By Rachel Lieberman
As I traveled down to the Lower East Side on Friday morning, I saw a startling version of Manhattan. Buildings and traffic lights were dark. A few stores were open, and operating by candle light. Army trucks were positioned on the streets. Shuttle buses were packed to the gills, unable to stop to pick up passengers waiting on the streets. Hydrants outside of buildings were open, with a trickle of water, so that residents without water could gather a pail of water. Lines snaked around multiple blocks as people stood in line for drinking water, ice, food and a chance to charge their cellphones. It was an incredibly grim, disorienting, and heartbreaking picture—a majestic city paralyzed.
But the heartbreak outside stood in stark contrast to the acts of kindness that took place inside many apartment buildings.
Our mission was to work with Chabad to deliver Shabbat meals, water and batteries to home bound seniors living in buildings without power or water. Many of the seniors were incredibly grateful for the meals, explaining that they had been unable to leave their apartments without the use of elevators or without the help of their aides who were unable to come in. However, there were also many intended recipients who refused the food packages and directed us instead to their neighbors who were not on our list, people who they felt were needier.
“There’s an older gentleman on the third floor who could use that food.”
“There’s a woman in her nineties on the 10th floor who you should visit instead.”
The more able-bodied residents refused food donations from volunteers because they were more concerned with helping others in their building. They themselves claimed not to mind walking up and down nine flights of stairs multiple times to gather water, or walking two miles north to charge their cell phones and to hear any news about when the power would return.
Some landlords and management companies even delivered gallons of water and ready-to-eat meals to residents who remained in the buildings.
It was heartening to see residents of apartment buildings looking out for each other in the worst of times, when many New Yorkers don’t even say hello to their neighbors in the elevators or laundry rooms in the best of times.
These efforts by many small relief organizations were even more impressive given that they, too, were crippled by the storm and were running below capacity. It took one volunteer director over three hours to travel from her home in Long Island to the Lower East Side. The organization’s server was down and she was unable to access a full list of homebound residents. However, she had spent so much time with these residents that she was able to compile a list from memory—names of residents, building and apartment numbers, names of residents’ family members and notes about their conditions. [wow wow] It was also a great challenge for many organizations to figure out how to best direct their limited resources. As we were assembling and delivering meals on the street, a line would form nearby, and people would ask if they too could have some bread, or water to bring to their families. We did our best to spare the donations that were not designated for the homebound residents, or to direct people to other organizations that might be able to help them.
By now, power and water have returned to many of those residents on the Lower East Side, and they can begin to return to “normal.” Even though the MTA is slowly lurching back and people are returning to work and their everyday lives, there are still many New York and New Jersey residents who are struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy. I wonder how this burst of volunteerism and community-building will affect us in the long run. I chose to volunteer on Friday because it felt like the only option. As I struggled to make my way down to the JOFA office on Wednesday and Thursday, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I felt like I was going in the wrong direction. Why was I expending all of this effort to get to the office when so many people in New York City were without food, water, power and heat? How could I focus on responding to emails and organizing programs when others were suffering? However, there are always people in New York, and in the world at large who are suffering. I could easily feel the need to volunteer every single day. What made last week different? How can we, as a community, extend that spirit of volunteerism into our everyday interactions?