Building Bridges: American Jewish and Muslim youth assist OK recovery

OKLAHOMA CITY – Last week, a group of Muslim and Jewish young people from diverse backgrounds quietly worked together in Moore and other Oklahoma communities devastated in the massive tornadoes that struck the Sooner State last spring and summer.

Their efforts were coordinated through “Bridges,” an interfaith dialogue and action arm of the Jewish Disaster Response Corps (JDRC), a private group.
The corps is a faith-based initiative to mobilize the national “Jewish community to assist domestic communities recovering from natural disasters.”

Long after the epic destruction in the Sooner State has faded from international and national headlines, the effort is reflective of the continued involvement of private charities in supplementing local resources for reconstruction.

JDRC is a non-profit based in New York and Massachusetts which seeks out service-oriented Jewish young adults with the explicit intention of organizing them for long-term disaster recovery programs.

According to Adina Remz, executive director for JDRC, the Bridges program “is based around the idea that our communities are stronger when they work together and coexist. Thus, we participate in community service projects, social gatherings, and religious discussions throughout the year.

“Some of the bigger events include an annual Jummuah/Shabbat dinner and an alternative breaks trip. Each year, they spend a week helping with disaster relief; in the past, we joined the JDRC Birmingham, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri. By doing these sorts of activities, we hope to promote unity between these faiths.”

Some Bridges’ participants attended mosque and synagogue services during their stint in central Oklahoma.

As for JDRC as a whole, Remz and her colleagues are spending a lot of time on the ground in Oklahoma this year. Remz came to Oklahoma last June, two days after an El Reno tornado. There she worked work alongside national recovery groups in immediate disaster assistance. Remz told Oklahoma Watchdog “the complete devastation on the ground was like nothing I ever saw.” Remz was impressed by “how neighbors stepped up to help neighbors.” She soon decided the central Oklahoma area should be her group’s focus for long-term recovery efforts this year.

Last month and again in March, JDRC will bring university groups to reconstruct homes in Moore, Shawnee, Newalla, and Oklahoma City severely damaged or destroyed in the Spring storms. She saud local partners, including Habitat for Humanity and the Oklahoma Disaster Recovery Projects, arranged “meaningful and productive work” for the students, many from East Coast campuses.

Remz reflected that past disaster relieve efforts in the U.S. sometimes lacked an active Jewish presence “with the dual ability to address both the needs of the Jewish community and the general community.” JDRC aims to become the nationally recognized service arm for Jewish disaster relief.

Like other specialists in post-disaster relief, Remz discerned that after immediate relief and cleanup, many groups depart and the news media turns attention to other issues. At that point, “The affected communities must navigate the long and challenging road of rebuilding.” This insight has driven JDRC’s efforts “to take part in effective and significant service with the need for volunteers in domestic disaster relief.”

Remz told Oklahoma Watchdog that since 2009, JDRC “has assisted 10 communities in long-term disaster relief including, but not limited to, Cedar Rapids, IA; Galveston, TX; Birmingham, AL; and Joplin, MO. Based in Massachusetts, JDRC has sustained long-term efforts in Hurricane Sandy Relief in the New York area.

The various university-based groups work on week-long stints. In addition to practical work in rehabilitation and reconstruction, participants “meet with community members in the evening to discuss issues of long-term recovery, needs of individuals following disasters and community dinners.”

Since the Near Year, JDRC has organized students to rebuild a total of ten homes in five different Oklahoma communities. March activities will include students from nine colleges and universities.

Remz said the volunteers and staff have been “welcomed with open arms. We now feel like we are part of the community of Oklahoma.”
Continuing, Remz reflected her group has received as much as it has given, thanking “the homeowners, long-term recovery specialists, and leaders of different faith communities who speak with our students every week.”

The Bridges group came and went without a lot of fanfare, but this reporter learned of their efforts through Executive Director Edie Roodman of the local Jewish Federation and Susan Robertson the Oklahoma Israel Exchange (OKIE).

Participating in networking and discussing shared interests with the out-of-state students during their work in Oklahoma were local Muslim leaders Adam Soltani and Saad Mohammed.

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