College Volunteers Converge on Houston to Help

From by Karen Schwartz:

Student volunteers from college campuses from as far away as Boulder, Colo., arrived in Houston on Sunday to spend Labor Day weekend in sodden homes and drying streets, providing relief for victims of Harvey.

Groups that included students, alumni and campus rabbis from seven colleges in three states brought truckloads of supplies, and spent Sunday and Monday assisting those affected by the catastrophic storm.

Chabad on Campus chapters from Tulane, the University of Colorado, Texas State University, the University of Texas, Louisiana State University and Texas A&M joined the Chabad Student Center at Rice University, which has been spearheading the effort.

As soon as the extent of the devastation became clear more than a week ago, Rabbi Shmuli and Nechama Slonim, co-directors of the Rice Chabad center, and a handful of student volunteers began cooking meals and otherwise assisting those affected by the floodwaters.

As word spread around campus, more and more students jumped into the efforts. By Thursday, about 200 students from Rice had volunteered with Chabad in some way to help victims.

Then they decided to expanded the project. Rabbi Slonim reached out to campus emissaries in the region to see if they wanted to send volunteers, too. “We got a great response,” he tells “It was really incredible to see the outpouring of help and goodness and kindness that came from all the students.”

Arriving groups of college students were divided up and given packing supplies, protective gear, water bottles and snacks. “It was really tremendous; it was really, really special to see 150 students come together for the same reason,” says Slonim.

His message to them, adds the rabbi, is to make sure to take the energy back to their own schools. “We shouldn’t just wait,” he stresses. “We can’t wait for disasters to happen.”

One of the first groups to join the contingent from Rice on Sunday were students and alumni from the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas in Austin, about three hours northwest of Houston.

Led by Rabbi Zev Johnson, who co-directs Chabad with his wife, Ariela, the group of more than 50 Jewish Longhorns pitched in to provide support for area residents. Students and alumni left their family and friends during Labor Day weekend to make a difference, notes the rabbi. “What came out of that,” says Johnson, “was appreciation of reality, of truth, of camaraderie, of love, of harmony and respect, of connectivity and of appreciating what it really means to help someone you don’t even know.”

‘What Neighbors Are Supposed to Do’

Rachel Margolin, 19, spent the day shuttling food and supplies from Chabad at Rice to area destinations. The UT Austin sophomore also lent a hand in the demolition of a family’s home in the hard-hit and heavily Jewish Meyerland neighborhood.

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, it was extremely important to me that we all be there—not only to help with people’s physical needs, such as moving furniture and demolition, but to be there for emotional support,” she explains. “The most moving part of my experience was a discussion I had with members of a family who opened up to me about their struggles relating to the hurricane, as well as stories about their lives.”

Tamar Solomon, 21, says putting other weekend plans on hold was the obvious choice when it came to deciding to help out in Houston. “I came because I don’t think I could have done any of those things knowing that there was a community that needed every inch of help it could get,” she says. “It’s what neighbors are supposed to do.”

The UT Austin senior spent the morning with a family, sorting through everyday items, from cleaning Legos to working to preserve paperwork. “I helped dry out their ketubah from a wet frame,” she says. “We went through receipts, papers and other kinds of personal belongings.”

She went on to pack food for volunteers and families at the Chabad kitchen. “I think the most amazing thing is realizing how strong the community is,” she says, explaining how she saw people who had lost so much pitching in to help their neighbors. “Such resilience is like none I have ever seen before.”

All Night Drive From Boulder

When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Center at the University of Colorado University in Boulder, understood more than most the tremendous effort, generosity and compassion it takes for a community to rebuild after a flood. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 2013, Boulder was hit with rains that measured 1,000 times more than normal.

Because of that experience, Wilhelm, who runs the campus Chabad center with his wife, Leah, wanted to do everything possible to assist the Houston community. “One of the most challenging parts of a flood is obtaining supplies and then cleaning up,” he explains. “That requires the human touch, an army of volunteers.”

He decided to reach out to a few students. In a text, he wrote: “Let’s do something crazy. Let’s go to Houston.”

One of those students, senior Ben Davis, works for The Junk Trunk, owned by his friend and CU graduate Nathan Schweid. Davis asked if Chabad at CU could use the company’s truck to transport supplies. Schweid didn’t hesitate for a moment; he became close to the Wilhelms and a regular at Chabad his freshman year, and remains an active participant in its programs.

A call for diapers, wipes, towels, water pumps, gloves, masks, cleaning supplies and gift cards was made to the community. In two days, they collected more than 2,000 pounds of goods worth $20,000. Together with Chabad Bais Menachem and Chabad South Metro Denver, volunteers, including children from the Chabad Garden Preschool, loaded the items into the truck.

A feature on the University of Colorado student trip appears here.

Sugar Land Participates

A group from Chabad of Sugar Land, led by Chabad emissary Rabbi Mendel Feigenson, also participated in the relief effort. They visited several homes, decontaminating what could be salvaged, and removed items that were ruined by the flood.

One of victims—a retired deputy police chief of New Orleans Police Department and a survivor of Hurricane Katrina—expressed his gratitude for the efforts of Chabad Harvey Relief of Houston, whose dedicated volunteers have been delivering meals, repairing homes and working around the clock to provide critical assistance to those in need.

At 5 p.m., after a day of volunteering, the students from the diverse campuses gathered for a dinner hosted by Chabad at Rice.

Jordan Cope, 21, a senior at UT Austin, said that being on the ground was not only important as a Jew and a student at a school that represents Texas at large, but also helped him see just how devastating Harvey has left a huge part of the state.

Cope says his prayers will be with Houston: “We may have worked hard today, but much, much work remains to be done.”

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