Repairing homes in good faith

Service: Volunteers from the Jewish community fix houses of the needy and the elderly as part of Sukkot in April.

April 04, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE STAFF

In the two years since Emma Young's husband died, the retired assembly worker has been unable to maintain the Jessup home they purchased 20 years ago.

But the two-story house will undergo a facelift April 27. That's when volunteers from Columbia Jewish Congregation will join hands, tools and elbow grease in Rebuilding Together with Sukkot in April.

Congregants will replace a window, repair the sidewalk, turn a closet into a food pantry and modify the bathroom with handrails.

"I think it's wonderful," Young said. "Since I lost my husband, Clarence, it's been hard on me. I am very much looking forward to their help."

CJC is one of several local congregations that have participated in Sukkot in April since it began here three years ago. "It's a way to get the whole community included and have a direct effect on someone's life," said congregant Richard Finstein.

A `real need'

One of the region's largest Jewish-sponsored, home-repair programs, Sukkot in April operates under the auspices of Yachad, the Jewish Housing and Community Development Corporation of Greater Washington, established in 1991.

"Yachad's mission is to mobilize the Jewish community to revitalize urban neighborhoods through partnerships," said Audrey Lyon, Yachad's executive director. "It's a perfect way for the Jewish community to get involved in social action programs where there's real need."

One partner of Yachad, which means together in Hebrew, is Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April. Founded in 1978, Rebuilding Together is a national volunteer organization that rehabilitates houses of low-income homeowners who are elderly, disabled or families with children. The Howard County chapter was established in 1991.

"We make modifications and repairs to keep people safe, warm and dry," said Maryanne Ellis, executive director of Rebuilding Together in Howard County. "The idea is to leave them with their independence and dignity."

Sponsors include corporate organizations, civic groups, churches and synagogues. Each sponsor has a captain to organize the project and pays $2,000 toward materials, which are discounted.

This year, volunteers will work on 27 homes in Howard County for Christmas in April and three homes for Sukkot in April. While Christmas in April is held Saturday during the last weekend this month, Sukkot in April is held Sunday.

Yachad adopted the program's name from the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which commemorates when the ancient Israelites built sukkot -- huts -- in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.

Projects range from building wheelchair ramps and repairing a leaky roof to installing new doors, cleaning the yard and painting. If there is a need, Rebuilding Together enlists electricians, roofers, carpenters, landscapers and exterminators to donate services. "We don't expect our sponsors to know how to do everything," Ellis said.

Making a difference

By day's end, participants walk away with more than logo-emblazoned T-shirts. "Our volunteers are so enthusiastic," Ellis said. "It makes them feel good knowing they are making a difference."

Since Sukkot in April began with two Washington synagogues, the program has expanded to include synagogues in Howard and Montgomery counties, and in Northern Virginia. This year, about 25 synagogues will participate regionally.

To encourage new sponsors, Yachad matches part of the $2,000 fee. "We really want them to do it," Lyon said. "It's a great learning experience and a great way of building relationships between people and communities."

Other local participating synagogues this year are Bet Aviv in Columbia and Oseh Shalom in Laurel.

The program was initiated in Howard County three years ago by Phyllis Nash, Bet Aviv's social action co-chairwoman, after reading about Christmas in April in Howard County.

"I thought, what a great mitzvah to do for those in need," Nash said. "I was looking for projects. Jews are supposed to do tikkun olam, repair the world. Being a Jew is not just going to services, but doing service."

That year, Bet Aviv refurbished a home with CJC. In 2001, Nash recruited Temple Isaiah, Beth Shalom Congregation and the National Council of Jewish Women.

This year, about 20 Bet Aviv congregants will refurbish an Elkridge mobile home owned by an elderly, arthritic woman. Plans include modifying the bathroom, adding a handrail to outside entrances, weather-proofing doors, rebuilding a storage shed and landscaping to make the terrain level.

"It's fantastic when you meet the [ homeowners] and see their excitement about what can be done to bring the property back to the way it was when they were able to keep it up," said Roni Nudelman, Bet Aviv's captain.

About 50 CJC congregants will work on Young's home. CJC also arranged to lower the age minimum from 14 to 13 so synagogue teen-agers may participate for their bar or bat mitzvah community project.

"Everybody has high spirits, and you meet the people you're helping," said captain Finstein.

Information: Yachad, 202-296-8563; or or

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