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Building bridges: American Jewish and Muslim youth assist OK recovery

By   /   January 27, 2014  /   No Comments

By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog

OKLAHOMA CITY — Muslim and Jewish young people from diverse backgrounds quietly worked together last week in Moore and other Oklahoma communities devastated in the massive tornadoes that struck in 2013.

Photo by Adina Remz

TOGETHER: Muslim and Jewish youth from across the United States, organized in a group called “Bridges,” spent a week this past month helping to rebuild homes in Moore and other Oklahoma communities devastated in last year’s tornadoes. Here the group poses in the living room of a freshly-painted south Oklahoma City home. Bridges is a project of the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, a national group based in New York and Massachusetts.

Their efforts were coordinated through “Bridges,” an interfaith dialogue and action arm of the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, 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 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 nonprofit that seeks out service-oriented Jewish young adults with the explicit intention of organizing them for long-term disaster recovery programs.

Adina Remz, executive director for JDRC, said 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,” Remz said. “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 in June, two days after an El Reno tornado. There, she worked work with national recovery groups in immediate disaster assistance.

“The complete devastation on the ground was like nothing I ever saw,” she told Oklahoma Watchdog.

Remz said she was impressed by “how neighbors stepped up to help neighbors.” She decided the central Oklahoma area should be her group’s focus for long-term recovery efforts this year.

This past month and again in March JDRC is bringing university groups to rebuild homes in Moore, Shawnee, Newalla and Oklahoma City severely damaged or destroyed in the storms. She said 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.

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,” she said. This has driven JDRC’s efforts “to take part in effective and significant service with the need for volunteers in domestic disaster relief.”

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 beginning of the year, JDRC has organized students to rebuild 10 homes in five 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.”

Remz said 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.”

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.

Contact Pat at [email protected].

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Patrick formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.