Walking into University of Florida’s Hillel building for Friday night services for the first time, Andrew Wyzan had no idea the opportunity that would be presented to him. Wyzan, a freshman who just graduated high school in May and began attending UF early as part of the school’s summer program, jumped at the chance to join seven other UF students and a Hillel professional to help clean up the damage to homes in Iowa caused by recent flooding that ravaged the Midwest.
UF students Max Gelber and Devon Shaughnessy shovel debris and muck out of the flood-soaked basement of a house in Mason City, Iowa.
"It was one of the most rewarding experiences I've taken part in and I’m so happy I took the time to do it," said Wyzan, who had to take several days off from his summer classes to travel to Waverly and Mason City, Iowa, with the group July 24-28.
Giselle Mazur, arts director at UF Hillel, got the idea to bring students to Iowa after receiving an e-mail from NECHAMA, a Jewish disaster relief organization, calling for volunteers. UF Hillel Executive Director Keith Dvorchik found a generous donor, Rose Robinson of Hands On Tzedakah, to aid with travel and food expenses for the group.
"It's great to see students who care so much about tikkun olam (repairing the world)," Dvorchik said. "How could I not make it happen?"
Lauren Richter, a senior at UF, said they were able to see the difference they made everyday by the visible progress of gutting houses. She compared the destruction in Iowa to that of hurricane damage she is used to seeing having grown up in Florida, saying that the Midwest flooding caused a lot more internal damage.
"Disasters like that are awful either way," she said. "Iowa definitely had different problems. Usually [in Florida] you're used to seeing external and structural damage, as opposed to seeing your belongings totally destroyed by a flood."
Freshman Max J. Gelber said he wanted to bring the Jewish element to the work they were doing in Iowa and ultimately defy typical stereotypes of college students as being apathetic party-goers.
UF students in Iowa.
The other students, including Devon Shaughnessy, Noah Camenker, Marina Fayer, Adrienne Watkins, and Christal Carson, also worked with Mazur and NECHAMA Ambassador Sam Shiffman, to dig out basements, pump flood water, remove debris and help residents get back on their feet.
UF Hillel sends students on alternative breaks to do service in New Orleans and Ukraine every year and is committed to continuing a tradition of tikkun olam.
Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, associate director of UF Hillel, said that this shouldn’t be the only opportunity for students to experience tzedek (social justice) hands-on.
"The unfortunate reality is that natural disasters will continue to occur and there will always be those in need," Rabbi Kaiser-Blueth said. "Our hope is that we can instill a desire to answer the call when it arises."