December 21, 2014   29 Kislev 5775
Project Kehila: Disaster Response
Mar. 29, 2013
Project Kehila serves as the banner under which Congregation Rodeph Sholom responds to natural disasters at home and abroad, including relief work performed after Hurricane Sandy.

Community Contact Information:
Congregation Rodeph Sholom
New York, NY

- Satisfy immediate needs by coordinating the collection of relief supplies and identifying volunteer opportunities at the synagogue
- Identify organizations in the affected areas in both the Jewish community and in community at large where we could sponsor a tangible project.
- Develop long-term relationships for follow up and on-site visits and continuing support from our religious school, day schools, and auxiliaries.

Project Kehila serves as the banner under which our relief efforts for natural disasters are coordinated. When Hurricane Katrina struck, we wanted to respond as a community. Since Katrina, we've responded through Project Kehila to the wildfires in San Diego, the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Japan. When Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard and Project Kehila sprung into action again.

Based on our experience with Katrina, we were able to mobilize a slightly-larger task force of lay leaders and professionals from our clergy, our schools, and our auxiliaries. Utilizing the knowledge around the table, we were able to form community partnerships, share information, and develop an immediate plan. The work done in the first days was triage; we needed to figure out what we were doing from day to day and then develop a mid-range and long-term strategy for ongoing work. This has included developing further relationships with partners in and outside of the Jewish community, adult and family volunteer day opportunities, a gift card drive, and plans for more rebuilding days in the late winter/early spring.
This was almost entirely an organic digital marketing campaign that used all of the platforms at our disposal: email, our website, Twitter and Facebook. In addition, our clergy publicized volunteer opportunities and supply needs from the bimah, as well as flyers available at services and notices posted in service handouts. We used to track and communicate with volunteers.

Project Implementation:
Our relief efforts began immediately following the storm as volunteers came together to cook over 100 hot pasta meals for delivery to a group of homebound seniors on the Lower East Side of Manhattan through the Educational Alliance. Additionally, we began collecting the most urgently needed supplies, based on the recommendations of distribution centers in directly-affected areas: non-perishable food, water, batteries, flashlights, and heavy duty cleaning supplies. Each day congregants took turns taking 3 hour shifts supervising the donation room and sorting and packaging donations for delivery. The following week, our youth group, CRuSTY, came together to once again cook 15 trays of hot pasta for delivery to the seniors that the Educational Alliance serves. As the weather grew colder and residents continued to be without heat, we responded to the call for blankets and collected over 600 blankets that were immediately distributed on the Lower East Side through GOLES (Good 'Ole Lower East Side) and in Brooklyn. The second weekend after the storm we continued our hands-on relief efforts by taking 17 congregants to help clean up West End Temple in the Far Rockaways. The group then went to the beach to assist with much-needed beach clean-up and had the opportunity to meet a local resident and reconnect her with a bag of family photos found during the clean-up.

In the spirit of collaboration, Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, Louisiana reached out to us and paired up to also participate in their own Breaking the Bank for Sandy initiative, after which they sent us the funds they raised for our relief efforts. When our 8th graders visit New Orleans in the spring, they will have the opportunity to connect with the students at Touro Synagogue and share their experiences of living through a storm and participating in relief efforts.

At the end of December, with nearly $25,000 raised through the Project Kehila fund, we decided to use $10,000 of the funds raised to purchase gift cards for distribution to faith-based communities in directly affected areas.

Above and beyond the stated goals of the program, though, this program has truly helped to strengthen the action-driven community at Rodeph Sholom. As congregants came together to volunteer and provide relief to those in need, they also got to know one another and feel a deeper connection to the greater synagogue community, the New York City, and the Jewish value of tikkun olam in action. While we did not have barriers to overcome, per se, one of the challenging - and, yet, heart-warming, outcomes of the program was that we often had more volunteers than volunteer opportunities!

Though we did not do a direct solicitation after Sandy, Project Kehila was already a known entity for accepting donations in the wake of natural disaster. Not including what was collected and distributed in the years since Katrina, since November 1st, 2012, we have raised just over $25,000 for Sandy relief. That figure does not include all of the individual donations of relief items purchased and donated by congregants. Additionally, in some ways, a by-product of Project Kehila has been the strengthening our interfaith ties - in particular, the relationship with Memorial Baptist led directly to being able to help Mount Carmel Baptist Church after Sandy. This program could most certainly be replicated.

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