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Reprinted with permission of The Deep South Jewish Voice. Visit www.dsjv.com.
BIRMINGHAM, Oct. 1--In a former shirt factory in Utica, Miss., volunteers from the Union of Reform Judaism are doing some heavy lifting in a way that none of them could have predicted. Six weeks away from the URJ biennial convention, Stefani Rozen would normally be working on convention plans. Instead, she is coordinating shipments of goods at the warehouse, sending them to communities across the region that are struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Though it has been five weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit, these shipments are still vital for small struggling communities outside the focus of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.
On Sept. 6, a group of volunteers was joined by 20 members of Utica Baptist Church and the Utica Heritage Society, and began cleaning out the 10,000 square foot factory for Jacob's Ladder, a project of the nearby Henry S. Jacobs Camp and the URJ.
Within a couple of days, truckloads of goods from Reform congregations across the country began arriving.
A team of volunteers from the URJ's Religious Action Center arrived to help load and unload trucks, sort goods and distribute them.
Jonathan Cohen, director of the Jacobs Camp, came up with the idea of using the warehouse as a staging ground after the camp received some goods for distribution. The camp had also served as a refuge for evacuees during the hurricane, and now houses volunteers working on several relief efforts, including Jacob's Ladder.
Susan Alexander, who on Sept. 19 was staffing the camp office and is associate director of the URJ's Olin Sang Ruby Union Camp in Wisconsin, said the project's emphasis has been on the small communities that still are not receiving much assistance.
On Sept. 20, for example, a truckload of goods from Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, N.J. arrived in Utica. Because their original truck broke down in Tennessee, they had transferred their goods into a larger truck, and upon arrival the volunteers at Jacob's Ladder asked if they could divert the truck to Ovett, a town in Southern Mississippi that had basic food and water, but still had no medical supplies or personal hygiene items. In Utica, the empty space in the truck was filled with those items already on hand, and other items specifically needed in Ovett were purchased by a donation that was immediately granted by their congregation.
According to a blog entry written by one of the volunteers, they found residents covered with bug bites, but were nevertheless asked if there were any other communities that needed the help worse than they did.
One person who came for aid said he was taking care of 16 people who were taking shelter underneath a bridge, and upon receiving a supply of diapers said that the infants there hadn't had any diapers for days--they haven't been wearing anything.
It is not unusual for a shipment to never see the warehouse, but to be diverted to a community that needs the items on the truck. A shipment from Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El was sent directly to Love City Fellowship in Meridian, which was housing about 2000 evacuees.
Alexander has been serving as a liaison between URJ and local relief agencies, attending coordinating meetings. She noted that the Jewish community has always been very good at giving money, but less experienced with hands-on work and logistics in disaster relief.
There are good ways and bad ways to send relief items. One recent suggestion was school supplies for students who will be going back to school soon, but groups wanting to send items should go ahead and prepare kits. "Buy backpacks and fill them, so when people come in you can give them a backpack and it's all done."
Since the warehouse opened, word spread quickly throughout the region. In Utica itself, 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and many of the residents have taken in evacuees. That places a burden on already-tight family budgets, so the warehouse has seen many locals come for assistance.
Some church vans from around the area have shown up at the warehouse, looking for items for people they are housing. "In some of those cases, this was the first aid they were receiving," Rozen said.
One day recently, the warehouse was rather sparsely populated with goods, but it was explained that a lot of materials had gone through there the previous week. They were expecting numerous trucks in the coming days, and by the end of the week there were as many as six trucks a day, bringing a wide range of cargo.
David Berkman, the URJ assistant director of camping and manager of the project, estimates conservatively that at least 750,000 pounds of goods will pass through the warehouse, but he thinks it may wind up being closer to 1.25 million pounds.
The volunteers, many of whom are from up north, start at 7 a.m. and sweat it out the whole day in the non-air conditioned warehouse, but they think about those who have been displaced for weeks and who have no idea what, if anything, they will return to.