Jewish Disaster Response Corps in Alabama

Elie Lowenfeld speaks with a volunteer at a food bank set up at the First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove

Elie Lowenfeld has been working disasters for five years, and even he hasn’t seen anything quite like what happened last week in Alabama. “You look around and everywhere you look, everything is on the ground.”

Lowenfeld arrived in Birmingham on Sunday to assess needs for the Jewish Disaster Response Corps. He is program director for the group he founded, which is headquartered at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University.

Lowenfeld had just graduated high school when Hurricane Katrina happened, and was embarking on a year of study in Israel, so Katrina wasn’t particularly on his radar. He visited New Orleans a year and a half later, “did some work down there and have been doing it ever since.”

When working the floods with Americorps in Cedar Rapids, Ia., in 2008, he noticed “all these churches coming, and I was almost jealous, my community wasn’t there” in a large-scale, organized response. He went home after that experience and started organizing his friends into a group that has grown into JDRC.

The corps organizes student groups to go into areas that need long-term recovery work from natural disasters. Two others were scheduled to join him in Birmingham on Wednesday to help assess how the Jewish community nationally can be involved “in what will clearly be a long recovery.”

After going through places like Pleasant Grove for several days, he said “there’s a huge need. People still seem to be in shock, and it’s been a week.”

In January, JDRC had two week-long volunteer trips to Yazoo City, Miss., which is still recovering from last year’s tornado.

Other recent efforts include Nashville, which was flooded last year, and Galveston, Tex., which was decimated by Hurricane Ike in 2009.

Lowenfeld commented that he’s well past marveling at the existence of Jewish communities in far-flung places, and said he was particularly struck by the energy and sense of purpose in the offices of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson.

He said the Alabama recovery process “is going to be long. This is just the beginning, and it feels like we’re not even at the beginning.”