Post Classifieds

Rebuilding ruins

Students helped rebuild Birmingham homes over winter break

By Tess Raser
On January 16, 2012

A porch, to many, is simply the shelter on the front of a building or what they step onto to get inside their house. University students who went on a weeklong service trip from Jan. 1 to 8 learned that a porch could mean much more, especially to a family that has lost every remnant of their home.

"When a porch is gone, you realize how integral [it is]. We weren't just giving him a porch, but his back porch back," said Eliana Light '13 on the work she did helping rebuild a man's porch in Birmingham, Ala.

Hillel at Brandeis teamed up with Habitat for Humanity and the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, a national organization in its second year that, according to its website, "provides a Jewish partner for institutions and individuals to work with, thus filling the gap between disaster response and the Jewish community's commitment to help others." Ben Lovenheim '15, Rachel Strax '14, Rachel Mayo '14, Eliana Light '13 and Daniel Yahalom '15 helped rebuild houses destroyed by the string of tornadoes that hit the South last April.

The group woke up daily around 6:30 a.m., made breakfast and traveled to their jobsite. Each day, led by the Habitat worker, Justin, they went out to a different jobsite and worked until almost sundown. Most of the houses the group worked on were in their final stages of construction.

"We weren't doing demolition or anything like that. So in one house, we were putting on trim and doing some interior work. On another, we were doing some exterior painting, and that house is pretty much done," Lovenheim explained.

In addition to wanting to help those in need, Lovenheim was drawn to the trip because he has always wanted to perform manual labor. When he was younger, his interest in construction and woodwork was spurred on by his love of the show This Old House, even though he has never done anything like the work featured on the renovation show.

"I had this fear I'd go through my whole life just doing work sitting down at a desk. I wanted to know what else was out there," he said.

Although the labor-intensive project was exciting to the group, it was not without its challenges.

Strax enjoyed painting, but even that task was not as simple as she originally thought it would be.

"It was really hard because the first day painting it was freezing out," she said.

"I was terrible at using the nail gun," said Light about her experience with placing pickets for a fence. She said that the work could have been done in 10 minutes by an experienced carpenter, but there was more to gain than just the new fence.

"It was a sense of accomplishment. … [At the end,] my arm was shaking, and it was good shaking. I [had] worked this arm to its full capacity," she continued.

Light is from Memphis, Tenn., a four-hour drive from Birmingham. She remembers that when the storms passed Memphis she huddled in a closet, the only room without windows in her home, with her family while she waited for the tornados to pass.

"[We were] so incredibly grateful that nothing had happened, and then when I heard about the trip coming up it really felt like an opportunity for me to express my gratitude and to try to be there for those who weren't as lucky as me," she said.

The impact of the tornadoes was massive not only in its physical destruction, but also, as all participants on the trip expressed, in the way it affected individuals and their families.

The group was most moved by their interactions with families affected by the storms and the remnants of destruction still visible in Birmingham.

The participants spoke fondly of a man named Alfonso, for whom they built a porch.

"He came out and talked to us for a while and told us what the experience was like having the tornado go right over his house, seeing the roof collapsing on him and people being thrown up into the air," said Lovenheim.

Light and Strax were able to visit Alfonso's family at one point as well.

"The second time we went there, we went back, just the two of us, and ... Alfonso's mother-in-law and his wife [were there,] thanking us profusely, telling us their personal stories," said Strax.

"What really struck me was how grateful they were, ... they all said, ‘We are so incredibly blessed. Thank God that we're alive, and we have our families and that we're going to be okay.' That was such a beautiful, beautiful sentiment. It really spoke to the deep faith that people had, which I think is very characteristic of the South in general," added Light.

The interactions with families were something that all group members identified as being powerful, but in addition to the spoken, personal narratives, there was also physical evidence of the destruction left behind by the storm.

"What was especially unbelievable to us, were [that] certain parts of the city were untouched, [while] some parts had so much rubble, [nine] months after the storm," said Mayo.

"You could go through neighborhoods and see where the tornado had gone through. … There's also one of these eerie sites we saw, quite frequently, where the stairs that were supposed to lead up to the front doorway were still there but the house wasn't," Lovenheim described.

Light expressed the shock of seeing bare trees in the usually always-green South, a single shoe or a pen in the middle of these now concrete neighborhoods.

"It's the little things like that that make up someone's life," she explained.

The five students on the trip, not all friends or even acquaintances at the beginning of the week, were able to share and process their feelings by debriefing at the end of each day and relying on each other for support.

"Mentally, it was a lot to go through. It was really overwhelming at times, so each day we kind of sat down together and had a discussion about what we saw. Just to get our thoughts out there," explained Mayo.

The group not only discussed their experiences, but also more broadly applicable ideas—such as the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Light said that the ability to empathize with someone, or as she says, "crying with them instead of crying for them" was especially interesting to her, and she hopes to somehow bring that message back with her at the University.

For a lot of the team members, this was their first service trip. Not only do they all express interest in going on other service trips in the future, but they would encourage other University students to do the same.

"On the application, someone said, ‘Why as a Jewish person do you think you should take part in this?' And my response was, ‘It's not something for a Jewish person to do, it's something for a person to do,'" Strax said.

"It's a really great way to do something different and try something new that you wouldn't ever do. It's a great way to be a part of something that's a lot bigger than yourself," added Mayo.  

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