Last month, 10 members of Temple Rodeph Torah of Marlboro traveled to the South on a hands-on tikun olam mission. They went to Alabama to help rebuild after the spring’s devastating series of tornados. Ranging in age from 16 to “over 50,” the volunteers worked to prepare houses for residents who had been homeless since the storms hit.
The 62 tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27 killed 247 people and destroyed thousands of homes. The town of Cordova, part of the Birmingham metro area, where the temple volunteers worked, was struck by an EF-3 tornado in the morning and an EF-4 storm 12 hours later, which devastated the community. One of the most startling images was of a bank’s safe: a 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete square, missing only the bank that used to surround it.
The mission began with a call to Rodeph Torah’s Rabbi Don Weber from Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El of Birmingham, asking his rabbinic colleagues to come help. “I saw Rabbi Miller’s plea describing the extent of the devastation and the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done, and I felt I had to respond,” said Weber. “I made my own plane reservations, then sent a letter to the congregation asking for people to work with me.”
Working with the Christian Service Mission of Birmingham and Habitat for Humanity, with temperatures often reaching above 100 degrees, the volunteers removed debris, installed drywall, and painted homes that were damaged or were being rebuilt from the ground up. Some people came with carpentry skills; others worked under the guidance of the staff and volunteers on site.
Part of the work was to begin reclamation of a post-Civil War mansion built by Cordova’s founder. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended the building be torn down, but residents felt it was the very heart of their community and feared the town would not survive if it were lost. After getting the go-ahead from the Army Corps, the volunteers began the painstaking process of rebuilding, removing everything from the roofless structure damaged by three months of exposure to the elements.
The volunteers were housed by the Jewish community of Birmingham, but volunteers paid their own way for the trip.
“I am so honored to have shared this experience with people who gave their vacation time, their money, and their sweat — lots of sweat! — to help people they do not know,” said Weber. “It is the very essence of tikun olam, the Jewish principle of repairing the world. We could not make it all better, but we were able to make it a little better. That is our job.”