The sheer scope of the devastation was unlike anything they had ever seen. Houses were flattened. Giant trees were toppled, their exposed roots clawing the air. More than 80 people died in the Category 4 hurricane, the fifth-strongest ever in the US, and the 150 mph wind caused billions of dollars in damage. Thousands of people lost their homes.
Around two dozen students from North Shore Hebrew Academy spent an emotional two days in west Florida this past month, helping with relief efforts following Hurricane Ian, which tore through the region on September 23.
“As someone who was a victim of Hurricane Sandy, I thought I saw the highest extent of what a storm can do to a place,” said Sasha, an 11th grade student. “I was wrong.”
Jamie Lassner, the director of the Office of Student Life at North Shore Hebrew Academy MIddle School, led the chesed trip for middle school and high school students, following his extensive experience in disaster areas and volunteer work with Hatzalah emergency and ambulance corps. Ms. Esti Bodner, who also accompanied the trip as a faculty advisor, shared that because her home was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy 10 years ago, she felt this mission was an opportunity to pay it forward.
The students spent one part of their trip working with a contractor to demolish parts of a home on Sanibel Island, smashing through floors and walls that were water damaged to make way for renovations. Another day, they loaded a 52-foot trucking container to the brim with new mattresses to be donated to storm victims. The local Chabad, which is highly involved in the relief efforts, connected NSHA where support was most needed.
“There was no better feeling than going with my friends to help people who may have been experiencing the worst moments in their lives,” said Jeremy, an 11th grader. “The media tends to show scenes from many graphic events, and it’s hard for people to believe what is really going on. Here, I was actually able to see and help after one of the worst natural disasters that had ever hit the west coast of Florida.”
This wasn’t the first time NSHA students have responded in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This summer, a group of students traveled to Kentucky to help the area recover from catastrophic flooding.
Although these types of chesed trips can be challenging, NSHA believes they help prepare students to be compassionate leaders. “We are planting the seeds for these kids to say, ‘I need to stand up and do something right now,’ whether it’s in their immediate community or the larger community,” said Lassner. “This type of out-of-the-box experiential learning, while challenging, is a vital part of being a good citizen and a good Jew.”
One of the most moving parts of the trip was when the students stopped at a local Jewish home which was observing shiva, to help make the minyan. “My door just opened and this unbelievable stream of Jewish high school students from Long Island came into my home to make a shiva call,” said Taryn A., whose mother had died a few weeks after the hurricane devastated the area, told the students. “My mom was a teacher in East Hartford, she loved your age group, and this was her life and her calling. For the last night of minyan to have all of you walk in this door and daven and honor her, is the most incredible thing.”
The impact of the trip has continued to reverberate after their return. Many students who returned said they were acutely grateful for things they had previously taken for granted, such as clean water, enough food, or something as simple as a roof over their heads. One student was so inspired he started reaching out to set up his own charity, to provide computers for children in need and increase their access to technology.
Over the coming weeks, the students plan to brainstorm other ways they can continue to have an impact.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, because this was totally out of everyone’s comfort zone,” said Maayan, grade 11. “But I’m glad I came, and I want to go on other chesed trips… I’m happy that we helped out, because cleaning even one house makes a difference for someone.”
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