When tragedy struck in Birmingham, Ala., a few weeks ago, killing scores of people and leaving thousands of residents destitute, a group of Jews saw a chance for mitzvot. Heading out from their home base outside of Minneapolis, a team of disaster relief and recovery experts drove their emergency trailers 1,000 miles to Alabama. They were joined by dozens of other Jewish volunteers who raced there from other parts of the country. While most of us watched on CNN, these volunteers were on the ground helping repair and clean up, providing skills, hard work and comfort — nechama — to the badly damaged city.

Along with a few friends, Minneapolis-based financial planner Steve Lear started Nechama in 1996 as a voluntary organization providing cleanup and recovery assistance to homes and communities affected by natural disaster. Since then, Nechama has dispatched thousands of volunteers and has five to 40 volunteers out in the field on any given day. Nechama maintains a database of 3,500 willing disaster relief volunteers and relies entirely on private donations.

Today, Nechama’s professional staff is busy in Birmingham helping recovery efforts after the deadliest tornadoes in American history wreaked untold damage. The volunteers are sleeping on the floor of an Orthodox synagogue and are being fed by local volunteers.

Nechama complements the work of the Red Cross and other agencies in disaster areas. These relief mavens provide tools and equipment and manage volunteers who are not affiliated with any organization. This element of volunteer supervision is essential because without it, volunteers can create additional problems for communities that have just been hit by a disaster.

While each response is unique, Nechama tries to find volunteers housing in synagogues, churches and community centers, and then find other volunteers to feed the group. Their multiple trucks and trailers and trained staff can be dispatched at a moment’s notice.

Inspiration can also be found in recent college graduate Elie Lowenfeld, who founded the Jewish Disaster Response Corps (JDRC) after spending a summer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with AmeriCorps. While helping there after record flooding in 2008, he noticed that all the volunteer groups were Christian and went on to create the JDRC in Tennessee.

The American Jewish community’s response to global disasters from Haiti to Japan has been generous and largely focused on what is really needed in those disaster zones: money. Millions of dollars have been raised to help when disaster strikes. What is unique about Nechama and JDRC is that they are mobilizing volunteers who leave their lives and families at a moment’s notice and will dedicate days, weeks, even months to hands-on cleanup, recovery and relief here at home.

We need more.

We need Nechama chapters established across the country as local community disaster response teams that can also be recruited to other regions of the country when large-scale tragedies strike. With a precarious economy and a poor job market, the time is ripe for the establishment of chapters of volunteers across the country.

According to Jim Stein, executive director of Nechama, this is what it takes: funds to hire an operations coordinator, donated office space for a response and planning center, and $100,000 to buy and equip a disaster response trailer.

The operations coordinator will be responsible for coordination with local disaster relief agencies, educating the community, and recruiting and managing volunteers. Also helpful is the creation of a local volunteer committee that can assist the coordinator and multiply the effectiveness of the chapter.

“We are also expanding our services to disaster victims by recruiting Jewish professionals who can help victims navigate insurance and government bureaucracies,” Stein said by phone from his office in Minnesota.

Nechama is also in the process of “creating a national board, a division dedicated to rebuilding efforts and a chaplain division to provide pastoral resources to victims,” he added.

Nechama is just the kind of grass-roots organization that American Jews need to support and grow so that it can engage multiple generations. It needs to be kept free of politics, prejudice and power struggles.

As the Talmud teaches, when a person is trapped under a building, screaming to get out, it doesn’t matter if he is a Jew or a non-Jew, whether it is Shabbat or a weekday, or whether he voted for Obama or McCain. What matters is the preservation of life and human dignity.

In my address to college graduates (“Graduates, Your Mountain Is Waiting,” Jewish Journal, June 2), I mentioned the great need for volunteers to help in places ravaged by natural disasters. From Pierre, S.D., to Birmingham, Ala., and from Joplin, Mo., to Greer, Ariz., American communities lay in ruins and their citizens need a hand. Nechama is the Jewish answer to disaster relief, and I believe part of the solution to the broader issue of building Jewish unity and opening new ways for young Jews to connect.
Yonah Bookstein, a leading voice of the next generation of American Jewry, is an internationally recognized expert in Jewish innovation, founder of the Jewlicious Festival, and executive rabbi at JConnectLA. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiYonah.

Appeared also in JewishJournal.com

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Rabbi Yonah