This past weekend I joined a group of 15 people between the ages of 23 and 33 with Act Now Houston on a service/learning trip to Houston, Texas, to aid with Hurricane Harvey relief. Though the hurricane has disappeared from the news, rebuilding continues in Houston, primarily in low-income areas.
Act Now Houston is a partnership between the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and the Leadership Coalition for Jewish Service. The Act Now Houston trip was led by Moishe House staff and for Moishe House residents, community members, and Moishe House Without Walls Hosts.
By Valerie Brown
To be totally honest, I didn’t know that much about Hurricane Harvey or its effect, or really anything at all about disaster relief work. I have never done a service trip before, and my construction experience involved hanging some coat hooks in my entryway (and said coat hooks recently fell out of the wall due to a coat overload).
The service we did on Friday and Saturday was physical. We worked with SBP, a non-profit disaster relief organization, to rebuild a house that had been damaged during the hurricane. In some ways, it was the best type of service—though we weren’t able to finish every part of the house, we still walked away feeling like we did something. We felt a collective sense of accomplishment each day as we checked off tasks, because we could literally see our effect: the house has a vinyl floor that wasn’t there before and there are now door frames and window sills and tiles in the bathrooms.
And, there’s still so much to be done. The construction will take about two more weeks, and then the family will move back in. They’ll need furniture. And dishes. And everything else necessary to completely rebuild their life. Looking around at the bare rooms sparked a discussion among the volunteers: What would you grab in an emergency? Family photos, pets, heirlooms, a passport...everything else is replaceable, right? But, is it? I realized that everything in my home has a story—the perfect leather jacket I bought from my solo trip to Madrid, the coffee table I haggled for, the Shabbat candlesticks that my friend gave me for my birthday. These aren’t things I would grab in an emergency, but they make up the fabric of my life. And, I’ve only been in DC for two years. Some of the people we talked to in Houston have been in their homes for over 60.
On Sunday, we took on a different type of service work for BakerRipley, a community development organization in Northeast Houston. We went door-to-door in an underserved area to let residents know about resources available to them. This type of service felt totally different from the previous two days, since we didn’t get to check off a to-do list or see our impact in a tangible way. And, as a predominately white group in a neighborhood made up of minorities, we couldn’t speak to the systematic problems of Houston: Why, eight months after the storm, have so few people been given the resources to even evaluate the damage to their homes? We did, however, make valuable one-on-one contact, and we gathered information and stories, but we won't get to see the results on that work.
On a personal level, I still have so many questions about direct service, its value, and how we can bring that value to our local communities. I also have a much larger understanding of disaster relief work and some of its unique challenges. It takes time to find funding, to organize labor, to evaluate the needs of the community. SBP staff members told us that they expect to be in Houston for at least 10 years, and if there’s another event like Harvey, it could be longer. What does it mean for a community to go through this type of trauma, and how can we build communities to be resilient to disasters?
As a part of a text study on Saturday, we discussed the following passage: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Sovereign, your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
Here’s my lightbulb moment: I don’t have a harvest, and I can’t literally leave the edges of my field. But, I do have a surplus of time, of energy, of willingness to try something new. Going on a service trip like this is a unique privilege and, while it may be strange to think of disaster relief work as an opportunity, I’m so grateful to have had this experience. I set personal goals for myself ahead of this weekend (use a power tool: check), but what I didn’t realize is how meaningful this type of work can be on a communal level. We accomplished our work together; none of us could have done it alone. The individuals in our volunteer group were from different cities and of different ages, backgrounds, careers, and different levels of Jewish knowledge and observance. Yet, while caulking a doorway or tiling a bathroom, we managed to connect deeply, talking about our jobs, our relationships, and our Jewish identities. The work we did opened up avenues for conversations and questions, breaking down barriers and building relationships, and I hope it will continue to do so as we bring this experience back to our communities.
If you're interested in joining Moishe House on another service project to Houston, email Molly at [email protected].
Valerie has been in DC for 2.5 years, and questions the decision every time the humidity acts up. She is an unapologetic avocado toast consumer, subscribes to too many podcasts, collects sweatshirts, befriends cats, and manages Marketing and Communications for JWI in her spare time.