Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reporting on B'nai Israel service trip to Alabama, Day 1

Yesterday afternoon a team of 12 congregants from Congregation B'nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, arrived in Birmingham, AL, for a week of volunteering in areas devastated by tornadoes, earlier this year.  We had a little time late yesterday afternoon to get our bearings and visit part of the Downtown area.  We took in the district near the Civil Rights Institute where a Civil Rights Heritage Trail walks visitors through the events that took place on these streets in 1963.  The trail was erected in 2010 and consists of life-size original photographs of events on these streets and a brief description of the unfolding of these events.  At Kelly Ingram Park, additional sculptures continue to send a message of the lessons learned from that era in Alabama's history.
Sign held by child protestor reads 'Can a man love God and hate his brother?'
Plaque next to a young Horse Chestnut Tree in the Park
Sculpture of Water Canon aimed at children during peaceful civil rights protests in 1963
 The images and sculptures were striking and impactful.  Striking and impactful are likely to be the two most relevant words to describe our experiences on this service trip to Alabama.  This morning, we first checked in with the Christian Service Mission warehouse that coordinates volunteer efforts.  This warehouse, which is the size of a Walmart, has been filled and emptied 30 times over since the tornadoes struck, distributing food, clothing, and supplies of all kinds to those in need.
 Our group were soon dispatched to the town of Cordova, 40 minutes from downtown Birmingham to connect with a grassroots group of volunteers based in a Baptist church who have been working hard to revive their community and rebuild some of the 70 homes that were lost in the storms.  Some images from the town are shown below.  At this point, several months on, we no longer see much of the debris that was strewn everywhere, but the clean-up and rebuilding work is going to take several years.
The remains of the Main St in Cordova
The bank vault is all that is left of the Bank in town.

We met Andrea, a one-woman powerhouse - an Attorney by profession - who is almost singlehandedly coordinating the volunteer effort in Cordova.  She told us what had happened when two tornadoes ran through the town in the same day.  The first had caused relatively minor damage, but it took out power and the warning systems which is why, when the second one came through in the afternoon, so many people were caught off-guard.  Her volunteer organization has been helping individuals rebuild but is also taking abandoned homes and flipping them to make them ready for new residents, rent-free for the first year to help rebuild the community in the town.  Our team divided into two groups - one to work on a home that was almost ready, to clean up and start organizing some furnishings, and the other to do dry-walling work.  I was with the latter team, with Lisa Knicos, Steve and Andrew Soberman, and the three teens on our trip - Brittany O'Connell, Ari Matz, and Emma Pearlstone.

Framing a closet wall for dry wall

An interesting find during house clean-up
One of our teams - all smiles at the end of day 1
I think that one of the big lessons of day 1 was humility; recognizing how small our contribution is, visiting for just a week, compared to those who are dedicating months and months to rebuilding their communities and their homes.  Recognizing the limits of our skills as we seek to do things that help and do not hinder the work efforts (an amusing moment this morning, as our coordinator sought to find out what house-building skills we had brought with us was that moment of silence in which many of our group were silently thinking to ourselves, 'We're Jews! We know who to call!').

Another big lesson, and one that generated interesting conversations among our group in private moments, was the enormous role of faith among the local people working to rebuild; not only to give them the strength to do the exhausting work that they are doing, day in and day out, but also to make sense and meaning out of the events that befell them.  While we may not share the same theology, we recognize that when they speak of us all being God's hands and doing God's work, we might understand the God-spark in each of us being that which inspires us to do good, or we might understand ourselves to be God's partner in the pursuit of tikkun olam (repair of the world).  While we may express our faith in different language, we are inspired by the power of faith to sustain these communities through some of the most difficult times of their lives.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. May God bless the work of your hands and the intentions of your heart. We'll miss you while you're away, but grateful that you can take on this work that is so important.

  2. Thank you for letting us see and hear about the place and your work there. Thank you all for doing rather than just writing a check.

  3. Thank you for sharing this incredible journey. It is heartwarming to read about and see the photos.