Elie Lowenfeld, 25
Last April, Elie Lowenfeld found himself in Birmingham, Ala., volunteering for recovery work after a devastating tornado.
“I walked into what used to be a neighborhood, but there was nothing left standing,” he said. “There wasn’t a tree or a wall of a house or a telephone pole.”
That devastation was the worst he has seen in the three years since he founded the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, and with 100 other volunteers he had mustered, the corps helped clean and put four families back into their homes.
But the work has also taken him and his volunteers to other storm- or flood-plagued areas such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Yazoo City, Miss; Nashville, Tenn., and Galveston, Tex.
Not only aren’t the volunteers paid, but they pay a participation fee that helps fund the organization’s budget ($110,000 this year). The corps is a grantee of Bikkurim-An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas and the Repair the World foundation.
Lowenfeld, who lives in Hoboken, N.J., had his first foray into relief work when he visited New Orleans with his family about a year after Hurricane Katrina, while still a student at Ramaz High School in Manhattan.
In 2008, while at NYU, he was part of an Americorps mission to Cedar Rapids, working with thousands of volunteers from faith-based organizations, but he was disappointed not to find Jews front and center. “Here I was part of a great rebuilding project that was more impactful than anything I had been part of in my life so far up to that point, and there was no one from my faith community. That was the flashpoint.”
After graduating in 2010, the urban planning and economics major threw himself into disaster relief full time, and divides his work between fundraising and travel. “Being in the field is a big demand on time,” he said.
But the work is reaping dividends: In February, he returned to Birmingham with a group of corps volunteers to work with Habitat for Humanity. “They said, hey look, the Jews are back,” said Lowenfeld. “It’s exciting that we started filling the void that I saw so strongly in Iowa.”
Not easy being green: Lowenfeld is a long-suffering Jets fan, but he’s not yet sure what to make of Tim Tebow as quarterback.