its police stations and fire trucks, had disappeared or been totally destroyed. Antebellum homes with curtains still swaying stood on stilts above missing floors. Numerous churches, museums and libraries no longer exist. We were asked to imagine a container ship being washed ashore onto the highway, dumping tons of dead chicken onto steaming August sidewalks. In the downtown core, restored buildings still displayed the signs of bakeries and restaurants, but there were no life signs. It felt like an archeological dig. Nothing prepared me for conversations I had with people who lost their livelihoods, friends and belief that our government would help.

Faith and grass roots organizations alone have given people hope. We worked with Hands On USA, which helps in disaster areas in very real ways. Housed in a church, Hands on USA organized volunteers on a daily basis wherever the need. This was the same church building that vacated its basement after the hurricane to allow the residents of the Biloxi shul to hold their community Seder.

Most of the folks who help are young. They stay days, weeks or months. Hands on USA estimates that since September 2005, it has provided 150 volunteers a day. At $18 an hour, Hands On American has donated $4,860,000 worth of labor. Hands on USA volunteers have gutted 660 houses, cut $2500 of trees, and distributed $50,000 worth of supplies to the community. The volunteers have cleaned 12 major streets, restored 8 parks and 3 historical sites. We discovered a wonderful group of energetic people, especially younger folks, living in tents and devoting their lives to this wonderful work.

We were assigned to remove all the hardwood flooring from a home a few blocks from the beach. Armed with unfamiliar tools, masks, and gloves, we went to work. We set up a highly productive unity, where each of us performed tasks relative to our skills and abilities and, by the end of the day, covered with dust, we admired a yard full of debris, 25 feet wide and 6 feet high.

Somewhere in the middle of the day, Roger, the home owner, thanked us. Retired from the military, he took the miserly amount the insurance money provided and started over in a new home. Armed with a photo of his family, he tearfully shared his story, hopes and dashed dreams. Roger had never met any Jewish people and asked Rabbi Edelman to say a prayer. Poignantly, the Rabbi thanked God for bringing us to this day, a day marked with demolition but also the joy of rebuilding. Our group met the folks working next door on the home of an elderly woman who had lost her job and whose flood insurance was 5 days shy of its “effective as of…” date, when Katrina stormed in. Christian music blared in from the Baptist Church, volunteers working across the street who came from a community committed to sending a bus load of people every month.

All day long, cars passed, waved and mouthed a “thank you.” It was humbling that our small act could bring such hope. The Holiday Inn at which we stayed went to huge lengths to provide strictly vegetarian meals (not a big ticket item in Biloxi) and to me, personally, endless diet cokes. The owner had been housing his employees and their families free for the past year, and the grace and enthusiasm of the staff and the impeccable state of the hotel spoke highly of the appreciation and dedication these employees showed their employer in return.

In the end, I learned lessons that are not new but were provided in a new context. Institutions that one expects to protect us, such as insurance companies and government agencies, make us hostages to fine print. Real support came only to those victims with supportive family and friends connections, from strong faith communities who subscribe to a broader definition of family obligation or caring, and from a limited number of employers who shared a commitment to social responsibility.

The house our group began to repair in Biloxi was but one of the 48,651 homes still needing reconstruction. It was Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) — one house at a time. It’s a start. It’s one community. Nature is fickle. Along the Gulf Coast, one house was torn to shreds, and the next had relatively little damage. Who knows where nature may strike next.

This trip reinforced my understanding of the important need we have to create and nurture a loving, personal community engineered through unselfish kinship, unfettered friendship and a committed ritual of the giving of one’s resources. Today we can give; tomorrow we may find ourselves needing resources.

You may wish to read how simple but resolute actions inspire others… how caring has never gone out of style… and how a team of NAASE Executives and Friends made a difference in our time! Read the original article fro the Washington Jewish Week: Broadway to Biloxi.

Yasher koach to each of them and to all others less visible, who perfom the holy work of tikkun olam.