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Nechama, which means “comfort” in Hebrew, is based in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. The majority of its work has been helping flood or tornado victims in small towns in Iowa, North Dakota and Missouri, most of which have few, if any, Jewish residents.
Nechama’s Sandy work is the first time the group has been able to assist a large Jewish community for an extended period of time.
The organization would like to expand its work to rebuilding the homes, but that remains beyond its limited capacity. Even with a recent increase in donations, Nechama remains a small operation that, with only four full-time staff members, has struggled to stay afloat financially.
“A lot of homeowners have asked us: “What’s next? What’s my next step?” said Starbuck Ballner, Nechama’s operations and administrative coordinator. “We offer something very time sensitive and needed. What you’re seeing here is the first step in a long process.”
Ballner said his team has been exposed to “a lot of raw emotion, a lot of uncensored, unfiltered reactions and emotions, and a lot of different stages of grief” from Sandy victims.
Nechama was created in 1996 by Steve Lear, a financial planner who had volunteered during floods in Iowa in the early 1990s. A member of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Nechama deploys trailers filled with such equipment as chainsaws, pressure washers and other tools necessary for demolition to affected sites.
Once on the ground, Nechama reaches out to organizations and community groups for volunteers and assistance in finding housing for its volunteers.
Avi Lewinson, executive director of the Kaplen JCC, in Palisades, N.J., hosted some volunteers. Some center workers volunteered with Nechama for a day, and were blown away by the impact.
They told me, ‘Avi, it’s unbelievable.’” Lewinson said of his staff’s reaction when they returned.