Repairing homes, repairing the world

by Zach Wilcha

Tikkun Olam is a term that means “world repair” in Hebrew but today has come to mean social action and the pursuit of social justice. It’s an underlying current of gratitude in one’s life that results in finding ways to give back to the community around us. It’s a great way to describe the work Habitat Philadelphia does with tools, bricks, and sticks, but it also represents the work that we do for the community at large when we form meaningful partnerships.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has been doing multifaceted work to engage their community for many years. Their dedicated group of leaders and active committees pool resources, energy, and commitment together to ensure that no member of their community is in need. Besides cooking for the needy and promoting cultural literacy, the Federation through the Rhawnhurst NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) has made it a priority to keep seniors in this community independent and healthy in their homes.

Renaissance Group volunteers repainting an elderly homeowner's railing

Renaissance Group volunteers repainting an elderly homeowner’s railing

It was fate, then, that as Habitat Philadelphia simultaneously expands the scope of our work to include repairs that keep seniors preserved in their homes and seeks to engage congregations of all kinds to embrace service through interfaith collaboration, that our two groups would come together to develop a project aligning our common missions. Habitat’s weatherization and repair work dovetailed perfectly with the repair effort that the Federation’s Young Adult Renaissance Group annually undertakes.

Our organizations worked together to find seniors in Northeast Philadelphia who needed help with everything from cleaning up their homes to larger scale projects, like pouring new concrete for sidewalks, painting  rooms, or replacing old doors and windows. While Habitat Philadelphia laid out the details of a complex multi-block work project, the Federation recruited over 120 volunteers to wake up early on a Sunday morning to help deserving seniors.

Jewish Federation volunteers and Habitat staff members demolished an old, uneven sidewalk and replaced it with a new, smooth one.

Jewish Federation volunteers and Habitat staff members demolished an old, uneven sidewalk and replaced it with a new, smooth one.

On Sunday, April 6, 2014, as a first time collaborative effort between our organizations, Renaissance Group volunteers, working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity skilled staff, repaired, cleaned and weatherized 13 homes in the Northeast occupied by fixed-income Jewish seniors. The Federation appointed House Captains to work alongside a Habitat Staff member in each home. Together, with eager volunteers, they worked with senior homeowners to leave the house in much better condition than when they arrived.

“Inspiring. Rewarding. Gratifying… These are the words that come to mind when you see over 120 volunteers come together to fulfill one of the critical priorities of our Federation – keeping seniors independent and healthy in their homes. I had an opportunity to talk and work side by side with many of our young people who were excited, inspired and so appreciative for the opportunity to give back to the community.  Yesterday we truly showcased the power of community leadership, collaboration and engagement, “ said Alex Stroker, Interim CEO of The Federation. Executive Director of Habitat Philadelphia, Frank Monaghan added, “At the end of the day, we came together to help 13 families. These families are now in much more livable conditions than before this collaborative project. There’s nothing better than that.”

Ready to add fresh coats of paint to the walls!

Ready to add fresh coats of paint to the walls!

They weren’t the only ones who were excited when the project was complete. Homeowner and longtime Northeast Philadelphia resident Harriet Cohen said, “I never felt more special than I did on Sunday. I cannot thank the lovely volunteers enough for all their hard work. They were all so sweet while doing it. The Habitat crew leader was so wonderful and made sure everyone could help with repairs.  I could not have paid to take care of all these things in the house, so I will be eternally grateful.”

Repairing the whole world is a tall order, but you have to start somewhere. It’s also a daunting task if you try to do it alone. On the day when the Renaissance Group of the Jewish Federation and Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia came together, we collaborated to repair one corner of our world, making a difference for a group of seniors preserved within their homes. Tikkun Olam, indeed.

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About Habitat Philadelphia

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is an independently chartered affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), the largest nonprofit homebuilder worldwide. Locally, Habitat Philadelphia is on a mission to transform lives and our city by building and repairing quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing. Our Vision is a city where all Philadelphians live in safe, affordable homes.
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