This article originally appeared at Repair the World.
Elie Lowenfed is the 23-year-old founder of the Jewish Disaster Response Corps (JDRC), which he started while still an undergraduate at New York University. In August of 2009, he organized JDRC’s first official relief trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a year after flooding had devastated the city (and the entire eastern half of the state), taking out ten square miles of its downtown. He and fourteen other Jewish students (seven from New York and seven from the Midwest) went to help with the long term rebuilding process. That first trip was done with a whole lot of do-it-yourself gumption. “We just grabbed some people and 300 dollars and one written page and just started going,” he noted. Since that first trip, he has organized three alternative spring break trips during his senior year.
How did you become involved in disaster relief?
I personally had gone to New Orleans after Katrina and the thing that struck me from the first day I arrived was that there was no Jewish communal presence. I went with a Hillel trip and we worked through an evangelical Christian organization because those are the people that go and respond to disasters. The local churches, the faraway churches, the national Christian organizations. American Baptist Men. United Methodist Committee on Relief. Christian Reform World Relief Committee.
And the Jewish community didn’t show up. So at first it was just one of those thoughts — this is something my community should be involved in. As we’ve [JDRC] done more work we’ve learned that there are Jewish communities affected by every disaster and need help after the disaster. And for the Jewish community not to show up for them was something I didn’t want to continue to happen. I wanted to see my community be a part of this effort.
Why do you think the Jewish community did not show up or weren’t organized for disaster relief?
I think there are a couple of reasons. A lot of it just comes down to people just haven’t seen what a disaster looks like, and haven’t seen the need and haven’t seen the ability of an average person to really make a difference after a disaster. There’s a lot to be said for seeing it, smelling it, tasting it.
Cedar Rapids got just one day of coverage in the New York Times. One day in the newspaper doesn’t really convey the need and your ability to respond. I also have seen people wondering, “What am I going to be able to do? These people need carpenters, they need electricians.” But really they just need hands willing to help. There’s a bit of this stigma – “Oh, I’m Jewish. I don’t really have building skills.” But they don’t need building skills. They just need somebody who’s got two hands and is ready to put in a day of work.
You talk a lot about “just showing up” and getting to work. Was that something you learned at home?
I would say that a lot of it was family. For the first trip to New Orleans I went with my entire family. My sister had gone and she came home and said, “We’re going.” And that was it. We went. So yes, it was ingrained in my upbringing, and that’s kind of the same way the organization has been built. We’re going to show up and we’re going to do it. And we’re going to figure everything else out later.
What do you have planned for the future?
Right now we are working very closely with the Bronfman Center at NYU. They actually took the project in house to incubate us for the next year, which is very exciting. We’re looking to really grow our organizational base and move more volunteers. We have four trips scheduled between now and April. We’re looking to get the Jewish community more actively involved in this by growing the opportunities for people to volunteer. There are people out there who want to volunteer. The challenge is that there isn’t enough capacity to give them the chance to help.
Since you created this organization while you were still in college, what would you tell a young, communally minded Jewish student who wants to get involved in disaster relief? What steps should he or she take?
To them I would say the thing that motivated me about disaster response is that it’s a place where as a young person you can really step in and make things happen. After a disaster, the local infrastructure and the national infrastructure is overwhelmed. That leaves this opening for people to fill and this need for people to really step up and do it. I would probably say show up and once you’re there, you can assess the need and find innovative ways to fill it.