July 17, 2024
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YU Students Give ‘Emotional Support’ on Mission to Houston

On September 14, six students from Yeshiva University traveled to Houston, Texas, under the leadership of Rabbi Daniel Lerner, YU Torah studies faculty member and rabbi for the Beren Campus, on what would best be described as a spiritual mission. Just two weeks prior, 11 Yeshiva University students went to Houston to assist with clean-up efforts from the severe damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.

This mission, however, was born from a different initiative. The undertaking was more of a spiritual task than a physical one. While there was, and still remains, much work to be done for communities that were largely destroyed, the students’ focus was mainly on spreading words of Torah and comfort, specifically to the Jewish community they were visiting. After a disaster this powerful, many are left feeling stranded, demoralized and alone. Dr. Chaim Nissel, university dean of students, who joined the previous delegation to Houston, explained the importance of this second mission. “We wanted to lend our students to support the emotional and spiritual healing of the members of this community so deeply affected by this disaster.” The first mission focused almost exclusively on the physical clean-up of the devastation caused to the community. This mission emphasized the emotional clean-up of a community reeling from a life-altering experience.

The students did participate in some physical clean-up as well, engaging in both facets of the relief effort wholeheartedly. “The team that came from Yeshiva University was exceedingly helpful on two fronts. They did a lot of physical labor for the shul meals, making sure the food was delivered properly, and they helped clean the synagogue to make sure it was ready for the Sabbath services. The second service they provided was by participating in the Sabbath services with spirit and singing and sharing words of Torah with the congregation that helped uplift the community and helped us create a wonderfully uplifting Shabbat service, which is really necessary at a time like this,” explained Rabbi Barry Gelman, Rabbi at UOS (United Orthodox Synagogues) in Houston.

Upon his return, Rabbi Lerner described the experience as both physically exhausting yet spiritually energizing. The physical tasks included helping people sort through possessions to determine what can be salvaged, reorganizing living spaces, sorting and drying out hundreds of religious documents from the shul and spraying for mosquitos inside and outside the shul. On a spiritual level, the students led a beautiful kabbalat shabbat, offered inspiring divrei Torah and enlivened the community in a pre-selichot kumsitz. The community was overwhelmed with gratitude, explained Rabbi Lerner, who was approached on Shabbos afternoon by a gentleman who said, “No matter how much good you think you are doing here, multiply it by a thousand. You cannot begin to imagine how much we appreciate you being here.”

While it is the members of the Houston community that require both the physical and emotional support at this time, there is no doubt that the students themselves were enriched from this experience as well. “In times of great need people come together, put their differences aside, and let their humanity shine through. I consider myself fortunate for the opportunity to witness a community band together, to open their homes and their hearts in an attempt to lessen the pain and the struggles that accompany disaster. I am privileged to have worked for this common cause, clearing debris, delivering food and working to return to order from the chaos that came from Harvey,” said Elana Muller, a student at Stern College from Cleveland, Ohio.

The opportunity to perform such a tremendous chesed and participate in tikun olam is equally important to the education students receive in the classroom. At Yeshiva University, this is a core principle implemented into the curriculum whenever possible. Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, vice president for university and community life at Yeshiva University, believes a mission like this embodies what YU is about. “We at YU believe it is our responsibility to nurture this commitment and show our students that with their enthusiasm, knowledge and good will they can make a difference around the corner and around the world. These experiences help them engage in the most important journey of their young life—that of self-discovery,” articulated Rabbi Brander.

Stern College student Efrat Malachi from Brooklyn, New York, described her experience as an awakening. “This mission has opened my eyes to the hardships and sufferings that stormed the world and allowed me to truly feel other people’s pain—and not be taken captive by indifference. I left my bubble in New York in order to regain that deep, fiery sense of connection with the rest of humanity and, specifically, my people, who all seemed to be struggling in the dark since Harvey. Now I see that there is hope in the world, a light which people can look toward because of the incredible strength and love that were fostered and mutually shared this weekend,” she declared.

For some, an excursion such as this can be somewhat frightening. The aftermath of a natural disaster of this proportion can seem daunting. That was precisely why YU student Yoni Schechter from New Hempstead, New York, jumped at the opportunity to participate. “I went on this mission because it was so easy not to. The simplicity of staying within your own little bubble, of turning the other way to hide within the comfort of your life, is quite tempting. But as I have seen over this wonderful experience, when you open your eyes to the broader community, when you allow yourselves to feel what they feel, you are enabled and empowered to give, to grow and to foster connection,” he explained.

Compassion and humanitarianism are evidently fundamental values at Yeshiva University, as is depicted in the young men and women who jumped at the opportunity to engage in these selfless acts of kindness for others.

By Andrea Nissel

 

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