September 4, 2003
My five days of helping to repair the world.
The rabbis say that the world stands on three things: learning, prayer and righteous deeds. Since reconnecting with Judaism 15 years ago, this statement has always meant a lot to me .
I now attend weekly Friday night Shabbat services and Torah study on Saturday morning and am active on the social action committee of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana. So why did I feel compelled to travel 3,000 miles across the country to spend a week of my summer vacation with strangers, doing something that I have no talent for whatsoever?
What appealed to me initially was participating in all three of these wonderful activities every day for five days. I love meeting new people, and the challenge of learning a new skill was appealing. The organizers said I didn't need to be skilled, that I would learn how to do something and actually make a contribution. So what is it that I did?
I, along with 31 other Reform Jews, all connected through the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Temple Shalom in Succasunna, N.J., came together in the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world). We were to help build part of a house in a residential neighborhood of Milton, Vt., with Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity.
Each morning after breakfast, we had a prayer service and then left for the site around 8 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. Dinner was at 7 p.m., followed by a discussion of biblical and rabbinic texts on tzedakah (charitable giving).
The physical work I did consisted of hammering, measuring and marking the floor decking and assisting six other people in the building and painting of a very sturdy picnic table. They taught me how to use an electric drill, which I used to drive screws into the brace of the bench.
The real miracle: I still have 10 fingers.
One of the requirements of a habitat family is working 500 hours alongside the volunteers. They call this sweat equity.
The family consisted of Tammy Brown, a grandmother and six children. Two of the sons, ages 8 and 11, worked very hard beside us. Kincaid, the 8-year-old, was a good partner in helping me measure and "snap the line," a skill and lingo that was all new to me.
From our study of biblical and rabbinic texts, we learned that the Bible's most repeated line is "to care for the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." In the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:32-37), a code of basic human behavior, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying that "you shall not pick your vineyard bare ... and ... leave fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger."
We were taught one of the most important aspects of tzedakah is that members of a community are obligated to help the community, whether they feel like it or not. This ideal is what I love about Judaism, and what I try to strive to accomplish.
And what's a Jewish event without food? That's where the host congregation, Temple Sinai of Burlington, Vt., comes in.
A wonderful couple, Karen Gissendanne and Dave Punia, organized volunteers from their synagogue, who brought us lunch at the site every day and arranged for dinners -- two nights at their temple and two nights at two different congregants' homes. The food was delicious, and their hospitality overwhelming.
We stayed at the Day's Inn in Colchester, Vt., about 13 miles from the site. We had one free night on July 3, and I was fortunate to have a cousin who lives outside of Burlington, with whom I could share dinner and spend some time.
Shabbat was spent at Temple Sinai. There, we enjoyed a special musical service, which was lively and spiritual.
The last day of work on Friday, July 4, proved to be the most moving experience of the entire week. Rabbi Joel Soffin asked us to write a blessing to the Brown family, which was to be presented in a booklet at the dedication service on Friday. We all gathered on top of the floor decking. Amazingly, we didn't fall through.
After the opening prayer, we each read our words of blessing. With the closing blessing, I could not stop crying out of happiness.
I thanked God for all that I had and for enabling me to be a part of helping this family in building a part of their new home.
This was one of the most fulfilling vacations I have ever spent. I encourage anyone who is interested in building a house to contact your local Habitat for Humanity and volunteer either as an individual or organize your congregation to do a one-day or more build.
I have already met with my social action committee at Temple Beth Sholom, and we are waiting to hear back from our local Habitat for Humanity chapter to see if they need volunteers for their "blitz build" in December.