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Manhasset synagogue, Americorps Sandy volunteers break bread

Members of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North

Members of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Manhasset and superstorm Sandy recovery volunteers from AmeriCorps St. Louis gather for a Sabbath dinner. (Feb. 15, 2013) Credit: Mary Kate Mahoney

When superstorm Sandy hit Long Island in October, donations of clothing, food and cleaning supplies reached overwhelming levels, leaving some looking for different ways to offer support.

Carol Blumenthal of Roslyn was seeking just such an opportunity at a December meeting of the Long Island Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (LIVOAD), which coordinated the volunteer and government agencies involved in the Sandy recovery and relief effort. There she met Will Burks, team leader of Americorps St. Louis Emergency Response, who had traveled with his team to assist in rebuilding homes on the South Shore of Long Island.

“I asked him what they were eating, and he showed us these freeze-dried packaged meals,” Blumenthal said. “I said, ‘Oh, we can fix that.’”

Blumenthal enlisted the help of her temple congregation, the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Manhasset, and formed a relief group to cook meals and collect supplies for the Americorps volunteers.

“There was an immediate response,” Blumenthal said. Members of the congregation took turns cooking meals each night and delivering the food to the Americorps team’s temporary house in Garden City.

“We work really long hours, and it’s so nice to come home at 8 p.m. and not have to cook,” Americorps volunteer Sara Levine, 24, of Detroit, said. “Our members are really grateful and they wanted a chance to say thank you in person.”

Levine and eight of her fellow volunteers got that chance on Friday night, when the Reconstructionist Synagogue held a Sabbath dinner honoring the two groups’ cooperation.
The evening began with the ritual of baking challah bread. Americorps volunteers joined the younger members of the congregation in rolling and braiding dough. The bread was then broken and shared during dinner, when the volunteers were asked to sit among the congregation and speak about their recovery efforts.

Chelsea Catalano, 22, of Mitchell, S.D., joined Americorps St. Louis in September 2012. She came to Long Island in January, and has been involved in the daily demolition and mold suppression of houses in Long Beach.

“I’m always amazed at how grateful the families are that we’re tearing apart their houses,” Catalano said.

Between 12 and 30 members of the St. Louis branch have been rotating in and out of Long Island, working six days per week since November. The Reconstructionist Synagogue, whose congregation consists of many mental health professionals, stepped in to offer their services to the overworked team.

Susan Liberstein, a school psychologist from Port Washington, visited the Americorps house to speak with the volunteers about the issues they were dealing with.

“That night gave them a chance to talk about what they were doing and what they can do to help them deal with their stress,” Liberstein said.

The Sabbath dinner was followed by a religious service, which the Americorps volunteers attended.

“The ritual of Sabbath is an essential way to close the week for us,” said Rabbi Jodie Siff, “and we felt that including them [the Americorps volunteers] in our religious tradition was a nice way to culminate their time here.”

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