My Experience in Joplin, Missouri Following the May 22 Tornado
As I sit on the plane returning from Joplin I am filled with a mix of emotions. I am saddened to leave my community in their time of pain and distress but at the same time I am filled with hope and strength. When I arrived on Wednesday afternoon I had no idea what to expect. I had seen the news, spoken with congregants and listened to the radio but it was not until I arrived and saw the destruction that it all became a reality. The Joplin I once knew was not there anymore. Stores and restaurants I had frequented just two weeks earlier were gone...and not just debris, but gone completely. It was as if they were never there to begin with.
Over the next few days I reconnected with congregants, cried with the victims and worked alongside relief agencies and volunteers. Help came from all directions. Volunteers from the Joplin Jewish community lined up to help their fellow congregants and shipments of supplies came in from all over the United States including Parkland, Florida, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tulsa, Kansas City and Springfield. I received an outpouring of support through emails, phone calls and personal visits.
However, despite this aid and assistance from the greater Jewish community, what I witnessed in Joplin filled my heart with hope in an unexpected way. Strangers stopped on the side of the road to offer rides to victims who lost their cars, people called into the radio stations volunteering open bedrooms to sleep in and volunteers filled the streets digging through the rubble for any sign of life.
During the five days I spent in Joplin the death toll continued to rise and the missing persons list refused to budge. However, hope would not be lost. If there was life to be found, search and rescue crews were not going to sleep until they found every last person and animal.
The United Hebrew Congregation of Joplin was very lucky in that we did not have any casualties in our Jewish community; however, many lost homes, businesses and personal belongings. At this point everyone is accounted for and those who lost their homes have found temporary housing in hotels and with friends until they are able to rebuild or find a new residence.
One congregant who lost her home recalled waking up in the middle of the storm feeling rain coming down on her. She awoke disoriented and scared, realizing that her bedroom no longer had a roof over it. She jumped out of the bed, grabbed her dog and scurried through the rubble towards her car. She tried finding her two cats in the frantic escape from her home, but she had no luck. Two days later, after some of the initial shock had dissipated she went back to the pile of matchsticks that had once been her home and searched desperately for her cats. She called their names and after what seemed like hours, she heard a faint meow coming from underneath the rubble. She dug them out and took them straight to the humane society to be checked and healed of their wounds. When I saw this congregant after this incredible rescue, she smiled for the first time. She told me that nothing else mattered, not the loss of her home, her clothing and her treasured belongings, but the fact that her life had been spared and the lives of her beloved pets.
Another congregant who lost her home jokingly remarked during oneg on Friday night, "I have always wanted skylights in my home, and now I have them!". Others spoke of being disoriented, scared and embarrassed. One congregant recalled how relieved he was to move into a hotel after a few nights of sleeping in shelters. He said, "I needed a sense of normalcy, a quiet room without people crying and screaming all night long. I even made a guest appearance at work on Monday. I didn't know what else to do".
Upon collecting donations of necessary supplies the United Hebrew Congregation opened up as a distribution center for the Jewish community as well as for the greater Joplin community in distress. On Shabbat morning, I was the first to arrive at the synagogue to open the doors. I had not even turned on the lights when I heard a knock at the front door. I opened the door and a young woman wearing nothing but an old pair of pajamas collapsed in my arms crying. She said her house had been destroyed and her eight-year-old nephew had been trapped under the rubble and died from the impact. I listened to her story and cried alongside her. Afterwards I held her hand as we organized bags of clothes, food and toiletries for her surviving family and her mourning sister. When she left she thanked us for our support and aide and returned to the shelter where her family was staying.
Over the two days that the synagogue distribution center was open we had over 150 congregants and community members come through the doors and leave with their hands full of necessary goods. Volunteers met victims at the door and guided them through the center helping them find everything they needed.
On Shabbat we held services as usual but the attendance was doubled. We embraced one another, shared our stories and spoke about strength and hope. In my sermon I spoke about the phrase, Chazak, Chazak, V'Nitchazek. Each chazak represents a different form of strength we possess in this time of pain and hardship following the May 22nd tornado. As we move forward to tomorrow, pick ourselves up and begin to rebuild Joplin, I pray that these words will serve as a means of restoring hope and faith.
Following services we had a beautiful oneg donated by the St. Louis Jewish Community and members of our congregation who were not affected by the storm. Thanks to a donation from a St. Louis kosher bakery, I was able to distribute a freshly baked challah to each family as they were leaving for the evening.
There are no words to explain the amount of gratitude I am feeling towards all those who sent donations, volunteered their time and showed their support. Each item that was sent, each minute spent in the distribution center and each word of comfort that was spoken was profoundly important and meaningful. The Joplin Jewish community will forever be grateful for the support they have received and will continue to receive in the coming days, weeks and months. As I echo the pleas of the Joplin community, all I ask right now if for one request. Please do not forget about us. When Joplin is no longer in the news and the search and rescue efforts have ceased, the need will still be great. Please keep the Joplin community in your thoughts and prayers. It will be a long time before we return to normalcy, before we go back living the lives we once knew.
My personal thanks extend from Florida, to California, to London and back. I will never forget what I have seen and heard in the past week, both the devastation and loss as well as the love and support. If any good can come from a tragedy like this one it is the reassurance that humanity is good. It is strangers hugging in the streets, neighbors offering their shoulder to cry on, people sending donations and volunteers working around the clock to aid those in need.
May love and support continue to be shown to the broken Joplin community through their effort to rebuild and get back on their feet. And may we pray for strength to be restored for each in the Joplin community as they face the trials and tribulations ahead. Amen.
By Ariel Boxman
Student Rabbi, United Hebrew Congregation of Joplin, MO