When I was informed that I was accepted to the Ma’ayanot-NCSY Leadership Mission, I did not know what to expect. We were told that we were most likely going to Minnesota to do clean-up work but that anything could change. What we knew for sure was that we’d be engaged in activities under the auspices of “Nechama”, a natural disaster relief organization. Other than that, all plans were fluid. We left school on Wednesday, May 4th at 3:00 PM and headed to the airport.
When we got to Hammond, the town in Minnesota where we were assigned to work, we were informed that out of the 197 original residents, only 16 remained because of the floods. We were instructed to paint one of the houses that was being rebuilt.
After about an hour of painting my arms began to tire, so I went outside with a couple of other volunteers to find additional tasks. A woman named Doris approached us and asked if we could help remove a pile of debris that had accumulated in front of her property (remnants of her old home and garden that were destroyed in eight months before). Rabbi Katz, the associate regional director of New Jersey, and Chad Ostlund, managing site supervisor of Nechama, accompanied us to her residence.
When we got there we saw a charming, brand-new, light pink house next to an old barn, and in front was a huge pile of floor boards, insulation, and old possessions that had been ruined by the flood waters. Doris told us that she had just ordered a dumpster to be delivered. We discovered that the pile was too big, so we burned anything that was flammable in order to conserve space. Over the two days, we were there for roughly 10 hours total. When we left, the dumpster was more than full and wood was still burning.
The second day, we stayed for lunch. While we were there, Doris told us the story of what happened during the flood and its aftermath. She woke at 3 a.m. when the water was already knee level! Before being evacuated, Doris placed some of her valuables on the kitchen table to prevent them from being ruined. When the water finally receded and she was able to return to her home, Doris discovered that all of her possessions had been destroyed. She paused for a moment. Then she turned around and pointed to a line of dirt at the top of her barn about a foot from the roof. She told us, “That was where the water came up to.” I cannot even imagine that much water!
When it came time for us to leave, Doris became emotional. She gave us hugs and even shed a few tears. She told us that if we had not come to help, she never have been able to do the job alone. And she told us something else: that we’d given her the hope she’d needed to restore her garden.
I learned many lessons from the few days I spent in Minnesota. We remained in Minneapolis for Shabbat, and before Mincha, we sat in a circle and debriefed. We spoke about what we learned on the trip and what we would like to bring back home with us. One of the questions Rabbi Katz asked was: what would we take with us if we had to evacuate our homes knowing that we might never again see whatever it was we had left behind? Some of the answers were: my Siddur, pictures of my family and friends, jewelry that my grandmother gave me, etc.
Sometimes we are so focused on our day to day lives that we do not concentrate on the little, yet important things. We do not think about what we’d have to take with us if we were suddenly forced to evacuate our homes. Sometimes, we even get annoyed over the loss of trivial items, even worse, if a friend ruins a possession of ours, we get upset. We have to prioritize what is most important in life and what is extraneous. Some things may be obvious, but we are usually not that lucky. We need to think hard in order to ascertain what it is we truly care about and what is not really all that meaningful.
As I sat in my seat on the plane ride home, I thought about what lesson I would want to bring back with me. I was thinking about how we have many chesed opportunities in Ma’ayanot. There is always one thing or another going on, however we often focus on the big things and leave out the little ones. We want to tutor a child for chessed hours and stuff envelopes for the office, but when we are in a rush we don’t remember to hold the door open for the person behind us. When we are striding down the halls of school we do not think to smile or say good morning. I decided that I want to start paying attention to those little “chassadim” in addition to the big ones. I will smile at people when I pass them in the hall or in the street. I will hold the door open for the person behind me. I will drive someone home when they need a lift. I will focus on the little things that people do not think make a difference. And I will focus on the ones that sometimes make the biggest difference of all. The flood waters in Minnesota may have wiped out an entire community, but in the end we discovered that a whole garden can be grown… from a tiny seed of hope!
Chani Colton attends Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.