Jewish Community Continues to Help in Henryville, IN

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

When Henryville, IN, was hit by devastating tornadoes in early March, images of the high school that was no more, stories of survival and profiles of those who lost their lives filled the airwaves.

There was an immediate outpouring of help and support from people across the country and around the world. For a few weeks, deliveries of food and donations to help with immediate expenses flooded the small town.

Yet the world quickly moves on. Yesterday’s headlines are quickly replaced with today’s and tomorrow’s, and for most people the tragedy that hit Henryville is now a distant memory.

Thankfully, not everyone has forgotten Henryville, and the Jewish community is among those still there to help. In fact, on July 9, representatives of three different Jewish organizations – the Jewish Community of Louisville, The Temple and the American Jewish Society for Service – were all in Henryville lending a hand each in its own way.


Pastor Rich Cheek
Whenever disaster strikes, someone has to step up and take the lead to move the community toward recovery. In Henryville, that leader is Pastor Rich Cheek of Henryville Community Church.

With the full support of his congregation – which he describes as a nondenominational church with a mixture of Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and others – Pastor Cheek has been there every step of the way. He identifies the most pressing need of the moment and finds a way to meet that need.

At the beginning, he was feeding 1,500 people a day through the church. Today, the church is a warehouse and distribution center for food, clothing and cleaning supplies. It is also a community center for parties and activities and the nerve center of the effort to rebuild Henryville.

So much of the community was damaged or destroyed by the storm and so few of its residents had insurance or the resources to rebuild that Pastor Cheek worried that it might be the end of Henryville. So now, he is working on a plan to build 100 homes, and as has been part of his plan from day one, he wants to do it in conjunction with other faith groups.

The Temple
It is The Temple’s TOV (Tikkun Olam Volunteers) Network Social Action Committee that has worked most consistently with the people of Henryville, Pastor Rich Cheek of Henryville Community Church quickly pointed out. “Within the first few days,” he said, “Angie Fenton had contacted The Temple and you [the Jewish community] brought up a bunch of turkey sandwiches.”

In fact, TOV Network Chair Sue Levy Bodine reported that with the help of volunteers who responded to a general call through The Temple, the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Jewish Community Relations Council and others, the group made 2,000 sandwiches that they delivered to the church that day to help Pastor Cheek feed the 1,500 people a day who had lost everything and needed food.

Bodine and her committee knew it was important to continue the Jewish response to the emergency, so they asked Pastor Cheek what they could do to help. “He said, ‘Come see what’s going on and see what you can do to help,’” Bodine continued. “So Rabbi Gaylia [Rooks] and I took a trip up there and we were shocked. When you hear of a tornado, you can’t imagine the actual devastation until you see it in person. It really hit us when we saw that school absolutely torn apart.”

When everything is in disarray, schools are shut down, homes are damaged or destroyed, and parents are preoccupied with where the family will sleep and what they will eat, it is the children who sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Children need stability and reassurance that something can be normal.

During that trip, the two women recognized that they could do something that would feel normal for the children, and they decided to plan a party. The first of several such activites took place at the end of March.

On subsequent trips, The Temple volunteers helped clear the fields of tiny debris so the farmers could bring in their machines and plant. They also tore down “a trailer that had been lifted off its foundation and set down cockeyed.” It had to be removed before the rebuilding could begin.

Along the way, people from The Temple began connecting with Pastor Cheek and his congregation. At Passover. The Temple’s Confirmation Class decided to make their Passover Seder about Henryville, so they invited Pastor Cheek and his wife to attend. The Pastor proudly displays the Haggadah from that Seder on his wall as part of a collection of press clippings and mementos from his efforts to rebuild his community.

Today, The Temple is working with Pastor Cheek to achieve his dream of building 100 new homes, raising money to go to each of the 100 homes so all the homes will be interfaith homes rather than a Jewish-built home here, a Catholic-built home there and a Buddhist home in another place. On July 9, they gave Pastor Cheek $7,000 toward the rebuilding fund. They also brought a grant for Henryville from Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger.

Jewish Community of Louisville
The Jewish Community of Louisville’s efforts to help Henryville focused on fundraising to help the community rebuild. Donations came from many different places. Jewish organizations and Federations from across the country responded, including $7,000 from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, $5,000 from the American Jewish Committee and $2,500 from the Hoffverger Family Philanthropies.

Many individuals made donations as well, sending checks or making gifts.

A total of $28,000 was raised through the JCL’s efforts, and from that four grants were made.

The first grant of $5,000 was sent to Nechama, the Jewish Response to Disaster. Nechama, based in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, had a group of volunteers on the ground in Henryville and in West Liberty, KY, another hard-hit community, just days after the storms hit.

The JCL also sent $2,500 to Metro United Way and $2,500 to Dare to Care. Both organizations have played an active role in relief efforts throughout Kentuckiana since the storm hit.

On July 9, the JCL’s Jewish Community Relations Council Director, Matt Goldberg, traveled to Henryville and gave Pastor Cheek a check for $18,000 to help with his rebuilding effort.

American Jewish Society for Service
A year ago, long before the tornadoes hit Henryville, the American Jewish Society for Service brought a group of Jewish high school students from across the country to Louisville for several weeks of hands-on community service projects. They stayed at The Temple and showered and enjoyed complimentary memberships at the Jewish Community Center.
Usually AJSS comes to a community only once, but they had such a positive experience last year and obvious pressing needs in the aftermath of the storms that they chose to come back to Louisville this year, and, in fact, brought two different groups of teens to the community.

Now in its 62nd year, AJSS brings teens who want to do something meaningful over the summer to cities where they can do tikkun olam projects. AJSS leader Anna Schuettge explained, the program looks for communities “where we can be hosted by the Jewish community and where there is work to be done to provide a service learning experience for children who are not frequently exposed to communities in need.” In addition to Louisville, AJSS sent teams to Birmingham, AL, and Kansas City, MO, this summer.

Here in Louisville, AJSS volunteers concentrated their efforts on three major projects: helping Henryville recover from the tornado, working with Edge Outreach on creating clean water solutions for the global community, and helping YouthBuild on their urban farm and some construction projects.

AJSS worked with YouthBuild for the first time last year, and it was such a successful partnership that it became a national model for the organization.

On July 9, the AJSS volunteers were in Henryville to provide a day of fun-filled activities for the children. They prepared snacks, craft projects, games and face painting to entertain the youngsters.

Sam Palermo, a teen volunteer from New York, said he became an AJSS volunteer because “I wanted to do something that mattered” this summer. He came to Henryville “because of all the destruction and I wanted to help.”

Natasha Geffen from Boston said her mother discovered AJSS online. “I did AJSS last summer and found it really rewarding.” She came back for a second year because “I wanted to work with the same organization.”

Ataliya Boytner from Los Angeles said, “My parents are from Israel, but I never had any experience with Jewish culture. AJSS is a great way to get exposed to that and do community service at the same time.

Eliza Greenberg was following in her mother’s footsteps because she was an AJSS volunteer when she was a teen.

Still More to Do
Progress is being made in Henryville.

The school complex that was destroyed when the tornados struck is very close to Henryville Community Church. Today it has been rebuilt and will be ready for the start of school in August.

Each day, more and more houses are repaired and normalcy is returning to family life.

Still there is a lot to do. Pastor Cheek’s goal of building 100 homes has not yet been reached.

If you are interested in helping, please contact Sue Levy Bodine at The Temple, 423-1818, or Matthew Goldberg at the Jewish Community of Louisville, 238-2707 or

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