St. Louis mobilizes Joplin relief

Volunteers work at Central Reform Congregation on Tuesday afternoon to sort items donated to send to Joplin, Mo. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Victoria Siegel, Special to the Jewish Light

It took just a little over 48 hours for the staff and a few members of United Hebrew Congregation in Creve Coeur to respond to an urgent request from the sole synagogue in tornado-ravaged Joplin.

Through the generosity of St. Louisans and the speed and power of social networking, UH was able to send a caravan of Shabbat and general supplies to the United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin (unrelated to the St. Louis congregation) last Thursday morning after just starting the supply drive a week ago Monday night (May 23).

At the same time, efforts at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) kicked into gear right away that Monday. Gail Wechsler, director of Domestic Issues/Social Justice at JCRC, immediately started trying to identify what the needs were in Joplin and communicating that information with the greater St. Louis Jewish community.

At Central Reform Congregation (CRC) on that Monday, Jen Bersdale, director of advocacy and communications, got in touch with a student rabbi in Joplin. “We knew that more than just the Jewish community was going to need help so we sent out a call for donations of money and goods,” Bersdale said.

Social networking spreads the word

“Initially we identified where donations of money could go and how people could volunteer,” Wechsler said. “Then information began to funnel into us about what some of our partners in the community were doing, such as the UH effort and that CRC was starting to collect things.”

Wechsler said JCRC started disseminating the information online and reached out to its Jewish Social Action Network (JSAN) and its network of social action chairs from 13 congregations. “At the same time as we were doing outreach, people were contacting us offering to help. Putting it all together really involved the whole community,” Wechsler said.

Through a flurry of e-mails, social network posts, postings on community websites and e-newsletter to congregation members, collection points were set up from the Central West End to Chesterfield, with drops at CRC, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) and the Aish HaTorah “Firehouse.”

Back at UH, Facebook was helping spread the word about its immediate efforts.

A tale of two synagogues

While the community-wide effort is targeted to respond to the general needs of the Joplin, as well as the Jewish community, UH initially wanted to focus its efforts on the immediate needs of the congregation in Joplin. Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg said she and UH Executive Director Bob Gummers were aware of the synagogue in Joplin. Rosenberg said she couldn’t get through by phone or email to the synagogue, but she saw through the Hebrew Union College Facebook page that the current rabbinic student in Joplin, Ariel Boxman, was OK but that the community needed supplies; four families in the Jewish community had lost everything and with the stores also demolished, there was no place to buy things.

Rosenberg contacted the previous rabbinic student, Stephanie Clark, and found out that the community needed items such as toiletries, adult clothing and bedding.

Rosenberg posted on Facebook about the needs in Joplin. She immediately received a message from Beth Kirowitz, a friend and member of Shaare Emeth, saying she would volunteer to drive the supplies to Joplin.

“Once I knew we had someone willing to drive down there, we started the collection drive,” Rosenberg said. “Since we would be sending things to Joplin on Thursday, I called Stephanie and Ariel and asked if they could use things for Shabbat. They said yes and that sweets for the oneg would help out, too, because they were unable to shop.”

‘We’re going to need a bigger truck’

Rosenberg used e-mail and social networking sites to spread the word. She got in touch with other St. Louis Jewish agencies, Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE), JCRC, the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and the Jewish Federation, to use their contacts and continue getting the word out via the Internet and e-mail.

What started with one mid-sized SUV taking some supplies to the Joplin synagogue, quickly turned into something bigger.

“Initially we had one volunteer, Beth. Then we got a second one, Larry Amitin, plus we were getting additional donations. So we thought we’d need two SUVs,” Rosenberg said.

But the donations kept coming. “By Wednesday afternoon I called Beth and asked if she’d be interested in driving a cargo van instead.”

By Thursday morning, May 26, people were lined up in the driveway with donations, which included 15 beds and 50 pillows donated by Ron Fredman with Glideaway Sleep Products.

Rosenberg realized they needed an even bigger vehicle. So the congregation rented a 17-foot rental truck, along with the cargo van. Member Larry Amitin volunteered his pickup truck, which brought the number of large vehicles to three. “I saw on Facebook, since Brigitte (Rosenberg) keeps us updated on what’s going on, that there was a need and I thought I could help out,” Amitin said about volunteering to drive his truck to Joplin.

“We carefully packed the Judaica items in my Silverado to make sure they wouldn’t get damaged. I had challot, candles, juices; somebody said I was like a silver tabernacle.”

Rosenberg said the staff at UH spent Thursday morning sorting and loading the vehicles with boxes of clothing, toiletries, bedding, towels and non-perishable food items.

Both Rosenberg and Wechsler said that because of the power of electronic communications and the Jewish community wanting to help, they heard from people as far away as a congregation in Nevada, a rabbi in New York, and individuals in Florida and New Jersey.

“It was amazing the stuff that came in from UH members, members of the Jewish community and non-Jews,” Rosenberg said.

Arriving in Joplin

Beth Kirowitz said that at first she felt excited to be a part of this effort. “But then when we got really close to Joplin we saw pieces of sheet metal up in the trees 20 feet, wrapped around the trees,” she said. “The part of town we drove through to get to the temple was fine and the area around the temple had no destruction but when we got there a congregant showed us pictures on her phone of what was left of her home. There was nothing there . . . it was just toothpicks.”

Two young men from Oklahoma had come to Joplin to help since United Hebrew was the closest temple to them. They were part of a group of volunteers who spent about two hours unloading the vehicles.

Kirowitz wants people to know that the entire town has not been decimated. “As horrible and as large scale as this devastation is, there’s still a large thriving community. For example, the Wal-Mart might be gone but the Target is still there,” she said. “It’s important to have some perspective that everything isn’t totally destroyed.”

On Friday, Rosenberg shared her feelings about the efforts to help the synagogue in Joplin. “It feels great knowing the [Joplin] congregation is opening its doors tonight at 7:30 for an oneg and Shabbat,” Rosenberg said. “It opened its doors this afternoon [Friday] for congregants to sift through stuff and take what’s needed. Then I think they’re opening their doors on Saturday to the whole community.”

Community collection

Connie Joseph, the publications and b’nai mitzvah coordinator at CRC, researched how to get items and donations to Joplin and found that the YMCA in Carthage, 20 miles outside of Joplin, is working with Convoy of Hope to bring truckloads of goods to the devastated areas. The items collected as a result of this community-wide effort will go to the Y to distribute to people in Joplin.

“We’re focusing on this targeted list of items (see sidebar, “Ways to Help”) that have been identified as the most immediate needs,” Wechsler said. Once word got out from JCRC and CRC about the collection drive, Bersdale said the focus switched to organizing volunteers to sort items and to drive to Joplin.

Just this past Tuesday, items were to be delivered to CRC from all the collection points around town, which would be sorted and packed, so the caravan could leave Wednesday morning. “Connie Joseph used to live in Joplin so she’ll be coordinating the caravan on Wednesday,” Bersdale said. She said they’re also taking contributions for the gay/transgender community in Joplin because its church, MCC, was demolished.

As of Memorial Day, Joseph estimated the number of donated items at just CRC was equal in size to 50 full shopping carts, with more items from all the collection points still expected on Tuesday.

Ongoing efforts

Wechsler wasn’t sure what the collection efforts would look like after the caravan leaves from CRC on Wednesday morning. She suggested that if people still want to donate items, they ship requested supplies directly to the YMCA or make a donation by visiting the Federation’s site: (see ‘Jewish voices from Joplin’).

“The woman at the Y said she thinks they’ll need donated items even more next week because during the first week people are still in shelters and have no place to put things,” Bersdale said. “Once everyone gets into a FEMA trailer then they’ll realize they need things.”