By Alanna Berman
When a EF5 tornado ravaged parts of Oklahoma in May, people across the country sent donations of food, clothing and medical supplies, but San Diego Jewish Academy Director of Judaic Studies Alan Rusonik knew there was more their community could do to help.
“It’s a little bit different when you’re on the ground as opposed to just raising money,” Rusonik says of the school’s track record with successful disaster relief efforts in New Orleans, Haiti and New York, following natural disasters that ravaged each of those communities.
“This was a completely different and eye-opening experience for the students, who I don’t think had seen this type of devastation before. I know I certainly haven’t, and it was much worse than we could have imagined.”
After final exams were over, Rusonik travelled to Oklahoma with nine students and one SDJA staff member in early June. Working with the local Jewish Federation in Oklahoma City, the group from SDJA was able find work in both Moore and Shawnee, Okla., two areas ravaged by the storm only a month earlier. Serendipitously, on their second day at the site, the SDJA students were able to work alongside a group of young adults from IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian organization that responds to emergencies all over the world.
“It was an amazing experience that only added to our experiences there– to be able to connect with Israelis who had travelled halfway around the world to assist in the relief efforts,” Rusonik says.
Students got to work clearing debris and sorting donations made to a local church during their trip, working long hours in triple digit temperatures. At one point, the group travelled to Shawnee, an area that was overshadowed by the devastation that hit nearby Moore, but was hit just as hard by the storm.
“We went to a trailer park there, where the need was much greater,” Rusonik says. “The students really got a sense of the need and the power of nature … these were people without insurance, living in FEMA tents, and I think that was a real eye-opener for them [to see that].”
When school resumes in the fall, the student group that travelled to Moore will host one of the first assemblies of the year and present their work and pictures to the rest of SDJA’s student body. It’s all a part of the school’s commitment to tikkun olam.
“We saw the power of individuals who came together, literally from all over the world to make a difference (on this trip),” he says. “So I think it took tikkun olam to a whole other level. It’s the power of individuals working together to heal– not just by picking up debris in the park, but also through that human contact.”
For Rusonik, the success of this trip only builds on the relief efforts of SDJA in the past, creating new opportunities to help those in need.
“We will continue to do what we have always done, and provide support during these types of disasters, but now we can add a whole new dimension [to that],” he says. “We will continue to do garage sales and raise funds, but if we are able to mobilize a group quickly, it will bring tikkun olam to a whole other level,” he says.
For more information on the San Diego Jewish Academy, visit www.sdja.com.